We all have that person in our lives who leaves a huge impact upon their passing. Mourning, working through the pain and ultimately moving forward is a very personal process but often can’t be done alone. The spirit of such a person weaves through the narrative of one of 2018’s standout features (Canadian or otherwise), in Kayak to Klemtu.
In the wake of her Uncle “Bear”s passing, 14 year-old Ella (Ta’kaiya Blaney) has inherited the daunting responsibility of representing the Heiltsuk people at an upcoming pipeline hearing in Klemtu, BC. Despite much research and meditation on the matter, she still lacks the confidence to make the case of protecting her ancestral land from potential oil spills.
With the hearing less than a month away, Ella decides to make the trip to Klemtu via kayak, a journey she had previously planned to make with her uncle. Along the way, she plans to honour his final wish by spreading his ashes along the coast. In order to gain permission from her mother Maureen (Sarah Kelly), Ella enlists the help of her Aunt Cory (Sonja Bennet) and Cousin Alex (Jared Ager-Foster), her uncle’s widowed wife and step-son. Guiding the group is her Uncle Don (Lorne Cardinal), a cranky handyman who has just inherited a failing solar business from his late brother and is reluctantly guiding the group at the behest of Maureen.
It’s a scenic trip up the coast where lush forests, majestic sealife, and traces of the Coast Salish people abound. It’s also a journey fraught with setbacks as the group is confronted by bad weather, antagonistic hunters, in-fighting and an ever ticking clock as the hearing in Klemtu draws closer. With time running out, Ella becomes more determined than ever to reach the end of her journey and give a voice to her people.
Helming her feature debut, director Zoe Hopkins has crafted a beautiful, funny, and thought-provoking film that focuses on a specific place and time, yet speaks to a universal audience. The premise of endeavouring to halt pipeline development could easily come across as heavy handed given current events (the un-named pipeline in the film bears resemblance to the now cancelled Northern Gateway project), but the politics stay largely in the background as Hopkins lets the land itself make its case for protection.
It’s rare enough for BC to portray itself onscreen, let alone the remote sections of coast seen here which include Lund, Bella Bella and ultimately Klemtu. The camera of cinematographer Vince Arvidson captures the epic journey in stunningly clarity and scope complete with ample shots of native wildlife. It’s not all for show however, as the land itself is very much a character in the story. It is given an effective avatar in the performance of Evan Adams as Uncle Bear who visits the main characters through dreams and flashbacks. Through thses devices, he emphasizes their connections to the land and their home in Klemtu.
Ta’kaiya Blaney shoulders a heavy responsibility as the film’s lead and manages to carry it through with a mix of vulnerability and dignity that’ll leave you rooting for her long before the story’s end. The show is nearly stolen by Lorne Cardinal in what is easily his best role since Corner Gas. He is the source of much of the film’s humour, but is never reduced to a caricature and brings his own brand of pathos to the film as Don struggles with the life and son he left behind in Klemtu. The remainder of the cast does well enough, but I found that some of the tertiary characters (yuppie couple, the hunters) to be rather lazily stereotypical in their depiction and seemed more at home in a cheap made-for TV effort.
Kayak to Klemtuultimately scores as a triumph for Canadian Indigenous filmmaking. There are countless stories, both past and present, in BC that could benefit from a First Nations voice behind the camera. Efforts like this prove that these movies can stand shoulder to shoulder with the best cinema the world has to offer.
Kayak to Klemtu screens at the Vancity Theatre on Saturday, August 4that 1:00pm