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Cedar’s prominence in Indigenous lives featured in documentary

Screening of A Cedar Is Life at Chemainus Theatre’s mini film festival, Canadian premiere in Victoria
Woman by the river from A Cedar Is Life. (Photo submitted)

A mini film festival has become a prominent part of the Chemainus Theatre Festival’s diversification since COVID.

Three Indigenous-based films were screened over two days last March, including director Harold C. Joe’s highly-acclaimed Tzouhalem. Two films are on the agenda for the follow-up festival on Saturday, Feb. 11.

Among them is a documentary film, A Cedar Is Life, directed by Cowichan Tribes’ Joe that has its Canadian premiere at the Victoria Film Festival Feb. 6 before playing at the Chemainus Theatre Feb. 11 at 7 p.m.

A Cedar Is Life will be preceded at 4 p.m. by Kwi’ah: The Girl Who Heals. The 35-minute film follows snippets of Seasiders, a new web series created for children featuring regional elders, knowledge keepers and advocates.

A Cedar Is Life is another collaboration between director Joe and producer Leslie Bland of Victoria. The two creative artists are looking to spotlight Indigenous talent, stories and culture.

“We talked about it just after we got Tzouhalem out last year,” said Joe.

The film essentially documents everything pertaining to cedar and “what it’s meant to our people for thousands of years and looking at it from a spiritual realm as well,” he added.

The tale of cedar is told through interviews with elders, mask carvers, medicinal harvesters, canoe makers, totem carvers, cedar bark weavers, those working with traditional food and cooking, and other hands-on practitioners all along the west coast from Vancouver Island to Haida Gwaii.

“We got some great artists in there and elders,” noted Joe. “There’s some really, really unique artists up in Haida Gwaii and Prince Rupert.

“It helped talking with the artists and gave us some insight into talking to other artists as well.”

“It was a great chance to visit Indigenous communities,” added Bland, who’s been a guest director and also performed on the Chemainus Theatre stage over the years. “I’ve never been up to Haida Gwaii before.”

The interviews and filming for that part of the production required a road trip with a crew of seven for a full two weeks. The rest of the shooting was done primarily with day trips to different parts of the Island.

“All in all, we had 32 filming days we spent,” said Bland.

“It took us about a year to finish it, polishing it and score the music that I was involved in,” added Joe. “It was a long process.”

But he’s extremely pleased how it turned out.

“I have to step out of the box,” said Joe. “Does it tell the story I was looking for? Absolutely, for sure.”

“Generally, the film is what we sought,” Bland observed. “When you do a documentary, you’ll start with a game plan and you have to adapt with what you get.

“I’m quite pleased with it. I think it’s quite close to what we imagined when we started.”

Joe and Bland are on the same page with their goals for these films.

“We have a whole history of working together,” said Bland. “We do both documentaries and scripted feature films.”

In addition to Tzouhalem, the Orca Cove Media production of Dust ‘N’ Bones was included in the Chemainus Theatre mini film festival last year.

They’re also in post production on a comedy film, The Great Salish Heist, featuring Graham Greene and Tricia Helfer.

“I enjoy it, I really do,” summed up Joe. “It’s leaving something for the kids. I got into filming because we were losing so many of the elders.”

Joe will be turning 60 in April.

Bland likes the concept of the film festival for the Chemainus Theatre.

“It’s great idea,” he said. “It’s wonderful for them to have a platform to fill in the gaps.”

Related story: New film festival shines light on Vancouver Island Indigenous stories

The trailer for A Cedar Is Life can be viewed here.

To reserve seats for Kwi’ah: The Girl Who Heals or to buy tickets for A Cedar Is Life, click here for the Chemainus Theatre’s website.


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Harold C. Joe checks out a massive cedar, the featured subject of his latest film. (Photo submitted)
A Cedar Is Life will be screened at the Chemainus Theatre Festival Feb. 11. (Photo submitted)
Harold C. Joe’s motivation in film-making is to pass along stories from elders to the kids. (Photo submitted)

Don Bodger

About the Author: Don Bodger

I've been a part of the newspaper industry since 1980 when I began on a part-time basis covering sports for the Ladysmith-Chemainus Chronicle.
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