Rhonda Lee McIsaac
In a new 16-minute film Haida director and animator Waats’daa Christopher Auchter brings his gift of storytelling through visual arts to the screen once again. Now is the Time is a re-telling and re-righting of the original This Was the Time, a 1970 National Film Board (NFB) film.
The new film is about the Bear Mother gyaa’ang cedar monument carved by Guud San Glans Robert Davidson with assistance from his brother Skil Kaatl’aas Reg Davidson. It was joyously raised by hand by Yaala Raven matrilineage and Guuda Eagle matrilineage at Gad Gaywáas the northernmost village in Old Massett. The gyaa’ang was the first raised in Haida Gwaii in almost a century. The new documentary entitled Waaydanaa Now Is the Time features this powerful cultural event as told from a Haida perspective.
Waats’daa brought his newest film home to Haida Gwaii in early November 2019. “I grew up here on Haida Gwaii not knowing this story,” shares Waats’daa in an introduction. He, like many youth of today, has raised gyaa’angee, witnessed waahl’ahl potlatches, learned from growing Haida language curriculum, and benefited from a powerful community of artists all contributing to the rich cultural background. But this was not always the case, as he soon discovered from researching why the gyaa’ang raising was so important back in the summer of 1969.
Kii’iljuus Barbara Wilson was critical of the original 1970 production and approached Michelle van Beusekom, Executive Director of the NFB’s English Program about the idea to revise the original film. In 2017 Waats’daa released The Mountain of SGaana. He worked with NFB to direct the award-winning short featuring his animation of a supernatural underwater world. After the success of this initial film Waats’daa was asked to direct a revised version of This Was the Time.
Waats’daa recalls watching the original version of the film from 1970 and felt that, “so much of the film went above [his] head,” in terms of the history, storytelling, and the sequencing of the film.
Waats’daa also noticed that, “they didn’t give people [the audience] the firsthand accounts,” of the gyaa’ang raising events or give the original speakers their voices. Instead the original film featured voice-overs. In post-production the film’s creators chose to, “rewrite the dialogue for actors to say over the action in the film,” he says. All who saw the original story agreed that it was told from a settler and Euro-Canadian perspective. In short, it was not a Haida film and it needed to be re-made.
To do justice to the history shown in the new documentary, Waats’daa had to do a lot of research. As a storyteller he had immerse himself in the story starting at the very beginning. This involved personal interviews with master carver Guud San Glans and Skil Kaatl’aas. He also sat down with Kii’iljuus, an original NFB Indian Film Crew member who recorded the original event. In his re-righting Waats’daa involved the voices and stories of the carvers and audio from previous recordings from the BC Archives. These recordings were once thought lost forever, but Waats’daa found them through his research. Kii’iljuus was a huge supporter of the re-make, with the goal of making things right.
Waats’daa also hopes the documentary will teach youth about an important part of Haida history. He felt that animation would be a good way to draw the youth into the documentary. In his research he took a strong interest in a print called The Gift by Guud San Glans and requested this piece for the documentary. Guud San Glans let him down gently by saying that it could not be used since it was a gift to the Coast Salish and invited Waats’daa to look through his collection for another piece.
Waats’daa diligently made an appointment to go through the collection but two weeks later, Guud San Glans called Waats’daa and broke the news that he had changed the original design for him and it was already digitized for animation.
This animated design became the Spirit of Haida Gwaii in the film. “I wanted our youth to know this story and to engage them,” says the grateful director. “I added some animation elements to be that bridge and to bring intrigue into the piece,” Waats’daa says of the animated Spirit of Haida Gwaii illustration featured in the art work.
“We’re so lucky to have these master artists, our Elders, and our stories,” Waats’daa says of these gifts. The gifts in this documentary are for the Haida Nation and its citizens. The documentary is a true accounting of the historic gyaa’ang raising in 1969 from a Haida perspective. Telling a story right can take 50 years, and this is a gift that Waats’daa is pleased to have learned and shares with others. “It was such a huge honour,” Waats’daa concludes about this successful documentary.
His wish is that Haida viewers see their k’aygee Elders and family members to trigger them to share those memories. “The story can’t be encapsulated in this 16-minute documentary,” Waats’daa declares. His wish is that this documentary will, “spark more stories and conversations around this time in Gaw Tlagee and the events of that day,” so youth can also learn more about their history and create their own gifts for future generations.
This article features select words in Xaad kil.