Just north of Vancouver Islands, off the coast of what is today British Colombia, is a place called Haida Gwaii. Made up of only 5,000 people, it’s beautiful and mysterious to outsiders—and has been a sacred home in the Haida Nation for 13,000 years. Sadly, not even the remoteness of the Haida people and their ancestral lands could protect them from the struggles of cultural assimilation, aggression and trauma.
“[They] are dealing with the legacy of colonization and genocide,” UNCW film studies professor Georg Koszulinski tells. Koszulinski traveled to the islands in 2014 to study its land and people, both of which are facing problems with colonization. From such, they also experienced a cultural resurgence and appreciation toward its foundation and traditions. Take for example the Potlatch, a gift-giving feast central to the governance of the Haida people. They’ve also seen a resurgence of Haida language.
Koszulinski decided to document the beauty of the heritage and problems they face in “White Ravens: A Legacy of Resistance.” Its North Carolina premiere will be held at the 2018 Cucalorus Festival. We interviewed the filmmaker about the process.
encore (e): Is “White Ravens” your first film to be featured at Cucalorus?
GK: Yes! Wilmington is my hometown now, so it’s a really exciting and a new experience to be at this major film festival. I’ll be seeing students there, other filmmakers are coming from all over the world, so it’s really cool to be a part of it all.
e: How long did production for “White Ravens” last?
GK: “White Ravens” started about four years ago through a series of going back to Haida Gwaii and continuing to work with participants. Actual production proper was spans of about two weeks at a time, and editing took about a winter.
e: Where did the title of your film come from?
GK: The raven is a central figure in Haida religion and cosmology. Raven is who brings the universe into being. He opened up a box and brought out the light. Everything we’ve come to know—the sun, moon, and stars—is because of Raven and his curiosity … The White Raven is someone who seeks knowledge to give it to the world.
This interpretation of the white raven is really reflected in a lot of the people in the film, and even myself as a collaborator; we’re all seeking to gift knowledge or understand the world.
White Raven and Black Raven are the same raven. What’s happening is the transformation. White Raven becomes Black Raven when he escapes through the smoke hole of the house and the smoke from the fire burns his feathers. This is a main archetype for many stories—think Lucifer as the light bringing—Lucifer is like Raven who has this fall because his quest for knowledge.
e: Were the Haida people reluctant to trust you during filming?
GK: I think the general truth is, native folks are legitimately suspect of white filmmakers from all over the world, who show up with an agenda for a knowledge extraction. I encountered folks who would recount stories, saying, “Oh, this filmmaker came from somewhere in Europe—and they wanted to make a film about this aspect, and they already had their film figured out.”
They weren’t there to listen or collaborate in any kind of way. That said, once I had conversations with folks and said, “Here’s my method, and what I’m interested in working on,” trust was built through time and with relationships. And collaboration. One of the producers, for example, lived and worked in Haida Gwaii for many years, so she knew a lot of folks in the community who helped facilitate the work
e: Often in documentary filmmaking, “happy accidents” occur that can elevate the film to a new level. Did you experience anything like this?
GK: Yeah, I mean I’d almost say that’s a constant. That’s the nature of the kind of work I’m doing, where it’s a faith in documentary. Just trusting the process of being a deep listener I think is the main thrust of the work.
Oftentimes, I’d ask participants: “Where do you want to go?” in order to have a discussion about certain issues. We’d go back to special places of those participants, and it would become revealed in the encounter or discussion, or the walk through a forest or to the beach. Very little was planned in a rigid way.
e: You always say “participants” versus “subjects.” Why is that?
GK: Language is profoundly important. It can be a tool, it can be a weapon. There’s no shield against the language of aggression. It’s extremely powerful. A subject invokes a hierarchy of power—think a king and his subjects. “Participant” more clearly acknowledges the participatory nature of documentary work. So, I choose to think of the people I work with as participants. I would never use the word “subjects.” It’s too objectifying, too scientific. For me it’s a misrepresentation of language. Maybe that’s part of the problem with the tradition of documentary: It’s rooted in the colonizer mindset, the colonialist gaze. That’s certainly the case of early ethnographic films and documentary.
e: Is there a moment or experience that stood out while filming on location?
GK: There were a lot of very intimate moments—and so many things that aren’t part of the film, because a film is just a 90-minute construction of years of building relationships and filming. Going to the west coast of Haida Gwaii was definitely a very memorable experience for me. The west coast is a huge underwater cliff, so the power of the Pacific Ocean is coming up against this island and it’s known to be extremely violent and dangerous. People who live in Haida Gwaii sometimes never go to the west coast.
We got permission to go out on a small boat on a relatively calm day. We got deep into one of the caves, maybe 15 feet wide, and the water just drained out of the cave. I was filming the whole time, so you can imagine how you could just get lulled into the beauty. The water drained out, and the boat tipped sideways and when we looked back, we realized the water was going to come back. There was a 15-foot wall of water. I remember looking back at it and thinking, Wow, this is the encounter of death. This is going to kill us. The water’s freezing; even if we told people where we were, nobody’s going to find us on the west coast. Our captain cut the boat into the wall of water and saved our lives by running into it versus waiting for it to slam into us. It was terrifying but honestly beautiful.
e: One of your film’s main participants, Towustasin Stocker, performs poetry throughout the film. Was it scripted or improvised?
GK: None was planned on my part. Some of it’s totally free-form, others are pieces he’s working on. There’s a scene at a village when we encounter a totem called “Mosquito Pole,” and I don’t even know if he was planning [the poetry] or not.
Honestly, I don’t even know if he knows. It was a moment where it just happened . . . It’s actually a centerpiece for the film. . . . I just follow him, sometimes literally, and it just happens.
e: Have the Haida people seen the final cut?
GK: When the film was a fine cut to the point where it looked like an actual movie, we went back to the two main villages, Skidegate and Old Masset, where all the participants live. We did two screenings. Everybody in the film saw the film except one person … [One participant] said he really appreciated the cross-generational aspect of the film and a lot of the young people have really profound things to say.
It was also a matter of making sure—because of the nature of representing trauma—I didn’t misrepresent or share someone’s trauma in a way to cause additional harm. Having one-on-one encounters was really valuable. From feedback, adjustments were made. We even filmed more based on what people who had seen the film wanted to see added.
e: What projects are you currently working on?
GK: I’m always working on lots of things, but one project came immediately out of “White Ravens.” We went back to Haida Gwaii to screen the final cut, and we ended up making another film while we were there, [which] focuses more on the Haida people’s battle to stop the industrial logging that’s going on there. I’m also working on some personal essay films that are years in the making.