For Kirsten Carthew, her first feature film The Sun at Midnight was an opportunity to show off more than just her skills as a writer, producer and director.
This was an opportunity to show the world the spectacular landscape, colours and beauty of Canada’s Northwest Territories – an area which has been hidden from the feature film world until now.
“I wanted to make the film because I love that part of the Northwest Territories, and I really wanted to show it and share it with other people, it’s so cinematic,” Carthew told Canada Down Under.
“This is first feature film from the Northwest Territories, and really it was just an amazing opportunity to make a film, supported by Telefilm Canada, which is the Government of Canada, as well as our territorial government and our partners with the Gwich’in Tribal Councils.”
Her film tells the story of an unexpected friendship between 16-year old runaway urban princess Lia, played by Devery Jacobs, and Gwich’in hunter Alfred, played by Duane Howard. With central themes of environment and indigenous rights, Carthew said it was vital she got support from the local community to make then film.
“That part of the Northwest Territories is on Gwich’in land, and I knew that I wouldn’t want to make a film if there wasn’t substantial and meaningful collaboration with the Gwich’in, so I approached them at the script stage and got a lot of feedback and we worked together developed the script and then they helped us fundraise – they’re a major funding partner,” she said.
“We were in a small community of 750 people – if people weren’t on board, you would have no helpfulness and in a very isolated, remote part of the world that’s very challenging.
“It was a really wonderful gift because our cast, except for our two leads, are local to the Northwest Territories, our Gwich’in characters for the most part are played by Gwich’in people, and they’re really proud of the film, they’re really proud to show their land.”
Taking on the colossal task of writing, producing and directing the film, Carthew and her team also faced a number of challenges throughout the shoot, not least due to the remote environment they were shooting in.
“We were all kind of working naively, because it is the first feature [set in the Northwest Territories], so nobody really knew what they were doing, so everybody was doing five jobs and didn’t complain,” she explained.
“I was billeted at somebodies house, other people were sleeping in tents at times – totally not normal – but we were able to make it work, we had great partners and a lot of people just working really hard to make it happen.”
The close knit environment provided opportunities for cast to bond, with the resulting chemistry visible on screen.
“The smallness of our production meant that we were always hanging out with each other, so there was a lot of together time, we were flying together, driving together, eating together,” she said.
“The real life relationship between the two actors should inform the on-screen life of the two characters, and I think it worked really well for them because of course an actor can do their job, but when people are thinking about chemistry, there’s a little extra something when you actually like the person and you don’t always have to fake and it feels like a meaningful experience.”
The environmental themes within the film are particularly important for Carthew, who has for a number of years been working with young people in the Northwest Territories to help them develop a stronger understanding and connection to the land, including starting up environmental stewardships.
“I’ve grown up travelling and grown up doing camping, we had a farm we’d go to on the weekends, and nature has always been a huge part of my lifestyle, and anytime I’ve travelled I’ve always felt very close to nature, I always felt accepted in a new country or a new city because I found a lake or a park or a mountain or something and I think that the relationship individuals have with nature is hugely important,” she said.
“When I moved around and was in the Northwest Territories, I saw a lot of young people, even though the expectation or the thought is that of course everyone here knows how to canoe, camp swim, do all this stuff, because we are living in just nature, but that isn’t actually the case for a lot of young people.
“Being out on the land has dangers and you need to know how to canoe a river, not just jump into it, and you need to know how to take care of yourself. I was particularly keen on working with young women because there has been a history of women being in a more traditional role, and not having what people are calling ‘survival skills’.”
She hopes the film will help to inspire young people to take the opportunity to explore and learn about their surroundings.
“I wanted to really show people how you can have positive risk taking by having really great outdoor adventures, going on canoe trips and camping, and just exploring the world locally, and having that become a part of your identity – because it is,” she said.
“There’s a line in the script where Alfred says basically your perception of the outside world is very much related to your perception of your interior world, and so in the story, and just in my experience with youth, I wanted people to see that the land around them is extraordinary – and that they are too.”
Kirsten Carthew’s film The Sun at Midnight featured at the Sydney Film Festival as port of this year’s ‘Focus on Canada’. Carthew was in Sydney thanks to the support of the Consulate General of Canada, Sydney.