In Hank Williams First Nation, which opens at the Park on Friday (July 15), filmmaker Aaron James Sorensen takes you deep inside life with the Woodland Cree First Nation in northern Alberta. He didn't come by the material lightly, because he spent a dozen years as a public-school teacher and an economic-development officer on that very reserve in the Peace River area.
Sorensen, who grew up in Alberta and was educated there and in Saskatchewan, took his first job out of college without knowing anything about Native life.
"I went in with more ignorance than prejudice," Sorensen says on the phone from his home in Calgary. "And I just remember a sense of delight in encountering these great people-a feeling that, you know, these are our neighbours. I was amazed that there was this whole culture right under our noses."
The future writer-director recalls that all the other white folks who moved to the little town of Wabasca in the early '90s-nurses, teachers, and RCMP officers-lived in a fenced-off compound, put in their year or two, and then left.
"I guess I was just lucky that there was no room at the compound, so I found a place in the community, where I still spend about half my time."
Sorensen didn't set out to make a movie about his new neighbours, but he was so taken with local ways that he started keeping journals incorporating events, lore, and particular speech patterns.
"I was struck by their sense of humour, commitment to family, and good taste in country music. That's what I wanted to get across. When I started finding a story to pull this together, I was determined to find as many real homes and locations as possible and to use as many kids and dogs and skidoos as I could fit in the frame. I tried to 'pay heed to the minutiae', as Chekhov put it, and to avoid temptation to be sensational or grandiose. Plus I was quite brutal with myself, not [putting] in too much of my own voice."
The change from civil servant to filmmaker came when Sorensen bought an old 16mm movie camera on eBay and started shooting the sights around him. He then wrote a script-"a road trip told through the eyes of the people who stay home"-that he figured would utilize his neighbours and students. Still, he sent it to Gordon Tootoosis, one of Canada's best and most in-demand Native actors, and when Tootoosis signed on to play an old-timer who sets the young people in motion, Sorensen's own faith in the project was solidified.
Eventually, he was able to put together a crew of eight, mostly from Van?couver, including resourceful cine?ma?tographer Kim Miles. And they did the whole thing without any federal funding.
"This was my film school. I never made it as a musician, and I guess this was my early midlife crisis," says the part-time guitarist and songwriter, now 38. "Some guys buy a Harley, but I decided to make a movie. As a musician, I had been on the set of a video, playing air guitar in a wheat field like a complete jackass. I watched the director and figured he had a better job than I did."