Red Snow is a marvel of a film. In her dramatic feature debut, acclaimed Métis writer/director Marie Clements expertly employs purely cinematic means to transform a familiar story of a soldier held hostage in Afghanistan into an inspiring vision of identity as its own salvation.
Riffing off the old (and misguided) belief that the Inuit have 10,000 words for snow, Clements sets a delicately wondrous yet tragic story of first love against a defiant tale of survival. Dylan (Asivak Koostachin), a Gwich’in soldier from the Canadian Arctic, is caught in an ambush in a remote area of Afghanistan. As he’s navigating the dusty, barren Afghan landscape, memories of the love and death of his Inuit cousin, Alana, haunt him as he recalls her adorably defiant insistence on creating different words for snow.
Scenes in the present unfurl in a relatively straightforward manner as the Afghans clash with each other and with Dylan. They argue about their country and they argue about what to do with this foreigner. Despite some uneven performances and clunky dialogue – “I should’ve killed you when I had the chance!” – their exchanges reverberate with meaning. While the Taliban leader revels in ‘Cowboys and Indians’ movie stereotypes, the scene begins to evoke much of the heartbreak of Indigenous peoples’ relations with their colonizers. As this leader screams at Dylan to speak in English, the soldier’s defiant replies in Gwich’in are sure to rattle the steadiest of nerves.
The real magic in Red Snow happens when the director focuses on Dylan. Clements wisely chooses to keep her lead actor in close up for much of the film. Asivak Koostachin is stunning to watch as Dylan, whether he’s hopelessly in love in the past or seething with understated intensity in the present.
The alternating time structure serves this film well. The character and his past are both catalysts for the flashbacks to the time and place where his inner pain first emerged. It is also the place where he will find his innermost strength.
Fragments of his past emerge as dreamlike reveries. The cinematography in these scenes is stunning, and the weave of sound and image is at times ecstatic. Voices within the frame merge with throat singing to create a hallucinatory amalgam that is chilling. This is the genius of Red Snow: sound and image coalesce in perfect harmony. In Red Snow, the screen comes alive when director Marie Clements chooses not to follow narrative logic.