When Justin Kingsley was a kid growing up in Lowertown, one of his favourite places was the Nelson Theatre on Rideau Street.
Today the Nelson is the ByTowne Cinema and it will be screening Kingsley’s very first feature documentary film Chaakapesh for three days starting Jan. 31. Life does have a way of coming full circle.
“This will be very emotional for me. I’ve been going to that theatre for my entire life,” he said.
Kingsley grew up near the intersection of St. Andrew and Bruyere streets and went to De La Salle High School just across King Edward Avenue where he was in the theatre section of the arts school.
The film he made follows the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, led by music director Kent Nagano, into northern Quebec visiting the Cree, Innu and Inuit communities of Kuujjuaq, Salluit and Kuujjuarapik, Oujé-Bougoumou, Mashteuiatsh and Uashat-Mani-Utenam.
The MSO wanted to present the chamber opera, Chaakapesh: The Trickster’s Quest, based on a script by Tomson Highway, with music by Matthew Ricketts, to those communities. The opera is narrated in Innu, Cree and Inuktitut by Florent Vollant, Ernest Webb and Akinisie Sivuarapik and the film captures it all.
For Kingsley, the road to making this movie with his partner the well known Quebec film producer Roger Frappier, started in journalism school at Concordia University.
He’s worked with the Canadian Institutes of Health Information and in Paul Martin’s PMO. He’s written books and television series including 24CH which follows the Montreal Canadiens. His ability to tell a story has certainly come in handy.
Making a feature length movie has been an ambition of Kingsley’s for some time.
“It’s a little bit like summiting a mountain,” he told ARTSFILE in an interview.
Kingsley says his “closeness” to Roger Frappier gave him a great opportunity. “This project sort of fell into our laps. Roger and I share office space in Montreal. We are good friends.”
One day the MSO called on Frappier urging him to produce a film on the making of the chamber opera and the tour of the north.
“Long story short, he came to me and asked me what I thought of the idea. I immediately saw it as an opportunity to tell a story that hadn’t been told in an original way.”
Nagano told Kingsley that his motivation behind the project was to have a cultural collaboration the moved from North to South instead of the other way around.
Chaakapesh kicked off the MSO’s 2018-19 season in Montreal. But Nagano wanted to take it to places where an opera had never gone and play music and words written and performed by Indigenous peoples from northern Quebec in their communities, Kingsley said. That was more than enough to convince him.
“The hook for me was that emphasis on a different kind of cultural collaboration. I hear a lot of people talking reconciliation and my philosophy is ‘Do first, talk after’. What I am finding is that is really contrary to what a lot of people are doing. When what we need is action.”
He’s a big believer in what he calls ‘We-ology’, that we comes before me.
“I think that if people see this movie they will realize that we can collaborate. It’s about seeing what they can bring and share it and make something unique.”
The film is about more than the music. It’s about the impact of colonization on the peoples of the north.
Florant Vollant, the co-found of Kashtin, exemplified that impact, Kingsley said.
“He is the heart of the film in many ways'” Kinglsey said. “He was taken to residential school at five years old.” Vollant is interviewed in the film and at one point he tells the camera “music saved me.”
Part of the film is about presenting the North as it appeared to the filmmakers, Kingsley said.
“We went up there with Alexa cameras which is the same kind of technology Hollywood uses to make a film. We went into areas that you normally wouldn’t go with these cameras.
“We knew the audio also had to be at the same level because we were filming one of the best orchestras anywhere.” So the film features Dolby 5.1 sound.
“We made it like we were making a feature film. The result is an homage to the beauty of the North and the sound of the music.” Ironically, he realized whe he was up here that our sense that classical music is an old art form is put to shame when you hear throat singing an art form that has lasted millennia.
Making the film wasn’t easy, Kingsley said.
“We got turned down by most government funders. Roger did a masterful job in raising the financing to get this film done.
He believes it was such as challenge because “we are two white guys. In the current climate of cultural appropriation a lot of people were scared to go ahead with this. We just refused to take no for an answer. There are still two people yet to be paid for making this film. Their names are Roger and Justin.”
He says Frappier told him that a major film festival turned them down because two “white guys” made it.
“That for me is not the solution. We have to move forward together. You judge people by the content not the container.”
They have been included in other festivals including a major one in Mexico and the film closed the Festival du nouveau cinema in Montreal. The film has also been seen in cinemas in Quebec City and in Montreal all before the Ottawa event at the ByTowne. It will also be shown on Radio-Canada. And in February it will be screened in the communities up north.
The filmmakers were at the very first rehearsal of the opera well before the opening in May 2018. It took about 18 months to complete.
“The very first day was a piano only rehearsal called a reduction. We followed it from the creation to the last day of the tour.”
Kingsley was already a fan of classical music before making the film but “I’ll be honest with you, I love hearing people say they have never seen Kent Nagano this way.” Normally his back is to the audience when he conducts.
“We had cameras on stage during live performances so you see his face when he’s conducting.”
Music is a big part of Kingsley’s life, but filming the orchestra in action was a real eye-opener he said.
“I started understanding that sometimes the horns (for example) can’t hear what the violins are doing. That’s when you realize the importance of the conductor and the magic of what he or she is doing up there. The machine only works if the conductor is on point and every gesture is key.”
In the north, the planes were very small and so Frappier did three communities and Kingsley visited the other three.
“That was an ordeal by fire because I was also with the film crew for a couple of weeks and I was personally pretty intimated by it. Thankfully my directorial debut went well.” The journalism world helped him when he was dropped in the deep end.
He calls his visits to these northern communities some of the best moments of his life Before landing though he was a bit intimidated. To prepare, Frappier and Kingsley both took a course provided by Avataq, an Inuit cultural centre in Montreal.
“That was really important to me. I’m six for three, I’m 200 pounds, I’m a white guy and I’m tattooed. I look like those people who went there and weren’t good. It was really important to never give off that vibe.
“We landed and in 30 seconds your life changes. You are being evaluated on who you are today in a respectful way. It’s simple: you give respect, you earn respect.”
He’s taking away a lesson of the management of the ecosystem comes from the way the people of the north live. “Our management of the ecosystem is a disaster.”
You can see a screening of the documentary Chaakapesh: The Trickster’s Quest at the ByTowne Cinema on Jan. 31, Feb. 1 and 2. For information on times please see bytowne.ca