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Canadian identity resonates in new film

by Jessica Kinnari September 6, 2016
Canadian identity resonates in new film

Renowned Métis director Benjamin Ross Hayden brings his distinctly Canadian film home to Canada

After a few hurdles and a lot of phone calls, the all-Canadian film The Northlander made its North American debut on September 2 at the Outremont Theatre in Montreal. The Northlander was entered in this year’s Cannes Film Festival as a part of the Perspective Canada category.

Set in the year 2961 after nature has reclaimed the land, a hunter named Cygnus must journey through a desert valley to protect his people from a band of invaders. Along the way he must find the key to his people’s existence, and return from the journey with a purpose that he finds along the way.

The Northlander was written, directed and produced by Benjamin Ross Hayden, the youngest Canadian filmmaker to be accepted into the Telefilm Canada Micro-Budget Production Program as a director, writer, and producer.  The film is a futuristic epic that features an all-First Nations cast, something Hayden cared deeply about.

“It was very important to have a cast who are representative of the characters in the story,” he said. Seemingly by “coincidence based on serendipity,” Hayden added, all of the actors had previously worked together on the Canadian television series Blackstone, and therefore already had chemistry. Lead actor Corey Sevier worked alongside executive producer Adam Beach on the film Path of Souls, written and directed by another Canadian,  The Northlander’s executive producer Jeremy Torrie.

Even the inspiration for the film comes from Canada. “The film is inspired by a distinctly Canadian event, the 1885 Battle of Batoche, … where Louis Riel challenged the colonial ways of life,” Hayden said. “This same struggle is reflected in the film.” Principal cinematography took place in the Alberta Badlands near Montana, where Riel took refuge before returning to lead the Métis rebellion of the 1880s.  

An unmistakably  Canadian story, the film explores the theme of identity, something that Hayden said he believes is important to Canadian cinema. “Canadian cinema is unique in the fact that it has three strong sectors of cultural cinema: Anglophone, French Canadian and Aboriginal cinema,” said Hayden. According to Hayden, Canadian cinema has the ability to strike a unique chord on an international level. “We can connect to Hollywood because we have a commercial and cultural film industry,” he said. “Images are worth a thousand words, and films help to explore what makes Canada distinct, in the sense of Canada’s own identity.”

One of the reasons that Hayden chose Montreal for The Northlander’s North American premiere also ties back to Louis Riel. Hayden said due to Riel’s significant impact on Montreal’s history and culture, the film will resonate with those who see it. Just like how Riel fought to protect the Métis people’s identity, the lead character, Cygnus, fights to discover his own people’s identity and keep it alive.

“It makes sense to have the North American premiere in Montreal because it is one of the oldest cities in Canada, and it was all a part [of a] journey,” Hayden said. The journey that he’s referring to reflects the basis behind the film which is the, “Metis identity, exploring the journey that is part of the legacy of that culture.” This is one Canadian film where “eh” is not the punch line of every joke.

This film isn’t just another futuristic-themed low budget movie filmed on a video tape in someone’s backyard. The quality of the production was just as important to Hayden as the story. Having studied film production and film studies simultaneously, Hayden said he feels he can now create, “thought provoking cinema, with a mindfulness of both the art form and the craft.”

With The Northlander backed by Canadian film industry hard hitters Adam Beach and Jeremy Torrie, it was made not only to explore cultural identity, but to display the beauty and capabilities of Canadian-produced cinema. This level of production quality is not new to Hayden since his previous short film, Agophobia premiered at over 20 film festivals worldwide  including the Cannes Film Festival.

The Northlander has a few more stops at other film festivals this fall. It will be screened at the ImagineNative Film Festival, which runs from October 19 to 23 in Toronto, as well as the Feratum Film Fest from October 5 to 9 in Tlalpujahua, Mexico. Hayden has an agreement with the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN) to screen the film on the network for the next three years. It will also have a limited theatrical release next year in major Canadian cities.  After the theatrical release, The Northlander will be released digitally by Spotlight Pictures within the next year.

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