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 4-6, 2016.
Filmmaker Chris Hsiung and film subject Cowboy Smithx will be attending the festival and leading a discussion about the film.
Elder in the Making
Filmmaker Chris Hsiung walked away from a career as a successful software engineer seeking a deeper connection with the world around him. He soon found that, for him, film became one way to make that connection, and the camera “was an interesting tool to share stories people can’t experience on their own.” But when he finished his first feature documentary, about a consciousness-raising road trip with a young Blackfoot “elder in the making,” would the experience translate on screen?
Hsiung’s parents, emigrants from Taiwan, supplied his answer. As cultural newcomers to urban Alberta, they had no previous contact with the rural indigenous peoples and were now thrilled because in their son’s new medium “here they could actually relate, and that really speaks to the positive.”
Much of this shared consciousness is thanks to Cowboy Smithx, the soulful young Blackfoot artist and performer who befriended Hsiung and fit the bill as an open and thoughtful guide into Blackfoot life ancient and modern. On first glance the wry Smithx and earnest Hsiung may seem an unlikely duo to re-examine aboriginal history and culture, but the result is a gorgeous and informative documentary journey deep into the sun-baked heart of traditional Blackfoot territory. Both are eager to see how the film will play outside of Alberta, where audiences have proven hungry for this mostly unexamined history. Their opportunity is coming as they will screen the film in person at the Salt Spring Film Festival.
As a first generation Chinese Canadian, Hsiung certainly knew what it meant to be outside mainstream culture, but the little he knew about the First Nations and their lands was from brief school lessons “which didn’t seem much.” In his mind “before, I saw Alberta only as a new province in 1905 – that frontier idea of a creation.” Smithx was well aware of the Blackfoot’s long history, with added expertise from being in a theatre group addressing the First Nations’ perspective on Treaty 7 – the treaty that effectively ceded the rights to their traditional lands in 1877. Yet he too had much to learn.
“A piece of the picture is missing,” says Hsiung, who made certain to cover as much of the dusty ground as possible. That meant serious archival research, so much that “maybe five per cent makes it into the film.” From the coming of the Europeans and the loss of the buffalo, all the way through residential schools to the modern day, the film is a treasure trove of Blackfoot culture. Hsiung took great caution to experience it all first-hand, as their road-tripping keeps their feet firmly on the ground and within context. This meant stops at reserves, rodeos, and various sacred prairie spots where history, culture and spirit blend into one. The travel was necessary because with history often being an interpretive action, the facts behind it need clarification. Or as Hsiung says: “let’s not hide the context!”
Who better to provide context for a film about the passing on of traditions than respected Blackfoot elders, who pass on knowledge forged in experience. But with experience often comes pain, and Hsiung was devastated to find that he would feel the appreciation of elder sharing “the most when the process was cut.” While he was editing the film, a car accident killed four people from the project, and one in particular, Narcisse Blood, who was building future plans with his new students. “I was only beginning to learn,” says Hsiung. “There was so much more on the path.” Their road trip at an end, the two documentarians now aim to spread the message of the elders and hope that the cross-cultural conversations only grow and deepen.