Interview: Danis Goulet


Filmmaker Danis Goulet has a short film with a grand vision, a powerful message, and a very large slot to fill.

One of the lead programmers for the imagineNative aboriginal themed film festival, Goulet has directed several shorts in the past, the most recent of which, WAKENING, has a coveted opening night spot at the Toronto International Film Festival. It’s not just any opening night slot, though. It’s an opening night screening before the TIFF opening night Gala of the hotly anticipated The Fifth Estate this Thursday night, and it’s programmed to help celebrate the 100th year of the film’s venue, the historic Elgin Theatre (known for TIFF as the Visa Screening Room) on Yonge Street.

Aside from being an exceptionally crafted, gorgeous looking, and scary look at the Yonge Street neighbourhood around the Elgin looking like a post-apocalyptic wasteland, the majority of the short takes place in the upstairs counterpart to the Elgin, the very forest-like Winter Garden Theatre. Spinning dark Cree mythology into a science fiction thriller, Wakening marks the third time one of Danis’ shorts has played TIFF, but never on this huge of a stage.

The short is part of an initiative launched by bravoFACT called Stage to Screen, who with the help of The Ontario Heritage Trust and producer Glen Wood invited emerging and established filmmakers from various talent labs and film centres throughout the city to find new and inventive ways to showcase the gorgeous Elgin and Winter Garden Theatres. Six films were selected (including new shorts from hot talents Nadia Litz and Dylan Reibling) and they will be teased in a thirty second trailer before all Elgin and Winter Garden features, with the full films to be made available on the bravoFact website.

We chatted with Goulet in the lobby of the Elgin last week about transforming the Winter Garden and the surrounding area into a post-apocalyptic wasteland, her film’s role in the resurgence of aboriginal cinema, and getting the cops accidentally called on the production for being too realistic.

Dork Shelf: It seems like this year there’s been a huge upswing in this year’s festival with regard to films that tell aboriginal stories, and it’s really nice to see your film with a really high profile spot outside of the regular shorts program. What’s it like being a part of the festival this year where aboriginal issues have such a high profile?

Danis GouletDanis Goulet: I think this year at TIFF is a really landmark year for aboriginal cinema, and a lot of mainstream audiences might not know it or realize it, but there’s kind of this indigenous cinema movement that’s going on worldwide that happens between several countries, but primarily within Canada, the U.S., New Zealand, and Australia. All of us have been on this train for a long time. I’ve been working within the aboriginal film industry for almost a decade now, so we’re all aware of each other’s work and we all travel internationally and meet up on the film circuit, but to really see some of the successes that we’ve been seeing in other countries – particularly in Australia and New Zealand – starting to come to fruition here in Canada is really exciting. There’s been a lot of success with filmmakers with aboriginal backgrounds making shorts and documentaries, but I would say that narrative feature fiction is this last frontier in way. So to have Jeff Barnaby’s film (Rhymes for Young Ghouls) and other features and to have Alanis Obomswain’s latest documentary (Hi-Ho Mistahey!) in the festival all in one year is amazing. It feels like it’s been a long time coming and it’s amazing to see that it’s come to this.

DS: There also seems to be an increasing number of shorts these days that are taking aboriginal myth – both from within and without – and putting horror and science fiction elements to the original tales, much like your film. It kind of further distances the characters from their culture and their land in these films, and here it really comes back to almost literally bite everyone on the ass. How did you come up with concept and incorporation of your own background?

DG: Well, I think sci-fi offers a lot of opportunity to explore not only different stories from these communities, but different themes coming through. Obviously within Canada there are so many social and economic issues faced by aboriginal communities across the country, and people have grown up with questions of identity and navigating a very complex reality. Science fiction is amazing because it offers you the ultimate freedom to go these same places in new ways. It allows you, or at least I think, to go a bit political but still have this complete freedom. That’s why I was really drawn to it.

When I started to think about the characters in the story, they were from traditional Cree stories, this one is of Whitikow and Wesakechak, and in those stories around the campfire, Whitikow was always terrifying and Wesakechak was always kind of a trickster, like this character. They’re always going head to head together as intellectual rivals. So sometimes Wesakechak can save people, but he can also be really self-serving, as well. They’re pretty complex character and probably the most infamous within Cree storytelling traditions, kind of the most classic.

I thought of those characters that I grew up with, but I was always kind of hesitant to touch upon that because I wanted to bring them into the world in such a way that was maybe outside of the ideas of what audiences would imagine what a traditional aboriginal character would be. I saw this as an amazing opportunity for the characters who have been around for many, many, many years who have already been depicted in the past and present and bring them into the near future, and wondering how they would express themselves and how the world would express itself.

DS: There are two interesting parallels going on in the film. You touched upon the link between the fantastical and the political, but there’s also how this is a classic mythology that’s told within the confines of a movie theatre, which I also find kind of thematically fascinating. How did the idea to integrate the theatre into the film inform the story?

DG: One of the things was when we were researching the history of the Elgin and Winter Garden was that the Winter Garden had been left deserted for many, many years before opening back up, and that was definitely the spark for what this beautiful, regal space would look like in a certain part of this dystopian world. Plus, I just thought that the future was this beautiful place to bring characters from the past into, and the Winter Garden also has these beautiful leaves that hang down from the ceiling to give kind of a forest feeling. It feels like an enchanted forest or a lair, but in this enchanted world of the Whitikow it was meant to take the space in a world where the forests were all gone. The Whitikow was a creature or a being that basically just walked the land and the forests and just ate people. If there’s no people left in his land to eat, then the Whitikow has to move. In my version of the story, it embodies a stag and comes into this decrepit theatre, but what I loved about the Winter Garden is how the leaves would have embodied the forest that the Whitikow actually belonged in. In his or her little mind it’s like coming to the closest place to that, in this case, a fake forrest, which is just a great setting to choose.

DS: The Elgin and the Winter Garden look great cleaned up now, but if you saw it back in the early 90s you could see just how haunting it can look dirtied up…

DG: (laughs) Oh, man, we trashed this place. (laughs) I couldn’t believe what they let us do.

The police came on the day of the shoot because some civilian reported that there was “definitely something dodgy going down at the Elgin.” (laughs) They came in and were wondering what the heck was going on, and our props lady was standing right there asking if she could help them. But once they came in and looked around they said they were very, very impressed with the production design. They said we got it right and were true to the spirit of when it was closed except we were missing the dirty needles. (laughs)

DS: Even before you get to the theatre, there are a lot of impressive visual effects to make the street outside look like a wasteland. What was it like getting to work on this kind of scale and these kinds of effects on a short film?

DG: I was really lucky to work with a VFX wizard named Mark Alberts at Electric Square, and he and I just came together to create this dystopian space. And because you know it’s also a celebration of Toronto in a sense and so close by, I kind of thought that the layout of Yonge Street as it is now is so iconic that I almost didn’t want to go there at first. In fact, all of my previous films are really based in realism and I tend to go for subtlety all the way, so with this I thought “Screw it!” (laughs) I just threw all of that away to just go as far in the other direction as I can because the Elgin and Winter Garden is such a grand space. I just thought I might as well go for it and just tell a grand story to match, which Mark just did an amazing job of tearing apart Yonge and Dundas Square and putting it back together.

DS: What’s it like to be a part of an event like an opening night TIFF Gala and in a place like this for such a milestone occasion?

DG: The Elgin and Winter Garden to me is the celebration of a hundred years of public space for art. It’s showcased and celebrated art, whether it’s film or theatre. To me that’s just a core value of what I believe in. I believe the arts really bring us opportunities to think, and discuss, and talk, and dialogue, and reflect upon ourselves, and our lives, and the world we live in. To me it’s a very important part of my life, personally, and so many other people here in Toronto. So to have access to such a beautiful space and to be inspired just by thinking about the history of the art and being able to bring in the history of classic characters they may not know, and combine that with the history of TIFF, and have it all together for me was just incredible.

For more on Wakening and the other films in the Stage to Screen series, be sure to check out the bravoFact website.

Wakening screens prior to the TIFF Opening Night Gala of The Fifth Estate on Thursday, September 5th at 6:30pm at the Elgin (Visa Screening Room).