Film to Weave Wilfred Buck’s Wild Ride With Indigenous Astronomy Lore

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Lisa Jackson’s hybrid documentary feature project “Wilfred Buck,” which centers on the eponymous science facilitator, an expert in Indigenous lore about astronomy, won the Canadian Forum Pitch Prize at Hot Docs last week. Jackson tells Variety how she came to the project.

Jackson – whose mother was Anishinaabe, an Indigenous group in North America – was at a conference in November 2017 when she first heard about Wilfred Buck, who had curated an exhibit at the Canada Science and Technology Museum based on the stories about the stars told by First Nations communities. As well as being an educator, Buck is an elder and ceremonial leader for the Cree, one of Canada’s largest First Nations groups.

When she heard about Buck’s work, Jackson had what she describes as a “zap” – an urgent realization that “someone has to make a film on this man,” she recalls.

When she contacted Buck, he told her that he had just written his life story, and he emailed it to her. As Jackson puts it in her Hot Docs pitch, Buck’s “journey had taken him from the gutter to the stars.”

In the 1960s, Buck’s family was forced off their land in Northern Manitoba, which was flooded to make way for a hydro-electric dam. He grew up in a nearby town in poverty. The first time he tasted alcohol he drank until he blacked out, he writes in his memoirs. “After that I walked into the darkness and never looked back.”

He moved to Vancouver, where he became a homeless addict. In 1983, when he went into treatment for the 20th time, he met a Cree elder. “After what she shared, I saw the world in a totally different way. It seemed like a bright light was turned on in my dark universe,” he says. Cree elders invited him and other youth back to Manitoba to learn about their culture. “I found a peace that was missing from my life,” he says.

Jackson says of his autobiography, “From the first page, that was the clincher for me. The voice that he wrote in reminded me of Jack Kerouac, or the Beat poets. It was just such an incredible voice.”

She adds: “I could see already the possibility to do a hybrid documentary that looked at his work now and also brought to life, in a kind of poetic way, his background.”

Courtesy of Emily Cooper

By this time, Jackson – who is Toronto based – had got in touch with Alicia Smith, a producer at Canada’s National Film Board, who is based in Winnipeg, as is Buck. She was also intrigued about Buck’s story, and interested in coming on board, alongside Jackson’s Door Number 3 Productions.

In spring 2018, Jackson flew to Winnipeg and met with Buck, requesting that she be allowed to make a film about his life. “His response was, ‘Okay, well, why don’t you come to the ceremony I lead every summer, the Sundance in Northern Manitoba, a four-day event. And we’ll talk after that,’ ” she says.

So, several months later, Jackson and Smith headed into the wilderness for the ceremony, which Jackson describes as “an incredible experience,” which gave them a “deeper sense of connection about who he was, and his culture, the traditions.”

After that, Buck granted his permission, and Jackson and Smith have been in development ever since. About a year ago, filmmakers Jennifer Baichwal and Nicholas de Pencier of Mercury Films joined the project as executive producers. As well as the National Film Board of Canada, the film is supported by Sundance Sandbox funding, Bell Crave, Canada Media Fund, and the Indigenous Screen Office.

The film will incorporate three strands. The first, using archival footage and re-enactments, will bring “to life Wilfred’s past, as written in his autobiography, set to narration with a rock and roll [soundtrack],” Jackson says. “What drew me to him was the star knowledge. What I was completely captivated by was this kind of Hunter S. Thompson wild ride he had.”

The second strand will be vérité footage documenting his life now as an educator, Cree elder and ceremonial leader. Buck is much in demand by Western educational and scientific institutions, such as MIT, wishing to bring his Indigenous star knowledge into its work on astronomy. “There’s a lot of interest in connecting with him, potentially collaborating, on putting together something to go up in a space mission, or otherwise bringing Wilfred and the star knowledge perspective into the space conversation, particularly in space exploration,” Jackson says. As commercial entities become increasingly active in space exploration, issues relating to the colonization of space are becoming part of the conversation, underscoring the need for other voices – such as Buck’s – to counterbalance these perspectives.

The third strand of the documentary will bring “in a poetic way, like a Greek chorus, stories of the stars themselves,” Jackson says. “And that’ll be largely focused on Indigenous, especially Cree star knowledge stories, which can range from a creation story about the first woman who came down from the sky world, but it also has to do with the way stars are really integral to how people navigated and managed the seasons.”

She adds: “I want to bring in the perspective of star knowledge through a scientific lens, but told somewhat poetically.” This strand will be voiced in the Cree language.

Jackson aims to complete the documentary by July 2022.

Among her other projects is an animation called “Mush Hole,” which she is producing with Lauren Grant. Based on true events in the 1940s, the film follows two sisters who must adapt to residential school and are torn apart when one becomes a model student and the other a rebel. A mass runaway in the dead of winter brings events to a head and the sisters realize that only by helping each other will they escape.

“Mush Hole,” which is supported by Telefilm Canada, Harold Greenberg Fund, and the Indigenous Screen Office, was developed as part of Toronto Intl. Film Festival’s Writers Studio and ACE Producers Lab.

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