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After a 20-Year Journey, ‘Monkey Beach’ Hits the Screen with Supernatural Power

Loretta Todd’s film captures author Eden Robinson’s magic in a story of Indigenous resilience, showing soon at VIFF.

Paloma Pacheco 22 Sep

Paloma Pacheco is a Vancouver-based freelance writer and a graduate student at UBC’s School of Journalism, Writing and Media.

Filmmaker Loretta Sarah Todd has been busy over the last several months. When I reach her at her Gibsons home on a Saturday morning, she’s spent the past few days doing back-to-back interviews. The Tyee is just one more on the list.

The Sunshine Coast hasn’t escaped the smoke that blanketed the B.C. Lower Mainland, but it’s the first day that the skies seem solidly clearer, and Todd is relieved.

“All these particles that we’ve been breathing in, it’s basically trees, birds and animals — and people, too, sadly — that have died. It’s overwhelming,” she says.

Todd, who is Métis-Cree, tells me that Indigenous Elders have been predicting our current situation for decades, even centuries.

“They used to talk about prophecies. I asked them: Is that like Christian prophecies, that these bad things are going to happen? They said no: It’s warnings, basically. Warnings that we are not treating Mother Earth properly, that there’s no harmony or balance, and that if things don’t change in time, then it’s going to get worse. There will be fires.”

Prophecy — the foretelling of a future that may or may not come to pass — is at the heart of Todd’s latest work, a film adaptation of renowned Haisla-Heiltsuk author Eden Robinson’s celebrated novel Monkey Beach.

The story is centred around Lisa, a young Haisla woman living in East Vancouver who is called to return to her home of Kitamaat Village by the ghost of her cousin, who tells her she is needed by her family.

Since childhood, Lisa has experienced recurring visions of her younger brother, Jimmy — a champion swimmer — drowning. She can also communicate with the dead, and with Haisla spirits that seem to appear to her as warnings when something tragic is about to occur. The film is a mesmerizing account of Lisa’s journey to reclaim her gift, but it is an equally powerful ode to Indigenous resilience, ancestral knowledge and storytelling.

Todd optioned the screenplay for Monkey Beach two decades ago and has been working on adapting it for 10 years. It’s her passion project.

After gaining a film degree from Simon Fraser University in the 1990s, she spent many years working in documentary and producing children’s television for broadcasters like APTN (the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network), before coming full circle with her first narrative feature.

Monkey Beach is the opening film at the coming 2020 Vancouver International Film Festival. While the festival will show nearly its entire program of 100 films online, Monkey Beach will be one of a handful of films to screen in local theatres. In addition to the screenings in Vancouver, presentations are scheduled for Victoria, Whistler, Kamloops, Salmon Arm and Terrace.

We chatted with Todd recently about the process of adapting the book, working with Robinson and why filming in Kitamaat was important to her. We’ve edited our interview lightly for length and clarity.

The Tyee: You’ve been working on this film for quite a while. What drew you to this story in particular?

Loretta Todd: Several years ago, I was asked to make another film based on a book. Unfortunately, the producer wasn’t able to get it optioned. But I watched the process as he went through it and became intrigued about adapting a book to cinema.

Meanwhile, at the same time, Gillian Darling, who was a producer working on documentaries with the NFB in the ’90s and early 2000s, came up to me and said: ‘You should option Eden Robinson’s book.’ I asked her why, and she said, ‘Because your filmmaking is like her writing.’

I promptly went out and found the book and read it. Even before I began, I looked in the acknowledgements and Eden Robinson acknowledges me. She’d never met me; I’d never met her. But I guess she’d seen one of my films and had used it as research for her book. So that was really sweet and suggested that there might already be some connection there.

The book is just astounding, that’s why, 20 years after its first publication, it is still being printed. I think it’s in its 28th or 29th edition. It’s taught in universities and high schools; it’s mandatory reading in Indigenous literature and Grade 12 English. It’s an iconic, loved book — in Canada and around the world.

When I read it, it was exactly as Gillian said: The writing was like my filmmaking — this kind of elliptical, flowing, not linear, not point-A-to-point-B storytelling. More of a meandering journey through place and time, if you’d like. You’re here and you’re there, and that can shift in a paragraph.

You can shift from Lisa’s childhood to her teenage years to the present day, all in a moment. And just the kind of craft that Robinson has, to be able to sustain that elliptical nature — to me it is very reflective of Indigenous storytelling, flowing from Indigenous books and oral storytelling.

Then there’s also the story itself. She has such love for the family in the story. It’s such a tangible, visceral love — for the land and for the Haisla Nation. Colonization permeates the story, but it’s not the story. There’s this real powerful presence of the supernatural, that Lisa has to come to terms with. And then there’s Lisa herself.

Lisa is so powerful, and yet she doesn’t know it. For me, as an Indigenous woman, it just spoke to me. We don’t know our power. We’ve been told we don’t actually have power, and everything from legislation to just the way society teaches us, is always reminding us that we don’t have power.

So, for me it was so powerful to see Lisa on this journey to embrace her medicine, her power. And this idea that she has to go on that hero’s journey — her medicine journey — to be able to get to that place. It spoke to me as an Indigenous woman who struggled in my own life, in my career, in my personal life. All the kinds of things that Indigenous women encounter on a daily basis.

How did you decide to portray some of the more magical and spiritual elements of the story in the film? There are elements such as having an actual person to represent a ghost, effects to represent some of the spirits, and then repeated imagery for some of Lisa’s visions in the water.

You have a limited budget, so how can you make those things be realized and still feel substantial enough that it’s going to keep people in the story? I was influenced by Pan’s Labyrinth — which had a much bigger budget — but just the idea that the supernatural kind of lives in the everyday. It’s not like it’s lurking somewhere else. It’s sort of the everyday, living alongside.

I took to heart something that Eden said in an interview many years ago. She talked about this double-vision — I think that’s the word she used — how you can look at the land and see what’s material, and what’s existing in this space, but that this double-vision allows you to see what else is there. So, in a way, that’s kind of what prompted me to make some of the choices in representation. And because of budget, I have to look at practical ways to create the story and to create that drama and mystery. But I did take to heart the idea of double vision.

And what about the cast? They embody the characters so wonderfully. How did you assemble them?

There were two ways I was going about it. One is that, even though I’m Cree-Métis from the prairies, I’m very grateful that Eden would let me option her book and let me try to bring it to screen and was so patient with me for so many years. I’ve lived here on the coast for many years and so I was always conscious of the fact that it’s usually Cree-Métis and Ojibwe people who get roles and who are on the screen, because we have that look.

So for me it was about trying to find more actors that were from B.C. Some of the choices I made were based on that. Stefany Mathias, who plays the mother, is Squamish. I’ve always wanted to work with her. I think she’s an amazing actor who doesn’t often get the kinds of roles I think she should. And then Ta’kaiya Blaney, who does get a lot of work, and is a young emerging actor, is also from the coast, and that was important.

Nick Dangeli isn’t Haisla but he’s Haida.... Then there’s Grace [Dove, who plays Lisa]. She’s not from the coast, she’s from Prince George, but with her, it was just so evident: her skill, her talent. The camera loves her. She kind of embodies, in some way, the archetypal Lisa — this woman who’s sort of on the verge of embracing her medicine. And in many ways, that’s been Grace’s life. She’s an inspirational speaker, she does a lot of work with youth.... So she already embodies that in her own life.

Did shooting take place entirely in Kitamaat?

About 95 per cent of it was in Kitamaat, which was another reason why it took so long to make the film, because I was determined to film there. And that always meant a bigger budget, because you have to bring all the equipment and you have to bring the crew and you have to put them up, so that was always a battle I had.

People would say, "Just film it in Vancouver," and we actually scouted in Vancouver for locations and places that could be Monkey Beach. We scouted at Howe Sound and thought about some of the Indigenous communities around here that could stand in for Kitamaat.

But in the end, it was always Kitamaat. I knew it had to be Kitamaat, because that’s where the story came from. I know that in the logic of filmmaking the actual place doesn’t have to be the film place — Prague can be Paris — but for me it was really important that the film flow from Kitamaat itself.

Plus, it’s a way of redistributing wealth and reciprocity. The money that’s going to be spent is better spent in our communities. So, it was important for me to film there and to hire as many people from there as I could.

I was left with the impression of the film and Robinson’s story really being about resilience — the resilience of Indigenous women, in particular, but also of First Nations and Indigenous people in general. This is going to be the opening film for VIFF and one of the festival’s only films that people will be able to watch in theatres across the province. Do you think there’s anything about the film that speaks to this moment that everyone’s been living through, particularly in relation to First Nations communities and their resilience in this pandemic and after greater challenges and losses in the past?

I remember there was a point at which I thought: How do I represent this village? There’s a specific, stereotypical way of representing Indigenous villages and communities, where the poverty becomes the central story. There is no doubt that in our communities, poverty is [an] epidemic. And that lack of clean water, lack of recognition of our sovereignty — all of these things continually erode our lives on these territories. All of these factors, which are basically colonial, genocidal practices, have done everything in their power to eliminate us.

And then here is this village, that stands on the ocean and has lived with the ocean and with the forest and made a good living, a good life there, because of the fish and just the harvest — the plenty of the land. I think it was Chief Dan George who used to say "When the tide goes out, the table is set," because there was so much food.

Here are these people, the Haisla people, who have lived there for thousands of years, for time immemorial, and alongside the Nisga’a and all the other people up there along the Douglas Channel. They managed and respected that abundance, so that it didn’t deplete, so that they were able to live this rich life. I always think, when I go anywhere in Indian Country, "We should all be millionaires, because of the resources that have come out of this country and this land." Yet here we are, still being accused of taking so much from the taxpayers... when we are also taxpayers ourselves.

People work really hard to protect and look after their families, and the Haisla Nation is no exception. And I wanted that to be felt, to spend more time with the everyday life, to kind of reinforce that. There’s not as much fishing anymore, sadly, but people still go out — we went out to Monkey Beach a couple of times and on the way out the captains of the boat would drop some traps to fish crab, and on the way back they would pick them up.

When we got home, they distributed them — to the Elders, to other people. They maybe took a couple home themselves, but the rest was shared. So, there’s a real love of family and community, and that’s the resilience that is enabling Native people today to survive the pandemic and this virus. That’s the connection.

I think our people just never give up. I never gave up the many times that people told me, "It’s taking too long, Loretta. You can’t make it. See the writing on the wall, just accept it and move on." I said: "I’m not giving up."

And I think that’s the thing about Indigenous people — just like the guys who brought the crabs back and distributed them in the community: It’s not just for us, it’s not just for me. Not giving up isn’t because I don’t want to give up, but it’s because you are serving a bigger purpose. You’re serving your ancestors, you’re serving your future generations, and you’re taking care of the people here, today.  [Tyee]

Read more: Indigenous, Film, Environment

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