Red Snow. Directed by Marie Clements. World premiere Friday, Sept. 27, 6:15 p.m. at the Vancouver Playhouse as part of the Vancouver International Film Festival (viff.org/Online/f35150-red-snow).
It started with faces.
About 10 years ago, Galiano Island filmmaker Marie Clements was leafing through a photo essay of Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan.
Clements, a Métis playwright and former Deep Cove resident, saw something familiar in the faces of the Afghan people.
“At certain angles,” she recalls, “they looked a lot like Indigenous people in Canada.”
It could have been a fleeting observation only it didn’t flee.
There’s a Hollywood story that, when filming wide vistas was impossible, director John Ford told his crew they would instead shoot the: “most interesting and exciting thing in the whole world . . . a human face.”
As Clements looked at those faces, she thought about Afghanistan and the way the country’s history is marbled with war as well as an incredible capacity for resilience.
“It does also reflect on Indigenous peoples of Americas,” she says. “We’re still here after everything.”
That sense of commonality led Clements to ask the questions that would eventually lead her to write and direct the drama/thriller Red Snow.
“What would happen if two people from extremely different regions of the world came face to face together?” she asked. “What would that dialogue be?”
The film begins with an out-of-focus figure running through the snow, a dream-like image interrupted by gunfire.
We’re in Afghanistan. Bodies are on the ground. A man is on his knees as a soldier holds a gun to his head.
Soon the soldier, Dylan (Asivak Koostachin) will be captured by Taliban forces. We see the countryside through strands of fabric covering Dylan’s face and we experience pitch darkness when he’s dumped in his cell.
But besides seeing through his eyes, we also see through his consciousness. Alone in a dark room, his mind drifts back the idealized, doomed love he was forced to leave behind at his home in the Arctic and to the care of his grandmother, played by the spellbinding Tantoo Cardinal.
Dylan feels contempt for his captors but, at least at first, only a smattering of fear.
“You’re an American?” the Taliban cell leader asks him.
The captor, played by Afghan-born Canadian actor Kane Mahon, smiles with the quiet amusement of a reasonable man asked to entertain a nonsensical proposition.
“You amaze me with the idea that there is a difference,” he says. “You’re all the same. Unwelcome.”
In that moment, the men share nothing but hostility.
But facing death, Dylan prays and sings the songs of his Gwich’in heritage.
The film cuts between Dylan and his captors – each worshipping in their own ways. And for the first time we get a sense of a bond between them.
In writing the screenplay, Clements ruminated on the idea of a soldier who looks more like the people he’s fighting against than the people he’s fighting with.
Clements wrote the script for Red Snow in “a bit of a storm,” she recalls.
“I think I’d been waiting to write it.”
After winning the Women In the Director’s Chair Feature Film Award, she secured enough sponsors to make the movie she’d written.
Principal photography on the film was confined to 20 days, with the crew shooting in the Northwest Territories and the Interior of B.C., which doubles for Afghanistan in the film.
“There were no easy days,” Clements notes with a laugh.
Besides shooting in four languages, the crew also had to navigate freezing cold, floods and fire warnings as they hauled gear over small mountains.
“We had to really commit in a way that was all or nothing.”
One morning in Detah, a community in the Northwest Territories that hangs on the lip of Great Slave Lake, Clements woke up to minus-51 degree weather, including a wind chill.
“It’s stunningly beautiful but the cold does enter your body,” she says.
In some ways, the hardships of the shoot seemed to dovetail with the philosophy of the movie, Clements explains.
“How do we survive our circumstances?” she asks. “How do we escape? How do we find our way back to love? How do we survive with grace? These are all things, really, we were probably thinking about every day when we got up to shoot.”