For Haida animator Christopher Auchter, delving into the stories of his ancestors is fertile creative ground. Reaching into his history also gives him purpose and belonging.
I met him at the new DHX Media studio in Mt. Pleasant, where he works as an animator on Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs. It’s an impressive space with vibrant blue walls, an amphitheatre, and a lunchroom complete with beverages galore and an entire wall of microwaves. We settled into a cozy blue booth to chat while he sipped on a coffee.
His NFB funded short animation the Mountain of SGaana (which he co-wrote with Annie Reid) is a funky and lush fable, complete with seductive sea queens and killer whales as kidnappers. The visuals are richly detailed and somewhat mysterious. There are many layers that invite more than one viewing. There is also no dialogue, and the only voice is that of his sister Nikita Toya Auchter who originally provided place holder songs as the film was in production. The songs evoke yearning and poignancy.
“I learned so much working on this project. It’s definitely something I’ve been searching for in my life. When you’re younger you don’t pay as much attention to it, the older you get you start looking around. Looking at myself. I don’t really look like the others in my community. I’m mixed. My grandfather on my Dad’s side is German. I was brought up in Haida and my uncle (contemporary artist Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas) was always teaching us. He did a good job teaching us. He would teach us Haida when he could, tell us stories. I was pretty immersed, but I still felt lost. I think one of the main reasons was not speaking the language because it’s not really spoken. It was either taken or lost because of residential schools. One of the bright lights that’s coming up is the initiative in the Haida community to make sure that’s not lost. There’s immersion programs happening and they’re recording the elders. Whole dictionaries are being made along with apps.”
The more he learns, the more his own voice becomes clear. He says the key to vivid storytelling is authenticity.
“The most important thing is understanding the type of storyteller you want to be. There’s layers that you instinctively put in there when it is a passion and it’s something that’s really coming from you. I think it’s what we look for. There’s lots of stories that are told time and time again but it’s all about the perspective of the storyteller that it’s coming from that makes it interesting and fresh I think. There’s lots of paintings about landscapes but it’s how the artist paints that landscape that makes it interesting.”
I ask him how important myth is in his work and he makes an important distinction: “Myth would imply that it’s made up. I think all the stories are rooted in some kind of reality. For example, there are five crests in our family: the raven, the grizzly bear, the shark, the two fin killer whale and the woman on the moon. Each of those crests we have for instance the shark, it comes with a story and it comes with a song. I know the shark story. There was a shark beached on the shore so one of the people from my clan he lifted it and carried it back to the water and as it was swimming away, it sang him this song.”
The Mountain of SGaana points to something many of us forget: our ancestral roots give us dignity and strength. It’s a fundamental and urgent call to action: reach back into the past and find the courage to be in the present. The skipper in the film, a young man trying to navigate choppy waters but perpetually distracted by his smartphone, hears the song of a woman in distress and pulls her into the boat.
“The idea that bringing your culture closer to you is powerful. The whole metaphor of throwing the rope to her and he’s kind of lost but as he pulls it closer to him and he’s going to be more grounded in life. He can hold his head up high and feel like he can go through the world with more confidence because he has a sense of where he’s from.”
The Mountain of SGaana had two screenings at VIFF this year and is currently touring the festival circuit. Although I had a press pass for the festival, it was assigned to Northernstars.ca and since our working relationship ended (amicably) in September, I didn’t feel it would be ethical to use it. So I wasn’t able to congratulate him in person. If you see this article Chris, bravo. Such an excellent piece of art you’ve made. Check out the trailer below.