The first totem pole raising in almost a century took place in Old Massett in August 1969. (NFB photo)

Documentary on historic totem pole raising in Haida Gwaii heading to TIFF

Old Massett totem pole raising revisited in Christopher Auchter’s documentary Now Is The Time

“Imagine a world without art. Now imagine if you were the one to help bring it back.”

These two lines, delivered by an animated Haida Spirit in the Haida language, capture the essence of Christopher Auchter’s new documentary film Now Is The Time, which was recently selected for viewing at the upcoming Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF).

In the 16-minute short documentary, Auchter revisits Old Massett on the day of Aug. 22, 1969, when the first totem pole raising in more than a century on Haida Gwaii took place. Both Eagle and Raven clan members worked together to accomplish the task.

READ MORE: Haida director has documentary selected for Toronto film festival

Auchter was introduced to the idea while in discussions with the National Film Board of Canada (NFB) about an upcoming project. The NFB informed him that Haida Nation member Barbara Wilson had an idea for the 50th anniversary of the pole raising.

“There’s this documentary that was done 50 years, and Barbara asked if something could be done in terms of re-editing,” Auchter explained. “It looked like it had a profound effect on our culture and the generation to follow, so those kind of things really grabbed me. But I needed to do a lot of research to tell it in an effective way, so that was a big journey for me.”

A 22-year-old Robert Davidson and his grandfather Tsinii on the day of the pole raising. (NFB photo)

The NFB’s Indian Film Crew, as they were known at the time, had filmed the pole raising process, following famed Haida carver Robert Davidson and the Old Massett community as they undertook the task. Auchter felt there were strong aspects to the film, but that it needed a much deeper dive to tell the full story.

“I was really taken by the imagery and seeing what Massett was like then, and all the people of the time,” Auchter said. “But I just didn’t feel like I got any information from it. It was all very poetic in the way it was told, but I felt like a lot was missing.”

Auchter said the story needed a “Haida perspective,” and began to embark on the research necessary to properly tell it.

Christopher Auchter grew up on Haida Gwaii. He will be headed to Toronto next month for the screening of Now Is The Time at the Toronto International Film Festival. (NFB photo)

“I talked to Barbara Wilson first,” Auchter said. Wilson was present at the pole raising ceremony that day. She has been a prominent academic in the Haida community, and this summer received her graduate degree in curriculum and instructional foundation from Simon Fraser University.

“She gave me the first anecdotes. I talked to Robert [Davidson] and got a lot of really great information from him.” Both Wilson and Davidson provide their insights throughout the course of Now Is The Time, and Auchter credits both for sparking creative ideas to pursue in the film.

Massett Village in 1878, prior to the removal of the poles. (NFB photo)

Fallen totem poles on Haida Gwaii. (NFB photo)

Auchter and his team were able to process the original 35 and 16mm footage into 4K resolution, but ran into a roadblock when they discovered that despite possessing all the archival footage from 50 years ago, the accompanying audio had been lost. This created the task of searching for ways to recreate it.

“What were they saying? What was the feel like? What happened to all the totem poles?” The answers would lie at the BC Archives in Victoria.

“It was a big eureka moment when I actually heard first hand accounts from the audio recordings at the archives,” Auchter said. He proceeded to weave these accounts into the film to transport viewers back to the day.

“I wanted to capture what it was like on Aug. 22, 1969. I wanted to convey planting the audience there, like they’re in and amongst it, so that they could hear the sounds and the first hand accounts,” Auchter said.

READ MORE: Animating history: Auchter to remake documentary film 50 years after historic pole-raising

The relationship turned out to be beneficial for both sides. Margaret Blackman, a well known anthropologist who has worked extensively on Haida Gwaii, and now mayor of Brockport, NY, was a key source of information for Auchter. She assisted him with a number of tapes and interviews during his research, which were then added to the BC Archives to enhance their collection.

Auchter’s main goal with the documentary was to show what a momentous occasion this day was for the Haida Nation, serving as a spiritual reawakening after the devastation incurred by the removal of their totem poles after pressure by missionaries.

“I hope that they take away that it was a big moment in our history,” Auchter said. “There was no real art being created, and it looked like it was a dying race.” A 1964 clip included in the film speculates (erroneously, as we now know,) that Davidson may be the last Haida carver.

Brothers Reg (left) and Robert Davidson (right) are internationally recognized Haida artists. (NFB photo)

The effect the pole raising had at the time though was anything but certain. Despite the gravity of the occasion, it had been so long that many wondered if one pole could spark a robust renewal of Haida art.

“There are some beautiful statements from Barbara Wilson that day accounting how much of a dire straight it was with our art form in our culture,” Auchter said. “She’s very proud about the pole going up, but she didn’t know if it was going to be enough.”

“When you look at it today, Haida art is thriving with the dancing, the singing, the potlatches and the art that’s been done. It was very different Aug. 22, 1969,” Auchter said.

“It became a starting point again, and the wave that came from that day, it’s pushed to shore all this new art from the new generation.”

Haida elders gathered on Aug. 22, 1969 to celebrate the first totem pole raising in more than 100 years. (NFB photo)

Auchter’s animation roots — his directorial debut came with the animated short film Mountain of Saana in 2017are revisited through a number of scenes, including those with the Haida Spirit. He says this was important to engage a younger audience.

“I didn’t want this story to go in one ear and out the other. So I thought animation is a nice bridge into that, it helps spark their imagination,” Auchter explained. “It would help show them the magic of our work, and help inspire in that way.”

Now that the film is headed to TIFF, Auchter is excited for the possibility for this powerful Haida story to reach a global audience.

“I hope that I created a film that even if you’re not from the culture, even if you’re from the other side of the world and you don’t know what Haida art is or what Haida is, that the story is still interesting,” Auchter said.

TIFF starts on Sep. 5, with a full schedule of screenings being released on Aug. 20.


Alex Kurial 

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