Portrait From A Fire is a small, award-winning film quietly aspiring to greatness. Directed by Trevor Mack, written by Manny Mahal, with story by Trevor Mack and Manny Mahal, and filmed on the Tl’etinqox First Nation territory, it is a look at filmmaking that mixes postmodern and magical realist devices in a way that is neither inaccessible nor obtuse. It’s about the secrets revealed by a ghost in a machine that is haunting, and in the end, light-hearted.
At the centre of the film is a young Aboriginal filmmaker named Tyler (William Lulua) who is making a science-fiction film called “First Nations” using cardboard cut-outs. Tyler features prominently in his own film wearing a space kit fashioned from old hockey pads and a goalie helmet painted drab olive.
The film he is producing is derivative and escapist. Tyler’s imagination is bigger than his life can contain, and is trying to fill the gap left by his dead mother. Tyler is shooting on the family video camera which had been used to capture family video. Then he discovers a digital video cassette on which his mother Trish (Pauline Bob-King) lives a digital afterlife, and where his family is happy and intact. This tape begins Tyler’s journey to unravel his family’s secret tragedy.
Tyler’s firefighter father Gord (Nathaniel Arcand) is distanced from his son by trauma, and is incapable of comprehending his son’s passion for film. Gord has isolated himself from his son, who has become a reminder of his own loss. While fixing the car, a common scene for intergenerational bonding, Gordon tells his son: “If you’re not going to help me, I’d rather do this alone.”
Tyler’s first screening is put on for five people, two of whom had shown up for bingo night, and who leave when they discover it’s not. Only a sympathetic village elder, Sammy (Sammy Stump), has an appreciation for Tyler’s imagination and vision quest through film: “Keeping busy is a smart thing to do. Keep you from thinking too much.” Sammy, who is from the generation that grew up with Hollywood Westerns, wants to star in a Western where he can “shoot a white man” seemingly to achieve his own comic karmic balance.
On his way home from the failed screening on his BMX bike, Tyler encounters a mysterious kindred spirit called Aaron (Asivak Koostachin). Aaron is a mysterious Zippo-clicking older teen rebel who initially seems to be a spirit guide for Tyler. Aaron tells Tyler: “Your camera keeps the past alive. It even changes the past.”
But Aaron will come to represent the promise of darkness and suicide. In this regard he personifies the quick way out for far too many Indigenous youth dealing with cultural annihilation and intergenerational trauma. In a moment when Tyler struggles with the absence of his mother, he is asked by Aaron: “Do you want this pain to continue?” But Aaron also provides Tyler with the key to resolving the trauma in his family: editing the found home-video footage into a narrative instead of trying to mimic derivative space operas.
Tyler begins to experience visions like digital TV reception breaking through a firewall in his reality. Some of the most innovative filmmaking in Portraits From a Fire is low-tech video pixillation that is remarkably effective at representing the crossing currents between past and present. That it isn’t entirely clear whether it is videotape or Tyler’s reality that is pixillating is a haunting effect. There are literally ghosts in this machine.
Pixillation is a signifier for the static between recorded realities and the inner solitudes in which Tyler and his father actually exist. Tyler is able to address his dead mother through the camera as he watches his family videos. The camera itself becomes a link between Tyler and his lost mother, his family’s happiness, and his present lived reality. Tyler talks to his mother through the camera: “Dad’s still the same. You’re still not here.” Then adds: “I can keep people alive.”
Much as video represents a link between the past and the present, so does the water flowing through the reserve. When Tyler’s grandmother Etsu (Melanie Bobby) wheels her chair to the Chilcotin River and teaches Tyler to fish, the river passes through his net, like moments captured on videotape. Tyler watches his grandmother slice salmon to salt and dry on a line. As he observes his grandmother he is connected to his mother, much as when he assembles his family’s videotaped memories in an editing program. But the water on the reserve both gives life and takes life away.
Tyler’s resolution to his family’s buried trauma begins with the screening of his family film and results in a dark night of the soul where burning family truths are revealed.
At the end of Portraits from a Fire, Tyler the filmmaker no longer has any interest in space opera. Instead he has engaged his community in the production of a revisionist Western where Sammy the elder features. In an imaginary gunless fight with a white man, history according to Hollywood is reimagined. This redo of history, both personal and of Indigenous nations, is what the film is about. You can’t always fix the past, but you can reimagine and remix it.
Portraits From a Fire is an accomplished combination of intentionally low-tech filmmaking and sophisticated storytelling. The production values are reminiscent of cult classics like Repo Man or Blair Witch Project but the story is sophisticated, visceral, and powerful in a way those films are not. The sound track and sound design are also award-worthy, factoring greatly into the emotional impact of the film.
If you want to see something genuine and different, check out Portraits From a Fire. One day this little gem will be heralded as a harbinger of the new wave of Indigenous film.
Portraits From a Fire is being screened in select Canadian theatres starting November 1 and will be released through video on demand on November 9.
Image: Courtesy of Portraits from a Fire Productions