Wakening (2013) ***1/2
Dir. Danis Goulet
Starring: Sarah Podemski, Gail Maurice
Review By Greg Klymkiw
You've got to love an opening like this. The first cut is out of black and into the action of a great shot cascading over the grey cement of an alleyway piled up with refuse - some of it seeming to dance wildly within the "natural" wind tunnel of these bleak urban corridors usually meant for garbage trucks and denizens unfit for the eyes of downtown shoppers. We're following the urgent, wall-hugging dash of a pair of shapely gams in tight black pants - a raven-haired babe (Sarah Podemski) adorned in a stylish fur-collared khaki-coloured winter coat and armed with a bow and arrow.
Clearly, some bad shit's hit the fan in this town. Life as we know it seems to have been sucked right out of everything; all the colours of the world have drained to a critical flirting point with monochrome. Gunshots fire in the distance, sounds of storm trooper-styled boots clomp on the pavement and an eerily monotone Big Brother echoes over loudspeakers - issuing directives to a populace that doesn't even appear to exist - at least not in the numbers that once thrived.
Our raven-haired heroine narrowly misses an encounter with armed, helmet-adorned enforcers of the State. She spies the devastation that's swept over the main square of the city, clutches her weaponry and enters one of the few abandoned buildings standing - a mighty and imposing old theatre - its interior murky and mouldy with neglect. In spite of the disrepair, remnants of the theatre's halcyon glory days remain, but within the auditorium we can almost smell the same sickening stench of death our heroine encounters.
There is a monster in the building and it feeds on human flesh, but in spite of the creature's predilection for such delectable culinary treats, we quickly learn that it might well be the only thing that can save mankind and battle the scourge which has wreaked havoc upon the Earth. Soon our beautiful post apocalyptic warrior will face the horror that is known as Windigo (Gail Maurice), a demon who acts as a safeguard against acts of cannibalism amongst the Algonquian Nation - for no matter how hungry and destitute the people get in times of great strife, they are expected to face death rather than eat the flesh of their own kind. If they do, they'll be torn, shredded, masticated and ingested by the gluttonous creature.
An encounter twixt our babe and the monster is imminent. She herself might also not be of the natural world, but of the spirit world - the shape-shifting Trickster God known as Weesaggeechak.
Hell is about to break loose.
Wakening is a strange and rich tale of post-apocalyptic terror. Its slender nine-minute running time is packed with plenty of portent and suspense - so much so that we're left wanting for more. This is hardly a flaw, but a considerable attribute. I normally have little use for short films that can't work as short dramas on their own and instead act merely as calling cards for young filmmakers to generate TV camera-jockey employment or worse, when the short film is little more than an extended trailer for a feature in the eventual making. Neither of these aforementioned afflictions that have consumed so many young filmmakers are at play here, but I have to admit that by the end of the movie, I wanted - nay, demanded - a feature length dystopian science fiction thriller.
After all, how can one go wrong with a mega-babe wending her way through a Mad Max-like landscape and battling both Police State New World Order goons and, uh, monsters? Well, you can't go wrong with it at all and its my hope that director Danis Goulet, screenwriter Tony Elliiot, producer Glen Wood and star Sarah Podemski will soon reunite for one kick-ass science fiction feature film that draws upon all the traits of a populist genre, yet blended in a giant cinematic Mix Master with the meagerly-tapped indigenous Canadian cultural traditions of our First Nations.
For me, the first, last and (currently) only word on the subject of the representation of Native People in popular culture is Dr. Emma LaRocque. In her fine essay entitled "When the Wild West is Me: Re-Viewing Cowboys and Indians", LaRocque encapsulates the use of the "Ignoble Savage" as a villain in traditional days-of-yore westerns and (hilariously, I might add) the insufferable "Noble Savage" of contemporary westerns like Dances With Wolves. For me, science fiction often shares traits with traditional tales of the Old West - pioneers, colonizers, new worlds that are as thrilling as they are dangerous and often the threat of mass destruction via genocidal activities. The aforementioned post-apocalyptic Mad Max films by Australia's George Miller are westerns dressed up with cool hotrods, leather-adorned stalwart heroes and punk rock villains.
Where Wakening as a short (and frankly, as a potential feature film) can depart from George Miller's trilogy is that it creates its own cinematic mythology - borrowing from time-honoured genre tropes and cultural references that remain sorely untapped. LaRocque describes the need for an "authentic Indian" in popular culture as stemming from an "identity crisis" wherein Aboriginal peoples and, on the whole, "Native Identity has been constricted to romanticized nature/religion and consigned forever to the past." Because of "centuries of mixing up ideas of an authentic Indian culture" that's rooted in false ethnocentric (if not downright racist) notions of being "primitive", LaRocque grants the potential need for "Urban Indians" to seek images and representation that is "culturally 'different'" from the "dominant" cultural powers and result in hanging on to "Noble Savage" stereotypes. She also points out that many contemporary creators of cinema and literature "believe that the indigenous valuation for balance between humans and the environment would benefit an over-industrialized planet."
Personally, I see two truths here - two needs. Yes, contemporary tales of the Pow-Wow Highway variety are an absolute must - dramas and comedies that speak to "normal" lives of modern Native people are needed in far greater abundance than currently exist. While not to the exclusion of darker territory, I do think there needs to be less emphasis upon the suffering, exploitation and poverty some of the indigenous nations face and far more work that resembles the desire of the great African-American filmmaker Charles Burnett to paint a far brighter, funny and hopeful world for his people as demonstrated in his now-classic 1990 release To Sleep With Anger. That is one definite truth/need.
The other truth/need as I see it, is a new form of myth-making - especially within the context of cinema. To deny the power of cinema - perhaps more than any other artistic medium - in terms of its propagandistic tendencies is not only myopic, but somewhat foolish given the practical needs of satisfying the wants of the marketplace. Let's not forget that Hollywood was invented by Eastern European Jews who escaped the virulent anti-semitism of their homelands and generated product that delivered their own idea and mythology of an America they wanted to exist.
Film is, after all, as much a business as it is an art form. This doesn't mean catering to ephemeral lowest-common denominator wants, but creating commercial work that has shelf-life, a lasting value that maintains the qualities of universality. Science Fiction and other fantastical genres seem ripe for this sort of myth-making and certainly within the context of bringing new representations of the Aboriginal Nations to the silver screen, Wakening is most certainly a work that gives me some hope that this is possible. Like those great Jewish moguls believed, movies are made for mythology and why not create new mythologies?
And, as is my wont, I also see virtues in the "lowest common denominator".
Let's do the math:
-One mega-kick-ass babe.
-A world torn asunder by greed and nuclear war.
-Totalitarian villains bent upon colonization, genocide and subjugation.
-The goal of a heroic figure being the restoration of peace and balance in the world.
-A shitload of all-new (to most), super-cool and jaw-droppingly scary monsters.
Seriously, what's not to like?
"Wakening" has landed an unprecedented debut slot, screening Thursday, Sept. 5, 2013 at 6:30 p.m. just before the highly-anticipated Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) 2013 opening film, THE FIFTH ESTATE, at The Elgin and Winter Garden Theatre Centre. It's the first independently produced short film ever to launch TIFF’s public opening night gala. "Wakening", is a part of "Stage to Screen", a commemorative project created the visionary young producer Glen Wood of ViDDYWELL FiLMS in collaboration with The Ontario Heritage Trust (and co-produced by Jordana Aarons) to mark the 100th anniversary of Toronto landmark The Elgin and Winter Garden Theatre Centre. Emerging filmmakers were invited scout the theatre and present a concept for their short film. Six films were selected for production to take advantage of the venue’s historic architecture and atmosphere. The "Stage to Screen" shorts are each promoted with a thirty-second teaser at all The Elgin and Winter Garden Theatre TIFF 2013 screenings, directing patrons to view the shorts in full online at bravofact.com (Bell Media's bravoFACT - the Foundation to Assist Canadian Talent - was established in 1995 by the national cable channel Bravo. The foundation is the largest funder of short films in Canada having supported over 1,500 short-form projects across the country.). In addition to "Wakening", three films were available for screening at press time. They were as follows:
"Silent Garden" (dir. Dylan Reibling) **** A visually sumptuous ode to the transition from live vaudeville theatre to cinema. The film lovingly recreates the era of silent cinema with the sort of attention to detail, good taste, genuine appreciation, deep understanding and (thankfully) no horrendous tongue-in-cheek (which made the overblown, over-rated "The Artist" such a mind-numbingly, godawful and downright sickening experience). "Silent Garden" is a haunting, deeply moving love story of a time when cinema was in its most delicate and truly imaginative stages of development - when the groundwork for cinematic storytelling was laid. Reibling's film magically makes use of the historic theatre to transport us back in time - not as a mere recreation and/or homage, but as a genuine work of raw beauty and power that could well have been made in those halcyon days of genuine exploratory artistic celebration. Like the aforementioned "Wakening", "Silent Garden" demands a big screen experience. It's a shame the picture has been relegated to a 30-second "preview" instead of joining its dystopian futuristic counterpart as part of an official TIFF gala screening in the mighty Wintergarden Theatre.
"Winter Garden" (dir. Alex Epstein) ***1/2 The snap, crackle and pop of showbiz drama and comedy comes alive with considerable charm in this lovely amalgam of backstage Busby Berkeley musicals (the wonderful Lloyd Bacon-styled sequences of those magnificent Warner Brothers classics), Woody Allen's backstage story dalliances and without question, the flavour of so many great Neil Simon works. Fine, crisp writing and a manic, muscular performance from the terrific Canadian character actor Enrico Colantoni generate a hugely entertaining homage to a time when theatre ruled popular drama.
"The Good Escape" (dir. Nadia Litz) *** Actress Emily Hampshire sets the screen ablaze with her luminous performance as a young woman whose eyes in a movie house are less fixed to the escapist qualities of the silver screen as they are to the presence of a very sexy, powerful gangster who seeks the escape offered (in more ways than one) of America's majestic temple of celluloid worship.
Not available for screening at press time were "The Archivist" (dir. Jeremy Ball) and "Tiny Dancer" (Dir. Doug Karr).