The following article was written by Robert McTavish as part of a series of articles about filmmakers coming to the Salt Spring Film Festival on March 6-8, 2015. Filmmaker Dennis Allen will be attending the festival and lead a discussion about the film. The filmmaker series is sponsored by Harbour House.
How do you get people to open up about the most difficult times in their lives? When filmmaker Dennis Allen first pitched the National Film Board for a documentary inspired by Mohawk writer Brian Maracle’s 1993 book Crazywater: Native Voices on Addiction and Recovery, it had already been difficult for him to find people willing to talk about such painfully personal issues. Then, just when he was ready to film the interviews the cold feet began and “all of a sudden people started dropping like flies.” His own alcoholic past had drawn him to the project in the first place, and he now realized what he had to do. “If I committed to telling my own story, the others would jump on board. I had to lead the way.”
The result was Crazywater, a visceral and compelling documentary that relies on first-person experience rather than statistics, and Allen – first and foremost a storyteller – wouldn’t have it any other way. An Inuvialuit originally from Inuvik, Allen uses his own story to anchor five disparate journeys that weave together a nuanced and layered perspective of addiction and its aftermath. “We didn’t want to hit anyone over the head, blame anyone, or try to fix things. We wanted to present the ingredients and let people make their own meal, draw their own conclusions.”
Alcohol and drug addiction have long been a major issue in many aboriginal communities across Canada, but the risk of perpetuating a stereotype was one Allen was willing to take. “All across the country aboriginal communities are crippled by it because they don’t talk about it,” he says. “I say outright that it’s a part of a racial profile. I didn’t want to tiptoe around it otherwise I wouldn’t have made the film. I wanted to start the conversation, get people talking about it.” ”
“There have been lots of films about addiction,” he continues, “but not much about recovery.” Thus, his Crazywater artfully merges its stories together to make a positive statement – a testament to the strength and support to be found in looking to one’s traditions.Allen himself returns in the film to Baby Island in the Northwest Territories in order to reconnect with the landscape of his youth. “I’m lucky to be raised in the north by my dad, because despite his addiction issues he exposed me to the hunter and gathering culture. I was able to see that the land is a healer.”
Family, at the heart of First Nations communities, dominates the film. But the damage done by addiction isolates and works to destroy those bonds. “Addiction starts at home,” says Allen. “If your role models are like that, chances are you will develop an addictive personality too. You can’t talk about addiction or recovery without talking about family.” All of the subjects in the film have dealt with the loss of parents or children due to their struggles. It is a long and difficult journey back.
“It’s all a matter of trust,” says Allen. “If you develop it, you can develop community.” To that end he recently took the film and its painful conversation on a tour of nine communities in the north. He was overwhelmed by response. “The people were saying ‘it’s about time!’ I mean, the next logical thing to do is to look at addictions and how to address them, but my story gave them permission to open up and be vulnerable.”
Now based in Whitehorse, Dennis Allen will be at the Salt Spring Film Festival to personally introduce his film. With its blend of Inuvialuit, Nisga’a, Woodland Cree and Métis subjects, he has a First Nations perspective on a universal issue. “How can anyone understand us, if we don’t tell our story,” he says, and thus he hopes the conversation continues.