Starring Asivak Koostachin. Rated PG
The poetic, mystical touches that have made B.C. Métis artist Marie Clements’s plays so striking find vivid new expression on film.
As writer and director for Red Snow, she brings deliriously atmospheric storytelling and imagery to a tale that splits its time between two unlikely locations: the Arctic and Afghanistan (the arid B.C. Interior standing in for the latter). That she achieves this kind of resonant lyricism on an almost impossibly ambitious shoot says something about Clements’s abilities.
When Gwich’in soldier Dylan (Asivak Koostachin) is kidnapped by the Taliban in Kandahar, haunting memories of doomed love and death in the Canadian North start to resurface. But he begins to connect with a Pashtun family, and as they flee together, he discovers the similarities between their cultures—oppression, loss, and survival skills, especially in the film’s blizzarding climax.
Clements cuts back and forth in time to tell the story, showing memories in dreamlike fragments. One of her more creative devices is a play on the myth that the Inuit have hundreds of words for “snow”. At symbolic moments in Red Snow, words are handwritten in Inuvialuktun across shots of falling flakes, with their English translations—like “snow that brings a new beginning”. (Inuvialuktun is the language of Dylan’s cousin, whom he’s forbidden to love.)
Adding to the atmosphere are Inuk throat singing and Wayne Lavallee’s haunting soundtrack, not to mention the indelible imagery—a close-up of mukluks crunching through snow as blood spills from an unseen wound, wide shots of snowmobiles racing over white plains, or an ice-blue burqa rippling in slo-mo as it’s raised by its wearer.
Koostachin holds the centre with a compelling, nuanced performance as the soft-spoken but tormented Dylan. Tantoo Cardinal is a strong presence as his empathetic grandmother, and Shafin Karim and death-threat-braving Afghan talk-show host Mozhdah Jamalzadah give impassioned performances as an Afghan translator and his defiant daughter.
Clements manages to sew together diffuse ideas, touching on subjects as far-flung as the plague of suicide in Canada’s northern communities, Gwich’in spirituality, the education ban on Afghan women, and the rise of the Taliban. When a Taliban warrior asks Dylan, “You are on my land protecting your country?” it triggers a head-spinning array of issues around territory and its ownership, here and abroad.
At times, the film is more adept at fusing those concepts than it is at melding genres, struggling to adrenalize the action sequences, and working a bit too earnestly on the bond between Dylan and Afghan boy Tahir (Ishaan Vasdev).
But those flaws are easily excused when you consider the momentous challenges of Clements’s shoot. Principal photography on the film was limited to just under three weeks, between the subzero Northwest Territories and the Kamloops area. Clements not only required three cultural adviser/translators on the film—Gwich’in, Inuvialuktun, and Pashtun—but Koostachin had to learn Gwich’in from scratch to perform half of his lines (which he does convincingly).
Clements, as she’s done with plays from the First World War–inspired Iron Peggy to the ancient Greek Indigenous tale Age of Iron, manages to make grand associations between First Nations stories and the outside world. With Red Snow, the visual storytelling lives up to those epic ambitions.