Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Home (barely)

Guys, I woke up yesterday morning in Stockholm, Sweden, and went to bed that night in Toronto, Canada. I do believe we live in the age of miracles.

Well, miracles with the occasional bump in the road.

Late Monday afternoon, I headed from Gamla Stan to the Central Station, where the Arlanda Express reaches the airport within twenty minutes. It's more expensive than the Flygbuss, but what the heck, I wanted to ride a train. Can confirm that it is probably the easiest way to get there from downtown. I had an early morning flight (6:20, ugh), and didn't want to shell out for a standard airport hotel, so I chose the Rest and Fly. It's located in Terminal 4 at Arlanda and is essentially a hall full of tiny rooms with just enough space for a bed (think ship's cabin). There's also a WC and shower and a couple of other amenities. It's meant to be a quiet space specifically to get some sleep before your flight, so the guests are very respectful. I think I got the best sleep of the trip here, despite having to get up at 3 AM. Price is reasonable, too. I'd recommend it for anyone flying out of Arlanda - many airports in Europe have recently begun to add similar facilities, so make sure to check! 

Flight out of Stockholm went very smoothly (I played my Sad ABBA playlist and moped), until we landed in Amsterdam. Worst turbulence I had ever experienced at that point - that is foreshadowing, guys. I don't know what was up with the weather that day, but based on this and later events, I'm pretty sure they need an exorcist.

I had four hours in Schiphol, which is kind of the worst amount of time for an airport layover - not enough time to go into the city, but more than long enough to get boring. I mostly spent the time looking for outlets. (Seriously, Schiphol, you need more of those. I don't care if you make them pay-to-use, I will still camp out next to them.) Miiight be a dumb idea to keep a boarding pass on your iPod when you are travelling all day, for future reference - I think next trip I'm going to invest in one of those portable chargers.

I was obediently at the gate for my flight to Toronto, and it seemed to go well at first. Takeoff was a little rough and the plane seemed to be vibrating, but I figured it was just the weather. About forty-five minutes in, as we were crossing the North Sea, the following announcement came on:

"One of our four engines has died and another is making a strange vibrating noise - but do not worry."

Of course, this had the exact opposite reaction, and as the pilot explained that we had to head back to Amsterdam, people started to get very edgy. Fortunately, the KLM staff handled it very calmly and professionally, so we didn't have a serious panic. Coming into Amsterdam, though, we had even worse turbulence than in the morning - the plane was shaking from side to side, we kept dropping unexpectedly, and I was quite convinced we were going to die. Lots of shrieks from people around me. 

Once we were on solid ground, perfectly intact except for a few extra gray hairs, the Schiphol staff assumed we were a normal flight and made us go through security again, which they weren't supposed to do. I'm just glad it wasn't passport control - imagine having 200 people who had left the EU earlier that suddenly try to get back in again. Nightmare. 

We had a couple of hours to go, so KLM handed out some food vouchers. I grabbed a panini and went on the time-honoured tradition of the Outlet Hunt, which was successful. Hurray for charged iPods.

(Side note - I got this iPod touch for my birthday last fall, and it is so functional that I have been essentially able to use it as a second computer, including updating this blog. Age of miracles, guys.)

Right before we left, the co-pilot explained what had happened - some seagulls got into the engines as we were taking off and got, uh, mulched, so that was the cause of the trouble. Honestly, it wasn't all that upsetting to me, especially since the staff was so calm and we just went back to Amsterdam instead of landing in Orkney or something (or worse, crapping out in the middle of the Atlantic). I had taken nine different flights in the nine days since I'd left Toronto, so I guess one had to have a hitch or two. My poor mom, though, was tracking my flight from a website where you can do such things (because that is a sane and normal thing to do for your twenty-four-year-old who has a blog's worth of travel experience under her belt), and she kind of flipped out when the site mentioned they had lost contact with the plane. Mom, you weirdo.

(I was personally hoping for an apology flight credit to fund another trip to Europe, but it was not to be. Dang.)

Other than some turbulence that continued until we were pretty far out over the ocean, the flight back to Toronto was fine, though everyone was very tired at that point. My seatmate's screen wasn't working, so she moved to a different row and I had three seats to myself. This, as we all know, is the equivalent of being crowned Queen of Economy Class, so I built myself a fort of pillows and blankets around the window seat and stretched out in my luxurious new space. There was a brief terrifying moment where it looked like KLM had lost my duffel bag, but the bag (nicknamed Little Bastard, from my repeated grumbles of "Where are you, you little bastard?" at various luggage carousels) was located quickly. With the delay and the long stop, it took about twenty-two hours to get from the Rest and Fly to my home in Toronto - and many others on the plane had travelled even further, or had to go on to another place. I was pretty much comatose by the time I got home, to the point where the cab driver urged me to get some rest.

So - I am back in Canada, safe and rested and easing back into graduate school. Was it a great adventure? Absolutely. Would I do it again? In a minute. Is there anything I would change? Bring snowpants. I had a fabulous time in the Arctic, and Stockholm, and now know that I am perfectly capable of packing up and going somewhere whenever time and money permit. Especially since I have learned to pack light (one teeny duffel bag, small enough to carry on my back through Gamla Stan all day, for an ARCTIC WINTER trip), and have become one of those annoying travellers who side-eyes those people taking three big suitcases for a week-long jaunt. The world is out there, and it is waiting for me, and all I have to do is meet it. What a gift.

And that concludes my travel blogging for the time being. Other than a brief trip to the States this spring, which might be one blog post max, I have no current plans for more travel - though I do have dreams, oh, I have dreams. And one faint hope, that in the near future I will go home again. Stockholm. Maybe. That is my prayer.

Until then, safe journeys to all of you.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016


Mamma Mia! Here I go again. My my, how can I resist you? Mamma Mia! Does it show again? My my, just how much I missed you.

I'm home again.

Not Toronto, not British Columbia - my other home (though I've only spent five days there in total). Anyone who is remotely familiar with me, or with this blog, knows of my love affair with Sweden. And Stockholm is the heart of it. My City of Light. I never thought I'd return - or at least not within a year and a half. It's always a thrill when "someday" becomes "now".

It didn't start off very well. Things were smooth until I reached Helsinki, where I got on the wrong shuttle and was taken very far from my hostel. I eventually found my way to what I thought was the correct stop, thanks to a kind Finnish shuttle driver who showed me the way, but wound up at the wrong place again. The roads leading out of Helsinki-Vantaa are a mess - no sidewalks or crossings to speak of, and deep edges filled with snow in January. Google Maps claims you can walk from the airport to the hostel. Google Maps LIES. So there I was, struggling along the side of the road  in knee-deep snow with my pack on my back, when a cab driver noticed I was in trouble and pulled over. He even claimed to have made the same mistake once, which really cheered me up, though now that I think of it, that mistake was so specific that he was probably just trying to make me feel better. Oh well.

Things got worse upon reaching the hostel. It was already way later than I planned thanks to the delays, I had to get up at 4:30 to make the flight, and the guy in the next room was the loudest snorer who ever lived. Seriously, I don't know how he breathes. So that meant NO sleep whatsoever until my alarm went off absurdly early. Lesson learned? Double check for earplugs while packing.

It wasn't a great way to start my one day in my favourite city on Earth. 

After what we might call a minor breakdown, I decided to be Zen about the whole thing. I was going back to Stockholm. I could make it through one tired day - it certainly wouldn't be the first time. So I headed up to Helsinki-Vantaa, put on my Triumphant ABBA Playlist, and gulped down enough coffee to kill an elephant. And the moment we took off - yep, there's the adrenaline rush. My spirit had come back.

(Fun fact - though I had previously visited Stockholm and Helsinki before, I had never been to any of their airports before this trip. Last time, I arrived and left entirely by train or boat. As of today I've experienced Helsinki-Vantaa, Stockholm Bromma and Stockholm Arlanda, so I'm basically Scandinavian now. I always have been rather fond of airports.)

I took the Flygbus down to the central station, which is only a few minutes' walk from Gamla Stan. (Flygbus is hella convenient and reasonably priced guys, use Flygbus, especially as opposed to obscenely expensive cabs.) And there were all my old haunts - the Royal Palace, the Riksdag, the Nobel Museum, my old hostel... all looking exactly as they had before, only maybe a bit chillier, and wet. (Stockholm's winter climate could be compared to Vancouver's, at least from what I saw.) Five degrees Celsius! Light drizzle! No snow! It was practically a warm weather holiday. As I have sworn off winter clothes for as long as humanly possible following my Arctic adventure, I wore my thin, completely traction-less fall boots, forgetting that there was still some ice and cobblestones are slippery when wet to begin with. One of the side streets I took had essentially become a downhill ice rink. BOOM, over goes Rachael. 

Naturally, after a quick coffee to regroup in Gamla Stan, I headed down to Sodermalm for the pilgrimage. That's right, folks, I did it again - I went to Fiskargatan 9 and Bellmansgatan 1, the homes of Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist in the Stieg Larsson novels (we do not speak of the fourth, the fourth is dead to us). I even played that bit of score from the end of the American movie, while standing where Rooney stood in that scene at Bellmansgatan, because why not? That's where this Sweden adoration started, after all.

It hasn't really sunk in that I'm in STOCKHOLM yet, probably because I've built it up so much in my head. What astonishes me is how familiar it feels. One of my great talents is getting lost, even with the directions right in front of me, and I haven't done that once. I'm even able, in Gamla Stan and Sodermalm at least, to find places by my own preferred routes, as opposed to my usual crutch of Google maps - even with a ton of construction going on in the area. It seems like home, a safe and normal place, like somewhere I could spend ordinary time as well as my holidays. That's special. At least to me.

After the Stieg Larsson Appreciation Party, I basically wandered through Gamla Stan, trying to go through every street and see what I could find. With my great big pack on my back, I can't really go to stores and museums for fear of destroying the displays, but that's okay. I'm not here to do things, I'm just here to be. So I walk down the streets, marvel at this gem of a city, and periodically stop for coffee to give myself a break and recharge both myself and my electronics. One cool thing I did see was the changing of the guard at the royal palace.

I want to move to this city, I really do. I'm happy here, I'm totally relaxed and indeed overjoyed - I've even forgotten that I didn't get any sleep last night. It bums me out that I have to get on a plane tomorrow. I could stay forever. I know I will come back to visit, as often as I can. Maybe this can still be my home in my heart, if not physically. Whatever it takes, though, this will not be our last meeting. I promise.

Monday, January 25, 2016


So just what is the sound of a hundred mittens clapping?

I found this out on my first night in the Snow Theatre, at the opening of the film festival. It's deep and powerful and far heavier than hands alone. It's oddly joyful. Sure, maybe it's -40 and our eyelashes are frozen, but we just watched a brilliant short, Moe Clark is singing Buffy Ste Marie in Cree, little kids from the town have stood up in their seats and started to dance, and the polar moon is oh so bright. It's worth it. Every second.

I am currently hiding out in a cafe in the Inari hotel, checked out of my cabin and trying to avoid the cold in the 3 hours-ish before my bus comes, so I have a lot of time to gather my thoughts and really give these films their due. It was a really impressive line-up, and I imagine many of them will not be easily accessible. (Note to self - spend lots of time at ImagineNative next year. I didn't know it was happening until it was basically done, AND it was the year of the Sami spotlight! Kicks self.) So I feel very lucky to have seen these - I really do.

I thought for a while about how to categorize the films, and have decided to go by region (as the festival organizes it), as a chronological list would be very back-and-forth. This took place over three and a half days, at four venues (three indoor, one outdoor) in Inari, including the Sami parliament at Sajos, which was really neat to see. 

The films were mostly fictional shorts with a few features included, along with documentaries, music videos and children's films. Let's take a look.

(A note about language - I've tried my best to be faithful to the names of the films and filmmakers, but my iPod simply doesn't accommodate all the different alphabets and diacritics, so I simply took the names as listed in the program minus the accents. My apologies to anyone reading this, and I sincerely hope I didn't accidentally swear in another language. I apologize as well for any errors my Autocorrect makes, as it is long proven to be an inaccurate dumbass. Also, shorts are in quotes, features are in italics, regardless of genre or content.)

On to the movies!


This is a fun one for me, as I've always admired Australian and New Zealand cinema - they put a lot of effort into establishing it, and have unleashed some of the best and most original talent on the world. I saw the first two in "Kanada I: Embargo", which does not necessarily relate to Canada, but rather to the Embargo film movement based in that country, which attracts filmmakers from all over. This year the emphasis was heavy on humour, some of it with a sad note. I particularly enjoyed Taika Waititi's "The White Tiger" (2009, NZ), which involved a parody of getting funding from Embargo and quickly grew more serious. Waititi's timing is excellent. Later that day, in an Australia-specific programme, "Tjawa Tjawa" (Mark Moora, 2015) retold a story from the Dreamtime with humour and great inventiveness, while The Redfern Story (Darlene Johnson, 2014) - one of my personal favourites - documented the history of an Aboriginal theatre in 1970s Sydney. Their work was both highly political and scathingly funny, and they did have a huge impact on Australian society, which was in the midst of a great call for Aboriginal rights. 

My very last programme at Skabmagovat was an Australia-Pacific collection, which included the mesmerizing Maori music video "Taniwha" (Mika Haka, 2015, NZ) and the eerie, dreamy "Karroyul" (Kelrick Martin, 2015, Australia). "Ow What!" (Michael Jonathan, 2015, NZ) told the story of a rugby-obsessed kid who finds himself the sole caretaker of his siblings (at the ripe old age of 12), and was funny and poignant all at once, mostly due to the performance of the young lead actor. "Dark Whispers" (Ngaire Pigram, Australia, 2014) is heartwrenching and almost too difficult to watch - but very powerful. However, my favourite of the afternoon was "A Place in the Middle" Dean Hamet/Joe Wilson, 2015, USA), from Hawaii, which centres around a Hawaiian-language public school and a young girl who identifies as having male and female tendencies, a role previously honoured and accepted in Hawaiian society. Her teacher, Kumu Hina, is incredibly encouraging and helps her reach her potential, to the point where she becomes a leader to other boys much older than herself. This documentary short was truly excellent, giving us a real sense of this girl's dedication and strength in finding her place. I would love to see a follow-up later on, but for now I highly recommend watching this. Overall, the Australia-Pacific region produced some very strong material this year.

The Americas

This year's spotlight was on the Navajo film scene, but I only made it to one feature and one short, both directed by Blackhorse Lowe, who has an offbeat sense of humour and a great sense of everyday life. He put me in mind of Robert Altman. That said, I wasn't so keen on his feature, Chasing the Light (2015), which kind of dragged a bit (the jet lag might also have been kicking in for me at this point). I liked his short "B. Dreams" (2009) though, and would love to see more of his work. I hear he's coming out with a horror film next - will definitely be on the lookout!

Apart from the Navajo spotlight and the Hawaiian film in the Australia-Pacific category, the only other American films I saw were "Istinma - To Rest" (Andres Torres-Vives, 2013), a short from the Lakota nation about a complicated father-son relationship, and "Cepanvkuce Tutcenen" (Sterling Harjo, 2009), a delightful movie in Cree about three young boys who go around town getting into little-boy mishaps until their uncle rounds them up and brings them to church for some straightening up. Of course, they completely fail to behave there too, and use the uncle's stern lectures as inspiration for more mishaps. I was basically giggling the whole time, as was most of the audience, and I especially loved the performances of the three leads. Any movie that can portray childhood well, and honestly, is an accomplishment in my book.

The first programme I attended, after the opening, was "Americas: Chile to Canada", which is exactly what it sounds like - they worked their way from Chile upward. Unfortunately, this was almost all I saw from Central and South America. "Challwan Kvzaw" (Collectice of Mapuche Youth Escuela de Cine Y Comunicacion Mapuche del Aylla Rewe Budi, 2015, Chile) spoke beautifully of the need to preserve the environment through the guise of a simple family fishing trip. "El Sueno de Sonia" (Diego Sarmiento, 2015, Peru) dealt with the importance of traditional cooking, and the efforts of one woman who seeks to revive it. The filmmaker's brother was able to attend the festival and gave us some extra insight into Sonia's efforts. Cuisine is often ignored but really essential to our functioning, so it was nice to see it mentioned here. I particularly liked "Katary - Stand Up" (Awki Esteban Lema, 2014, Venezuela), in which the filmmaker explored his heritage by interviewing his sweet, lovely grandparents, who just seemed like the most ridiculously nice couple on earth. And the film won extra points by paying special attention to that most underrated family member, the dog.  Dude's got his priorities straight for sure. "Kuychi Pucha" (Segundo Fuerez, 2014, Ecuador) told a sad story in a beautiful, tranquil, dreamlike style, framed in masterfully choreographed sequences. "Nuestro Hogar" (Detsy "Mara" Barrigon, Ivan Jaripio, 2014, Panama) was the most overtly political of the program, documenting protests and other efforts to preserve Embera land rights in Panama. In the Snow Theatre that night, we were treated to "Catalina Y El Sol" (Anna Paula Honig, 2015, Argentina), about a child storyteller in the salt flats, which had some of the most spectacular cinematography I've ever seen.

The American films were an eclectic and satisfying bunch, though I wish there had been more from other regions of the USA, and maybe some from Mexico, which has always had a fabulous cinematic scene. I also wish I had thought ahead and attended more of the Navajo films, which were mostly the works of Blackhorse Lowe, Nanobah Becker and Sydney Freeland.You may notice I left one major North American country out, but that is because it gets its own category...


Before you ask, no, I did not give Canada its own space because of some sort of homesick patriotism (I'm positively gleeful to be travelling again), but because it took up half the festival. Maybe it's because the various film funding organizations were especially active lately (which I doubt under the Harper government), or my convoluted theory that the Nordics are European Canada and Canada is the North American Nordics, and we should be reunited as long-lost siblings, mostly so I can hang out in the EU for as long as I want (don't ask - but from what I saw in Helsinki in 2014, and here, I do suspect that Canada and Finland have a pleasant relationship, at least between their people). Following Occam's Razor, though, my guess is that ImagineNative, the largest Indigenous film festival on Earth (and Toronto-based!), is a huge presence in the Indigenous film world and commissions/encourages a lot of the films and talent, which is thus more inclined to be Canadian. Especially considering the Sami spotlight at ImagineNative last fall, it's not really surprising that a lot of Canadian films would make the reverse trip.

That said, there were THREE separate programs dedicated to Canada, as well as appearances in other spotlights, and I'm pretty sure it was the most represented region at the festival aside from Sapmi (Lapland) - yes, even more than the Navajo filmmakers who were being featured. I have to admit it was cheering, if a little disorienting - I half expected to walk out of the theatre onto Yonge Street, not an Arctic highway!

In fact, two of the four films at the opening in the snow theatre were from Canada. The first was a beautiful affirmation of life and nature, "Nitahkotan" (2015), from the artist Moe Clark, who performed live every night in the snow theatre - and is an engaging performer and delightful person in general. Another one was "Ka Mitshelitakuess Auass" (Isabelle Kanape, 2015), a funny and instructive Inuit tale about growing up and dealing with emotions. At the Americas programme the next day, I saw "Balmoral Hotel" (Wayne Wapeemukwa, 2015), a story of a sex worker from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside told through some truly magnificent dance. "Mia" (Amanda Strong/Bracken Hanuse, 2015) seamlessly blended nature and urban life through the stop-motion animated tale of a street artist. I definitely want to look further into Canada's animated scene (outside of the NFB, which we all know like the back of our hands), as the works I saw here were incredibly strong. That particular program closed out with "Clouds of Autumn" (Trevor Mack, 2015), a beautiful movie from the Chilcotin region about two siblings separated when the elder goes to residential school. It was simply and subtly told, and utterly devastating. The filmmaker, and the four actors playing the family, all deserve major praise. Again, a film about childhood done well can be a powerful thing.

I found it interesting to watch the Canadian films with a mostly non-Canadian audience. Most of the films about historical or political issues had adequate context to allow others to understand, but was it the same thing? When they saw a rough-looking city street, did their minds immediately jump to "Downtown Eastside"? When a mother cried for her child, did they know instantly that it was about residential schools? (Maybe so - Sami boarding schools are a painful history in their own right.) Hard to say, and I'm not sure it matters - what was immediately in front of them was pretty strong on its own, and I definitely liked the films where I didn't know the history. But it does make me wonder what is missed when you just don't know - not to mention that as a non-Native person, there were undoubtedly layers I was missing in the Canadian segments.

And you know, even after this Russian novel of a post, we're just beginning with the Canadian films. That's how much they dominated the festival. The "Canada" segments were not just Canadian - it also had to do with the Embargo movement, which apparently originates in Canada but accepts films from all over the world - but they were predominantly so. "Savage", by the fantastic Lisa Jackson (2009), told the story of a residential school as a musical short, with some electric dance sequences and an incredible lament from the main character's mother. I hope that actress is getting constant work, because she is incredible. "?E?Anx" (Helen Haig-Brown, 2009) was a sort of Western supernatural story, also taking place in BC's Chilcotin region. An audience favourite was "Tsi Tkahehtayen"  (Zoe Leigh-Hopkins, 2009), a funny story about a farmer who can grow wishes in his garden, but is a tad hard of hearing, which means that people get the opposite of what they wanted.

That night's Snow Theatre session was almost entirely Canadian, including an animated Inuit film about the importance of fishing ("Tuktumit", Ippiksaut Friesen, 2014), a powerful and painful remembrance of two of Canada's 1000 missing or murdered Indigenous women ("The Routes", James McDougall, 2014), and a music video featuring a digital rock setting of Anishinaabe music ("Call and Response", Craig Commanda, 2014).

The next day, I was back for more Canada, starting off with the wonderful "Roberta" (Caroline Monnet, 2014), about a dissatisfied grandmother who turns to amphetamine. It sounds depressing, but it was sassy and full of life (with a sad undercurrent), mostly due to its charismatic lead performance - from another actress whom I hope is getting tons of work. Next came the heartbreaking "Aviliaq" (Alethea Arnaquq-Baril, 2014), another Inuit film about two lesbians in the 1950s who try to find a way to live their lives together, facing opposition from the territorial government. The acting was superb,  and the cinematography perfect, and it was an excellent - but sad - love story. It makes me think of Carol, which has similar themes and is getting tons of press. It was good, but you know what? I think this one may have been better. "Skyworld" (Zoe Leigh Hopkins, 2014) was a powerful meditation on widowhood and the importance of family. I also enjoyed "Intemperance" (Lisa Jackson, 2014), which was adapted from a short story by Canada's first literary celebrity, George Copway, and was an early account of the effects of alcohol on the Ojibway people. The standout of the show, though, was Bihttos, a film by Sami/Blackfoot filmmaker Elle-Maija Tailfeathers - but more on that later. I've placed it in the Sami category, as it is predominantly about her Sami dad.

Our last "Canada" session had only two films - "Mr Sanderson" (Ray Sanderson/Terrie McIntosh, 2015), a documentary about a blind single dad in rural Manitoba, who is a person of never ending optimism. Then there was Fire Song (Adam Garnet Jones, 2015), and my goodness, what can I say about Fire Song? It's an extraordinarily well-done film about a young gay man in an Ontario reservation who is trying to move to Toronto. It was excellent from beginning to end, really well-written and dealing with incredibly complex issues. If there's any justice, it will get some real play in Canada (but let's be real, English-language films never get play in Canada). Go see it if you have the chance, I beg you.

And that is it from Canada (all eleven billion movies). A pretty strong lineup from some fantastically talented people. I just wish they were given the time they deserve back home. So guys, this is my plea - please support Canadian film as much as you can, especially within communities that may not have great industry support. There is so much great work being done, and with the proliferation of online video services, all you need to do is look!


Asia is such an enormous continent with so many different cultures that it's hard to get an accurate representation - and there were some prominent areas missed, but the films they offered were pretty interesting. "The Bag" (Thet Su Hlaing, Myanmar, 2012) was entirely about the painstaking creation of a handmade Lahu bag, and the efforts of its maker, a quietly mesmerizing short. Sicigorousawa Un Cironnop (Tune Sugihara, Japan, 2014) was an Ainu production about deforestation, concerning a fox mother who desperately hunts for food in the scary and unfamiliar city. Put Japan and animation together and you're pretty much always going to get good work, but this was exceptional work, with striking colours and great flow to the animation, along with a compelling story and character designs. Maw Theng Gaari (Aung Rakhine, 2015, Bangladesh), the first Indigenous-language feature film ever made in Bangladesh, which talks about the impact one bicycle can have in a family and a village. Funny, hopeful and eventually bittersweet, the film was incredibly well-done, and I hope this emerging national cinema really takes off.

One interesting feature this year was the presence of several films from Myanmar, probably due to relative easing of some political and diplomatic restrictions, as well as a series of film workshops that were held in the country a couple of years ago. I attended a Myanmar spotlight on the last day of the festival, and saw a series of excellent films coming from those workshops. Many of them were similar in style, as the same crew and mentors worked across several of the films. "Lady of the Lake" (Zaw Naing Oo, 2014) concerned the traditions of village fishermen, which seemed to exist regardless of who was in charge of the government. "Solomon" (Anna Biak Tha Mawi, 2014) was about a soldier fighting for political reform, and an excellent portrait of both his cause and his family. "When the Boat Comes In" (Khin Maung Kyaw, 2014) explores the effect of fishing restrictions on a coastal community, and the strength of the villagers who decide to fight back. My favourite of the segment, "Last Kiss" (Seng Mai Kinraw, 2013) talks about the home front in the long conflict in Myanmar, from the point of view of civilian women, focusing especially on an women-driven organization for peace. Myanmar is a striking, beautiful place that has been off-limits to many outsiders for a long time, and I'm pleased to see that it's coming back on the world stage. It's a national cinema to watch out for, anyway - considering recent changes, I anticipate great things.

Here's me at the Burma screening in the Sami parliament (gigantic pink sweater):


This one was pretty much Sami film, plus one from Ukraine - more on that later. Let's talk about some of the hometown players.

I missed some of the Sami segments, as well as most of the side events, as I was busy trying to get a wide range of films in - one of the frustrating things about a film festival is that you can't see everything, so I at least wanted to try a bit of everything. I also made some boneheaded mistakes, like not hearing about a reindeer herding series of films hosted by Anni-Kristina Juuso (of Kukushka and Kautokeino Rebellion fame, an actress I admire - d'oh!) until it was almost done. That said, I did see about half the Sami films featured, and many of the prominent ones, including some real highlights of the festival. 

We opened in the Snow Theatre with two Canadian films mentioned above, and two Sami films - a music video for children which was later exhibited in a segment I'll describe further down, and Sahtan Ja Mahtan (Tarmo Lehtosalo/Ailu Valle/Raquel Rawn, 2012, Sapmi/Finland), a rap music video about inner power which got a lot of people up and dancing - especially the kids, which was pretty cute. It was cold as anything but the experience (and the films) were very much worth it.

I didn't see any Sami for another day (including missing out on some Liselotte Wajstedt, sadly - though she has enough online presence that I can see most of her stuff anyway). There was a Sofia Jannok music video (We Are Still Here, Matti Aikio/Sofia Jannok, 2015, Sweden), at the Snow Theatre the next night, and more of her work would appear throughout the festival. Finally, I got to see a couple of segments dealing exclusively with Sami film. "Turisteme" (Mai-Lis Eira, 2014, Sapmi/Norway) was about a couple who ran a souvenir stand, and the effects of tourism on the Sapmi region - so crucial economically, but sometimes deleterious. "Stoerre Vaerie" (Amanda Kernell, 2015, Sapmi/Sweden), about an old woman who has turned her back on her Sami identity in favour of a mainstream Swedish life, and is forced to return home and face her past, is one of the most famous Sami films ever made, and played ImagineNative last fall. It was fantastic, playing on some difficult themes and exhibiting some truly wonderful performances. "Jhaki Il Leat Jagi Viellja" (Mai-Lis Eira, 2015, Sapmi/Norway) examines a father-son relationship in times of great changes for reindeer herding - and by extension, Sami life.

On my last day, I attended a segment dedicated to Sami music. One was about an Inari Sami rapper ("Amoc-Vuosmos", Ima Aikio, 2015, Sapmi/Finland), who is trying to bring attention to a language only spoken in the Inari region, by about 300 people in total. He is not only a rapper, but a teacher, and does workshops teaching Sami kids how to rap in their own language, which the kids seem to love. He performed live after the film and was fantastic! After that came a series of twelve childrens' music videos, performed by two local artists and all directed by Ima Aikio. I will admit it got a bit repetitive after a while, but afterwards they did a presentation to honour Aikio and had the artists perform live, which was very moving and a lot of fun.
Our last evening in the snow theatre was exclusively composed of Sami film, starting with another Sofia Jannok music video ("Snolejonnina", Sofia Jannok, 2015, Sapmi/Sweden). We then saw a beautiful film about the Northern Lights, which are said in Sami lore to take naughty children away, and two kids who discover this the hard way one snowy night ("Guovssahas Oaidna Du", Sara Margrethe Oskal, 2015, Sapmi/Norway). "Bivdoaigi" (Suohpanterror, 2015, Sapmi/Finland/Norway), was a recording of a performance from a Sami activist group advocating for an end to cultural appropriation, especially of Sami clothes and sacred objects. Then we finished off with Elle-Maija Tailfeathers' "Bihttos", more about that below.

The two films I want to discuss in detail were both family documentaries, and massive hits at the festival. The first, "Bihttos" (2014, Canada) is the work of Elle-Maija Tailfeathers, an artist based in Vancouver who is of both Sami and Blackfoot heritage. I had previously studied her work for an essay, and was absolutely thrilled to see her work and to meet her. The film was extraordinary. It's based on the style of Lisa Jackson, and tells the story of her parents' extraordinary meeting (or rather, several meetings) across continents, her childhood in several different countries, and her father's depression, along with the breakdown of her parents' marriage. On a visit to Sapmi as an adult, Elle-Maija  explores both her heritage and her father's personal struggles, which eventually circles around to his trauma from the Sami boarding school policy enforced in the 20th century - somewhat similar to the residential schools her mother's family experienced in Canada, but not nearly as talked about. It's totally personal and utterly genuine, and Elle-Maija's distinctive voice is a presence throughout. I really cannot get over how emotional, yet stylistically polished this film was. It was very well-received - and I hope to see a lot more from its filmmaker.

The second film, "Sparruoabban" (Suvi West, 2016, Sapmi/Finland) was the unquestioned hit of the festival, advertised all over, played to a full crowd, and called back for a repeat performance. It is listed as a pre-premiere, so I expect that it will turn up in other places later this year - maybe watch for it at ImagineNative. Perhaps it is so interesting because of its subject matter. Sami society tends to lean towards religious and conservative, and LGBT rights are still taboo (though things were likely different pre-Christianity - no one knows for sure). The filmmaker, Suvi, follows her sister Kaisa's journey as a lesbian woman who has left Sapmi. The two travel up north to suss out the attitudes in their hometown, and to Canada to meet Native friends who teach them about the concept of two-spirit. Along the way, they also explore attitudes in the Finnish church, and learn about Finnish LGBT history from people in Helsinki's lesbian community. Kaisa marries and starts a family, and her Sami culture remains important to her, but she is always conflicted about her home. Perhaps the strongest part of the film is the bond between the two sisters, which goes through ups and downs and minor grievances, but always remains strong. Their relationship is the cornerstone of the movie, really. Like Elle-Maija Tailfeathers, Suvi West's voice is utterly authentic.

The reaction was unbelievable - the crowd applauded fiercely and many people in the audience spoke of how it had affected them personally, often because they were gay or had gay loved ones. I didn't hear anything negative. Suvi was there and I hope she knew how much people liked the movie. It was truly an extraordinary moment to witness. I think it will continue to be appreciated as it plays in other places. It's just that kind of film.

(On a personal note, I had to laugh that there was both a Toronto sequence on the very streets that I walk down every day, and a scene at Helsinki Pride that I'm pretty sure was "my" year. Small world. Actually, if there's one lesson I'll take from this festival, it's this. We live in a much smaller world than we imagine.)

Now, the Ukrainian film. 

In 1944, as the German army was just removed from Crimea, the Soviet army was ordered to deport over two hundred thousand Crimean Tatars to Central Asia and Germany, as they were declared to be traitors and fascist sympathizers. There was little evidence to support this - a great number of Tatars were loyal to Stalin and the USSR, and thousands fought in the Red Army. Forty percent of the deported citizens died during this process, and yet it is almost totally forgotten by history.

"Haytarma" (Ahtem Seytablaev, 2014, Ukraine), named after a traditional dance, covers the story of a heroic, decorated Tatar pilot in the Soviet army who gets a few days' leave and takes his buddies (Russian and French) with him to his hometown. They are welcomed warmly, but on the night of a welcome-home celebration, the people are forced out of their homes and put on trains. It is up to the pilot and his friends to save his family. The film is gorgeous, full of dreamy landscapes and great character moments, and there are extraordinarily hard-hitting moments of cruel brutality and, sometimes, courage from unexpected places. It is the first film ever made in the Crimean Tatar language. It is about a part of history that was too easily ignored and should be remembered to this day, especially as the situation in that part of the world remains precarious.

To sum up

The films were tremendously diverse, both in origin and in content. LGBT issues and their context in various Indigenous traditions were huge, appearing in at least four films that I can remember, all from different places. A lot of the movies involved kids and families, often humourously, sometimes heartbreakingly. I also found a new appreciation for shorts, which was the bulk of the festival lineup. It is tremendously difficult to say all you need to in a concise manner, and these films did so wonderfully.

One thing I felt kind of weird about - all the movies were either in English or subtitled in English. While I appreciate being able to understand, and know logically that it's the best language to use with films and guests coming from all over the world, it was still odd - and sad, in a way. Sure, English being universal can be convenient, but at the same time, something is definitely lost.

Some regions that could have been represented better - the Middle East, Africa, Central Asia, India, the Pacific outside of Aus/NZ, Russia. Of course, gaining a film is a difficult process and it's hard to tell whether films were chosen or not chosen based on availability or political problems or simply filmmaker interest. I also would have liked to see a wider range from the USA. However, there was a pretty diverse lineup already and I don't know how they choose the films, so I'm not going to judge. Hopefully some of these regions will appear later on.

Along with the films, there were speeches, presentations, and live musical performances, mostly from Sami people but occasionally from other artists (mostly from North America). I know I said I got tired of the musical videos, but some of the same performers did appear live and they were AWESOME. Pop music, rap, kids' music, traditional song, it was all kinds.

And of course, there were standard filmmaker Q&A's for several of the films, which were interesting and enlightening. Of particular note were the Q&A's with Suvi West, Blackhorse Lowe, Elle-Maija Tailfeathers, and the journalist connected with the Crimean film, who came in the filmmakers' stead, as they are unable to leave Crimea. Here's Suvi right before they presented her film.

Depending on my schedule next January, I likely won't be able to attend Skabmagovat in 2017, but I would definitely love to do so in the future. As it stands, I know I will attend ImagineNative as much as I can, especially as many of the same films, filmmakers and organizations are likely to be represented. Plus it's basically in my backyard, so I really have no excuse!

Was it worth it? The money, the effort, the time out from classes? Absolutely. I saw so many new films, learned from dozens of different perspectives and discovered endless things about the world, along with a long list of filmmakers and organizations to keep an eye on. In addition, I was able to check out a whole new part of the world, and experience the beauty of the Arctic. I would encourage anyone reading this to check out Indigenous films, from your own country and abroad, whenever you have the chance - there is a wealth of talent and of information that is not often made high-profile, and we all miss out because of it. It was an unforgettable experience - I will always be glad that I took this opportunity. 

As I finish this, I am sitting on the plane waiting to take off for Helsinki (it took several parts to get every film in). After an overnight, I am off to Stockholm for a day (because obviously), and then I'm back home via Amsterdam. It's hectic, but I'm terribly excited. Probably because it will be above zero Celsius and I won't have to wear the same damn outfit every day. So tomorrow, the adventure continues...

Sunday, January 24, 2016


Since I announced I was going on this trip, around 80% of people's reactions have involved the weather, ranging from "Are you crazy?"  to "Better dress warm, here are 3000 scarves and you must wear them all." And they're right - it is cold. But it's easy to get by with a little practice. I've found so far that I generally wind up sticking to a few tried and true pieces and not caring how gross my clothes get by the end of the trip. (Spoiler alert: soooooo gross.) here's a typical outfit for me in -40 weather:

- base layer top (thank you Auntie)
- thermal leggings (thank you, Arizonan friend in Russia)
-Whatever pair of pants I deem to be the heaviest (NOT JEANS - I could have easily left those at home)
- any pair of an assortment of ski socks
-Sorel boots (thank you Mom)
-Icelandic sweater (again, Mom)
-Sport Chek neckpiece and toque
-One of two pairs of mittens - either the red 2010 Olympic mittens that are very popular to this day in Canada, or these sheepskin mitts my dad got me. Thank you, Dad.

Biggest mistake: not buying snowpants. My legs definitely get cold the fastest. I might even look around for some tomorrow. But so far, advice from friends and family and a few pieces have mostly carried me through. The hardest part is getting it all to fit in my little red duffel bag, even if I am quite good at packing by this point.

As you can see, it takes a village to clothe one student for the Arctic. I think years on the ski hill, as well as Toronto and Moscow winters (and the occasional sojourn to Winnipeg) have served me well. Plus everyone thinks I'm just fine once they hear I'm Canadian. And you do get used to it, you really do, once you get out and about a bit. I can't say I'll ever love the cold, but I sure do like winter, and I guess that's the price we must pay. And at least my cozy cabin will keep me warm through the long winter nights...

Thursday, January 21, 2016


Well, here I am.

There's so much to talk about I don't know where to begin. Last time I updated you, I was in Helsinki-Vantaa airport, waiting for my flight Oop North. It was one of those odd commuter flights that takes people to several different places - in this case, to Kittila and Ivalo - then back to Helsinki in a circuit. I think the Kittila-Ivalo flight was only twenty minutes! (I must add here, FinnAir vastly outclasses Air Canada and WestJet - very comfortable and efficient.) And then I stepped out into a vast expanse of white, made pink by the setting sun - at 1 PM.

From there, it was less than an hour by bus to Inari. We are very close to Russia here - there were road signs for Murmansk! My heart is still a little bit Russian, so I admit I squealed. 

I'm staying at Inari Holiday Village, a collection of very cozy cabins at the south end of town. Very reasonably priced, too, at 69 Euro per night with my own shower and bathroom. I kind of wish I'd sprung for the sauna cabin, TBH, but next time, I guess. Initially I was worried because the theatres are all in the north part of town, but it turns out Inari is highly walkable, complete with sidewalks and streetlights (so I don't get to use my expensive flashlight after all). Much better than a Canadian town of similar size might have, just from my experience, though I haven't been to any in the Arctic. They have little cafes and hotels, along with a tour company full of Arctic adventures I would love to try, and a very well-stocked, reasonably priced supermarket (Canada, why can't we at least manage that in the North?). Look, they even have Moomin products!

As for the weather- yes, it is terribly snowy and quite cold, but overall pretty manageable. My Winnipeg-born mother advised me to layer, which is working nicely for now, and the more I go out the easier it gets. I think the only time I was genuinely cold was in the Snow Theatre (which is exactly what it sounds like), and I'm pretty sure sitting on a pile of snow and reindeer furs in -34 for a couple of hours would make anyone cold. The glögg they served helped. A lot. (Also, stealing my mom's Sorel boots and Icelandic sweater was the best thing I ever did - sorry, Mom.)

The darkness is OK as well, I think because the town is well-lit at night and it's not terribly different from Moscow. There's about an hour or so of daylight, a long period of twilight, and then hours of darkness. I experienced the reverse last summer, so really this is just the other side of the coin.

Now, the part I supposedly came for - the films! It's an international selection of Indigenous films from around the world, including the Americas, Ukraine, Australia and the Pacific, and East Asia. So far, I have seen four shorts, two Sami and two Canadian (Cree and Innu), all of which were quite good. The filmmaker for the Cree-language film, who is Métis, performed a traditional song for us, accompanied by a Sami woman. It was really cool to see all of these diverse peoples coming together - and their awesome films!

Here are some pictures from the Snow Theatre, as well as Inari in general:

Tuesday, January 19, 2016


My life has been, alternately, air travel and sleep for the past two days. Long-haul travel takes a lot out of you. I forgot about that.

We live in a miraculous age, we really do. I arrived in Helsinki roughly thirteen hours after leaving Toronto, though it felt like much longer after the time difference. I had been gone essentially overnight. And here I was in Finland, jabbering away over Facebook to my friends. 

I wound up at Forenom Hostel, which is about twenty minutes' walk from the airport, but since much of the road had no sidewalk I opted for a cab. And then I found out there was a free shuttle. Learning experience #1. Once there, I pretty much just fell asleep and woke up over and over, as the jet-lagged are wont to do. Forenom is okay - very bare-bones, but you get your private space and it is comfortable enough. I found it difficult to figure out their cleaning system - some of it you do yourself and some of it you don't, but if you don't pay for a cleaning service at the end you get charged a crapton of Euro, but the price of the cleaners doesn't show up in your bill so even if you're pretty sure you ordered them you can't verify? Anyway, their customer service line told me not to worry but I'm still confused.

Now I'm at Helsinki-Vantaa, which is a nice (and surprisingly homey) airport, waiting to board my flight waaaay up north to Ivalo for my bus waaaaaaaaaaaayyyyyyy up north to Inari. I still don't understand a word of Finnish, I'm probably way behind at grad school and I'm terrified of having to face Winnipeg-worthy weather Up North (especially without a car and the occasional 20-minute walk in front of me). But I'm enjoying being back in Finland. We'll just have to see what happens next.

Monday, January 18, 2016


Updating from somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean. 

In the past year, I have become a little bit obsessed with languages. I was into Duolingo, I wanted to move to Europe one day, and, well - now I've got seventeen languages on the go. Or is it eighteen at this point? I forget. Anyway, I've been told that I should just pick one, that certain languages are useless, that I'll get confused. I really don't care. This is mostly for fun and maybe courtesy while travelling - the only language I really want to get good at is Swedish.

Since Amsterdam is a large international hub, there were people of all nations and backgrounds on the flight, presumably headed to the far corners of the world. Naturally, they put me next to an elderly Russian couple. Who couldn't speak a word of English. Enter Rachael to the rescue. My Russian is incredibly rusty, but I kept up a halting conversation with them, showed them how the in-flight entertainment system worked, and translated for them with the flight crew. When I could, I tried to address the flight crew in Dutch, but I'll admit my vocabulary was a bit lacking. Best of all, it was FUN.

It's strange, the brief relationship we have with our airline seat mates. Usually we ignore them, sometimes we're annoyed by them, sometimes it's just a smile or a glance. I will never see that elderly Russian couple again - but for those seven hours on the plane, it was like sharing a small world together.

There are a lot of things I like about KLM, but one of the best is that they have an in-flight language instruction program, covering over twenty-three languages. Now, I know about three words of Finnish, which is kind of dumb when you're about to go there, but luckily they had it! (Not Swedish, though, but I suspect I can handle myself in urban Stockholm.) So I plowed through it and was done their Finnish course by the time they'd served the meals. If anyone tries to fool me with basic vocabulary, joke's on them!

The truth is, I'm still half-convinced I'm crazy for undertaking this trip. It was a bit of a whim, after all, to the tune of two weeks of missed school. But it's going well so far. Apart from being bone tired, that is. Red-eye flights, when will I ever learn?

All in all, this trip has gotten off to a good start - and a linguistic success.


Just a quick note from Pearson Airport as I wait for the airline booth to open - like a grandma, I got there several hours early. Better safe than sorry, and at least I got to ride Toronto's snazzy (and expensive) new airport train from Union Station. Besides, airports are among my favourite places in the world. I keep looking at all the destinations on the board and wishing that I could go to all of them at once. In some cases, I already have - including the exact flight I'm taking tonight. The airport is a world of possibility.

As a champion packer, I somehow managed to fit nine days' worth of intense winter clothes into my tiny red duffel bag, last used on my European Odyssey in 2014. My friends were hella impressed. 

So now I'm just passing the time with my iPod and its Blogger app. This time tomorrow, I'll be in Finland. By midnight tonight (EST), Amsterdam. What a world we live in. Could Lindbergh have dreamed it?

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Suomi uudelleen

When I returned to Canada in 2014, I was half-convinced I would never see Fennoscandia again, or at least not for a long, long time, because it was simply too wonderful to be able to do more than once. This was a straight-up love affair, people. I missed the Nordics so much it hurt. I had vague dreams of returning, but no idea when or how I could put them into place. Then, just as I was settling into graduate school in Toronto last fall, this opportunity came along - and there's a bit of a story behind it.

When I started my program, I was pretty quickly known as the person who loved Sweden, and the person who had lived in Russia. It was my thing, so to speak, like the woman who was fond of feminist film or the guy who adored all things Japan. I somehow managed to fit Sweden or Russia (and on a bizarre turn, Harry Potter) into pretty much every assignment of the semester. With a final paper coming up in Film Historiography, I needed to choose an underwritten cinematic topic. Both Sweden and Russia possessed legendary national cinemas. Still, I wanted to work them in somehow. But what kind of topic could possibly do that?

And then it came to me - the Sami.

The Indigenous people of Sweden, Norway, Finland and Russia's Kola Peninsula turned out to have a dynamic emerging cinema, which had recently been featured at ImagineNative, the Indigenous film festival here in Toronto. I contacted ImagineNative, they contacted Finland, and all of a sudden I found myself booking tickets to Skabmagovat, the Sami film festival that attracts Indigenous filmmakers from all over the world.

It's exhilarating and frightening all at once. My travel skills are a bit rusty. I've never been to the Arctic, let alone 300 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle on the other side of the world. And as usual, my fears and anxieties are competing with my dreams to rule me. But I'm going. A long trip by plane and bus via Amsterdam and Helsinki to Inari, Finland, home to an enormous Sami cultural centre, and a weekend of films I will never see anywhere else. And of course, a stop in Stockholm on the way back. There's no way I can come this far and NOT visit my other home, and perhaps my hope for future adventures. I'm skipping two weeks of class, sinking a ton of money into this, and that paper? It was handed in six weeks ago. Going now, perhaps, is a little bit odd.

But I'm going back to the Nordics, and I'm doing that in a way I never imagined.
You guys -

I'm going HOME!!!!