A day before filming the first dance in Kaha:wi – The Cycle of Life, director Shane Belcourt got into the studio and saw trouble.
“What can we do?” he asked art director David Hannan, who had ringed a stage with trees and branches, evoking a forest clearing.
The next day, dancer and choreographer Santee Smith would be in the studio to dance the opening of Kaha:wi, in which a woman stirs from the earth, evolves a heartbeat, breathes, then sees.
“I need her to emerge from something,” said Belcourt. But seeing the studio layout, he knew the false floor they’d planned was way too elaborate. It wouldn’t work.
“I’m going to go buy a whole bunch of dirt,” said Hannan.
“Santee, I’m going to bury you in dirt,” Belcourt told Smith.
She was in.
Made on a whim, the shot became a showpiece in the documentary about Smith’s first choreographic work, which premieres this Thursday, Oct. 23 at the TIFF Bell Lightbox as part of the imagiNATIVE Film and Media Arts Festival.
Sitting in a coffee shop near his Upper Beach home, Belcourt said that first studio day reminded him that a director truly is the weakest one on set.
“I just want stuff,” he said, smiling. “I want her to emerge. David and James are making that happen,” he said, referring to Hannan and cinematographer James Klopko.
Compared with his first feature, Tkaronto, which Belcourt shot on a shoestring budget using existing sets and lighting, Kaha:wi involved a lot more toys – cameras, lights, and sound gear – and more people.
Still, the project was small enough that things could change on the fly, an immediacy Belcourt enjoys.
“I really like seeing all of us get excited about things,” he said.
At some level, every director wants to do a big film, with trucks lining the street, he said. But at that size, it’s hard to have everyone deeply involved.
Or, as Belcourt puts it, “In a bigger production, you’ve got to assume that the electrician and the truck driver are bored.”
A Métis, Belcourt grew up in Ottawa, where his father, Tony Belcourt, was pursuing aboriginal rights. A founding president of the Native Council of Canada, he played a key role in the 1982 constitution, which recognizes Métis as an aboriginal people.
“I grew up in a house that’s very political, but community based,” said Belcourt.
“It’s not campaigning and doing deals, but what the people need out in the communities, what’s the feedback, how do we protect land and language and culture. It was a very empowered aboriginal perspective.”
Belcourt also grew up making weekly trips to the movie theatre, and admiring Woody Allen films.
He was going to call his first feature Toronto in homage to Allen’s Manhattan, but later found out the city’s original Mohawk name, Tkaronto.
As a kid, Belcourt said he liked Allen’s movies for their hilarity and their hopefulness. Now, he also gets their cynicism, he said, and the exquisite camera work.
Belcourt studied film and screenwriting at York University for three years before dropping out to play in a rock band, Woodrow, and record singer-songwriter albums in his own name.
Making music and Woody Allen movies is a tall order, even for the multi-talented Belcourt, who also produced a Juno-winning album by Toronto duo Digging Roots.
When his daughter Claire was born, Belcourt decided it was time to pick and choose. Film and TV became his full-time gig.
“I think more accurately now, to be honest, it’s living in the Beaches and being a dad,” he said, smiling.
Secretly, Belcourt said he still misses Ottawa, where he grew up 15 minutes away from Quebec’s Gatineau Hills and swimming, skiing, and mountain biking there with his dad.
But the Beach is as close to that experience as Toronto gets, he said. Belcourt has filmed a few educational shorts in the area, using places like the Glen Stewart Ravine as a wilderness double.
While Belcourt is preparing for a second indie feature this summer, most of his film work has involved documentaries or pieces for groups like Metis Nations of Ontario.
Right now, he is in pre-production for Urban Native Girl, an APTN documentary series about a woman in her 30s who is trying to meet people and uncover more about her past, which was hidden from her.
“You realize, as a documentary filmmaker, that the moment’s not yours,” he said. When the camera rolls, he said people often recognize it as a time to shed burdens.
Even in Kaha:wi, a mostly celebratory film, Belcourt said there are heavy moments.
As the camera tracks across the residential school that still stands in Smith’s otherwise happy home of Six Nations, she says, “We had been told that we couldn’t dance anymore, that our dances were outlawed, that we couldn’t gather in more than groups of three.”
When the camera brings out such moments, Belcourt said it’s not a time for high-fives or hugs.
“They have to talk about this stuff, whether it’s painful or has a happy ending. Your heart trembles, you start shaking, you’re emotional, you sweat.”