Zoe Leigh Hopkins is a heiress of a lineage. The Heiltsuk and Mohawk Indians have survived European invasions, defending nature, values of solidarity and their own culture. Zoe captures these essences in her movies and in Kayak To Klemtu she manages to thrill us with the natural beauty of its landscapes, a committed with the Ecology message, and an intimate story. Travel through this fascinating journey to the roots with Zoe Leigh Hopkins.
The Heiltsuk and the Mohawk Tribes live in Canada, in the middle of a dream natural landscape. Between both tribes they have 25,000 people. These Canadian minorities have found in the movies a way to transfer their fascinating philosophies based on respect for Mother Nature. One of its most outstanding representatives is the filmmaker Zoe Leigh Hopkins.
Born in British Columbia, in a beautiful fishing village of the Heiltsuk, she debuted as an actress in the cinema in 1991. Bruce Beresford gave her a role in Black Robe, a film that dealt with relations between Europeans and Indians during the British conquest of Canada.
Committed to her people, she is part of the Embargo Collective. This film collective is formed by seven indigenous directors and seeks to give visibility to Canadian native issues and culture.
We were with Zoe during the presentation of her latest film at the Cine Las Americas festival in Austin. We talk about her culture, film and the dangers that surround natural spaces as she was born.
A Trip to the Roots
Kayak to Klemtu narrates several trips in one. One of those travels is the return of a teenage girl to the place where her ancestors come from. An special and beautiful place in danger due to oil industry ambitions in the area.
It is also a return to nature, a force of wild beauty that strips us and leaves us at its mercy. And finally, it is a journey through the concerns of people in search not only of their own survival but of the conservation of the planet.
To capture all this, she recorded without artifice a 500-miles journey to Klemtu through British Columbia, which forms the main plot of her film. Ahead of the lens of Zoe Leigh Hopkins appeared whales, dolphins and landscapes to get lost in them, not return to the so-called civilization ever. To create an absolute realism, she counted on the real inhabitants of Klemtu.
Don’t miss her words loaded with a fascinating philosophy or the stories of a movie to keep in the retina.
Zoe Leigh Hopkins: Films as Natural Poetry
What was your first contact with films?
When I was 15, I was a background actor on the film Black Robe. I wore leather and braids in a 16th century film, during the Oka crisis here in Canada. I spent 2 months working on that film, and living in a small French town during a very stressful time of conflict in this country for Indigenous people.
Besides the political climate and sharp memories of that, I did fall in love with being on a film set, and knew that I would like to do something in film as my career.
Should films reflect the reality of minorities?
Yes. Films for too long have misrepresented minorities. The best way to tell the true stories of underrepresented people in the media is to have those communities tell those stories themselves.
What is the film that best represents you?
Of the films that I have made, I think my short film Mohawk Midnight Runners and my feature film Kayak to Klemtu both represent my voice best. They are both funny and heartwarming, and they both deal with grief, which seems to be a theme in my writings.
Is it harder to write a script or direct?
Both are hard for different reasons. Writing a script can feel never-ending. It feels like it will never be perfect. Writing a script goes on into the editing suite. Writing can be torturous, but when the characters speak to me and I only have to write down what they’re saying, that’s when I know I’ve hit some truth.
Directing is hard because at the budget levels I have worked with, you never have enough time or money to nail your dream list. I don’t like compromising. I love being on set the most out of the entire process.
How did your Kayak to Klemtu project come about?
Producer Daniel Bekerman and Executive Producer Sheryl Kotzer brought Kayak to Klemtu to me via my agent, and we hit it off. They hired me to direct, and then graciously handed a script to me and let me take it apart and make it my own.
I put a story about a kayak journey into an Indigenous world and made it about protecting the lands and waters of my own people. It is my love song to the coast.
How did you shoot those scenes with wild animals? Were they spontaneous?
We were so lucky to see so many whales and sea lions on our time in the water. It is impossible to plan to film whales surfacing when the actors are speaking, but we got very lucky with one, and a humpack whale showed us its back right before a dialogue scene with all the actors in their boats.
They were brilliant and went right into the scene with wonderful and true reactions. I was so thrilled!
Film in Canada
Are there many opportunities to make good movies in Canada?
In Canada we are lucky to have provincial arts council as well as a national arts council. I made most of my short films as an independent artist via arts council funding. We also have a public funder of feature films.
It is highly competitive to access any of this funding, but I still feel fortunate that these systems exist, and that our country values art and artistic expression.
People make feature films in Canada using various streams of funding. Public funds can be via feature film specific funding via the federal or provincial government, via tax credits, via distribution and broadcast licenses, arts councils, and of course private donors.
How did you get the financing for the movie?
That’s more of a producer question, but I believe we were largely privately financed, along with provincial tax credits, and post-production contribution from Telefilm Canada, our public funder for films in Canada.
Is it a good time for independent films?
It always and never is.
Have you had problems with the distribution?
I feel lucky to have one of the best distribution companies in Canada on this film – Mongrel Media holds the Canadian distro rights. World rights are still available. We are self-funding a coastal tour to bring the film back to the Indigenous communities where we shot the film.
There is no current distribution model that would allow us to do so without going out of pocket. The producers on this project recognized how important it is to bring the film home to where it will resonate the most. I am so grateful for that! We have had a small release across the country in art houses, which has been nice.
But I do think that it could have done well with a wide release!
Are festivals the best way to promote your films?
Festivals are always such a great way to have a lot of supportive people see a film. But I also hope that the Indigenous communities who are far away from festivals will be able to access the film via a streaming service like Netflix.
That would be amazing. I know a lot of people have been asking to see it, and althought it’s the big goal to get a theatrical release, I want for those who can’t get to the cinema to see this film.
A Native Community in the Movies
What is life like in your community?
I live in Six Nations, Ontario, a reserve outside of Toronto. About 13,000 people live here. It’s big but it feels very rural. It’s a bit of an anomaly in terms of reserves in Canada because it is so large both in land mass and in population.
My mother’s reserve is the opposite. About 1300 people live there, and it’s very densely structured. Either way, both feel removed from the hustle and bustle of the city.
How is the environmental situation in the area?
The ongoing threat of the Kinder Morgan Pipeline project scares me. And the ongoing fuel barge traffic through my people’s waters angers me. We had a big diesel spill right outside the community where I was born (Bella Bella), and where we shot some of Kayak to Klemtu.
The spill happened the day after we wrapped principal photography. That was nearly 2 years ago, and my people are still recovering economically and emotionally.
Our clam beds are shut down, and will be for at least a decade. This puts 50 seasonal workers out of work, and the loss to the environment is tragic.
This was an American fuel barge being pushed from one American port to another via Canadian waters. Our waters are used like a highway, with only threat and detriment to us and the creatures who live in those waters.
What does it mean to you when your film becomes a symbol of your community and its struggle?
I’m very proud to have made a love song to the coast, to my family who lives there, and I’m so thrilled that it is resonating with them. I hope that it can speak to the cause, and that young people especially will come to understand a little bit about who we are, and why it’s important to protect this part of the planet.
Kayak To Klemtu, From Theater to your Conscience
What Influences are in your films?
I love Jane Campion, Merata Mita, Taika Waititi, Alethea Arnaquq-Baril, Sonia Bonspille, Sterlin Harjo and all my Indigenous peers across the world.
What projects do you have at this moment?
I have Telefilm backing for my second feature, Running Home, a magical comedy to be filmed in Six Nations in 2019.
Will you project your film in Europe and the USA?
Kayak to Klemtu had its European premiere as an official selection of the Edinburgh International Film Festival. It has had a few festival screenings in the USA and more to come this year, and we’re booking into 2019 there as well.