“When They Awake tells a universal story. A story that transcends boundaries, national boundaries or ethnic heritage. For many of the indigenous people represented in the film, today’s political borders do not necessarily reflect the traditional lands of the people, which crosses over into what we consider as the division between the US and Canada. In fact, the themes that we deal with, the historical trauma of colonization, human resilience, intergenerational healing, cultural revival through the arts are experiences of native peoples all across North America and all across the world. The universal language of music welcomes non- natives into the conversation about our collective colonial history and how to find a place of healing and reconciliation. This is also true and especially relevant to Americans who have witnessed and experienced the struggle of Standing Rock in the past year, which was a historic intersectional mobilization of indigenous, environmental and racial justice movements.”

–Hermon Farahi, Director, When They Awake

Documentaries will often take a life of their own, and lead the directors into parts of the story they couldn’t possibly foretell. Co-directors and producers P.J. Marcellino and Hermon Farahi, had this experience while making their film, When They Awake, a powerful documentary celebrating Indigenous musicians. Initially started as a music education, youth engagement project in six northern communities in the Northwest Territories, the film took a life of its own and evolved eventually into the expansive musical story of Indigenous artists across North America.

Even when they thought they had finished the film, world events shifted quickly and proved their tale was not over.

“By January this year we decided, listen, this story has picked us. We started with something very different but we just followed the narrative where it took us,” Marcellino explains. The film comes as Canada commemorates 150 years and last year’s Standing Rock protest over the Dakota access pipeline had become the largest and most high-profile Native protest in forty years. Five days into his presidency, Donald Trump reversed the Obama administration’s decision of halting the pipeline by denying permits for the last leg of production.

“Barack Obama’s decision was really our final scene in the film at that time,” Marcellino says. “What we thought was an uplifting moment of change, when the political forces actually took a decision that went the right way, as it turns out, Donald Trump changed that in the first week of his presidency. So we felt the need to change it again.”

“I think the credit of where the story went is not really ours, it’s really the people that we met all through the last three years and a half, really…and the ability just to sit back and embrace the uncertainty and really allow the story to reveal itself, as often happens with documentaries. We let that go and here we are.”



That story is one that has Indigenous musicians sharing and engaging with their communities, telling their stories through music and song. The film features artists such as Tribe Called Red, Tanya Tagaq and Susan Aglukark. DJ Shub, Juno winner Don Amero, Leanne Goose and Iskwe will be at the film’s Calgarian debut at the Opening Gala for the 18th Calgary Film Festival, which will feature performances from several of these artists. The timing of the film’s festival circuit runs comes as many of these artists are up for awards across the country, Tanya Tagaq and Tribe Called Red nominated for the 2017 Polaris Music Prize.

“It’s pretty awesome that they are carving such amazing paths and they trusted us to tell part of their stories and are joining us on the road whenever they can,” Marcellino says, explaining that the intentions were always to have the film stand together with the music, lend itself to screenings with the musicians and for audiences to seek out the artists.


Logan Staats

Marcellino invites Canadians to watch the film and ask questions about the country and its history, told and untold, particularly as we commemorate Canada 150. “We are inviting everyone to look at Canada 150- we are not saying not to commemorate it, by all means commemorate it, but use the opportunity to actually question it as well.”

“I guarantee you would ask 90 percent of Canadians and they would not know the last residential school closed in the 1990s. So this is kind of trying to jolt people first of all into knowledge […] in a positive way. We don’t think that people need to be guilted [sic] into feeling bad. We want people to be engaging in this dialogue. Music provides you with the excuse, the platform, to have complicated conversations in a way that is non-taxing for any of the parties involved.”

Marcellino maintains that the film can both educate and entertain and is optimistic it can widely expose audiences to the music being made by many Indigenous artists across Canada and the US.

“Hopefully this film helps them find this incredible music that is being done. It’s a feel-good film- it’s a film that deals with heavy political themes but that’s not the feeling you come out with. You come out with a sense of joy and life and perseverance”.

Tickets for tonight’s screening for the Calgary Film Festival’s Opening Gala at the Art Commons at the Jack Singer are sold out but the film’s second screening in Calgary will be October 1. Visit www.calgaryfilm.ca and www.whentheyawake.com for more details.

Words by Magdalena Gorski

Photos and Film clips courtesy of When They Awake

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