On the road to Mi’kma’ki

Director Bretten Hannam discusses his beautiful and difficult new film “Wildhood” 

However many road-trip movies you’ve seen, you’ve never seen anything like Wildhood, the beautiful and difficult new film from writer-director Bretten Hannam. Wildhood traces the journey of Two-Spirit youth Link (Phillip Lewitski) and Link’s brother Travis (Avery Winters-Anthony) after they liberate themselves from their abusive home life and go in search of Link’s birth mother. As is the expectation in road-trip movies, what Link and Travis find along the way is as valuable as the destination—if not more. But in the case of the tenderly realized Wildhood, what they find is nothing less than their larger family: Mi’kma’ki, its land, language and people. 

The film won critical praise after its initial festival showings and has now been acquired for distribution. I spoke with Hannam following the film’s premiere in Toronto and prior to its opening at Montreal’s Image + Nation festival this week. Hannam spoke with me from their home in Bear River in Kewpukwitk of Mi’kma’ki, where they worked on Wildhood’s script for 10 years.

Where did the idea for Wildhood’s story germinate? 

I’ve been working on the script for over a decade. It was kind of just a story that… you kind of find them, or they find you. For me in particular, there are parts of this that are personal. Ten years ago, it was probably autobiographical. Now it’s less autobiographical, because there’s been 10 years of development and so many people collaborating. It’s kind of one step removed, but the roots of it are [based] in my own experience, and the experience of family and friends and community members. 

How did you figure out that this was a story you wanted to tell on film?

I watched movies when I was little, and I remember loving them. They were kind of like my babysitter a lot of the time. But I would have to reimagine things to make them more in line with my understanding of myself, who I was as a person and the world around me; hoping that the main character doesn’t have a love interest, or if he does, that maybe they don’t kiss so I can imagine, maybe, that he’s queer. And also, with Indigenous characters, there were none—or they might be in some old Westerns, but a lot of the time they were Italians in makeup. With [Wildhood], it was a story that I would’ve wanted to see. Or something like it. 

Is the movie that resulted what you hoped for?

Well, yes, but also it’s not just a movie, it’s storytelling. It’s a story. Stories bring people together. You know, if I sit in my room and I tell a story, no one’s going to hear it except for me. You need someone to be telling the story to. It’s a communal activity: we all come together—either in little groups of strangers or family or friends or whatever—and go into this one dark cave and have this experience. It brings us together. And even though we’re all watching the same story, it’s going to be different for each of us. There will be similar things that resonate, I think, across multiple experiences, but people get what they need out of the story. 

 

And oftentimes, there are things that are missing. So, when I say there weren’t really any queer films that I watched growing up or great Indigenous representation or stories, those are things that are missing. The fact that I have to imagine them means that they’re lacking and that they’re deemed in a way not important. I hope it’s just one thing of many in another 10 years, that there will be many, many, many more stories like this, that are better than this, that go above and beyond. That would be a dream come true. 

Why bring this tender, specific Two-Spirit story to a mainstream audience?

Two-Spirit is an identity that encompasses so many things; there are so many facets. You know, it’s a big circle. So seeing and being visible is one thing, but my idea of Two-Spirit and my definition of that and my experience and knowledge of it is going to be different from someone next door, that is also L’nu, that is also Two-Spirit. So this is the dynamic situation that we’re in. Two-Spirit is not a specific label that’s attached to one gender or sexuality, or even an expression of gender and sexuality alone—a wide variety of complex experiences come into it. 

“‘All my relations’ is something you hear expressed in different ways in different nations. And that’s what it means—really at its core—that we are all related.”

So the things that I bring, the teachings that I bring and the knowledge that I bring—that’s what I have to offer and share, and I am as grateful to share it as I’ve been grateful to learn. And other Two-Spirit people also have the things to offer and share that may be different. Part of it is decolonization and disentangling these predominant notions of [the gender] binary, of patriarchy, of an economy-driven society and becoming, or returning to, values that are centred around the land, that are centred around community, that are centred around supporting each other. 

I’m not laying new ground. I’m building off of the people that have come before me, ancestors that have come before me, all of the people that have come before me. I step forward where I am because they have stepped forward. We say: “We try to be a good ancestor.” I want to make sure that I step forward in a good way, to make space so that those stories, all those stories can come and can be shared, now and into the future.

It seems like Wildhood could only have been created in a really affirming environment. How did you keep it safe, brave and queer at the same time to allow those performances could rise and be captured on film?

A large part of it is the people you’re working with and collaborating with: if they’re not queer, then they’re allies or supportive. They know when to give space or step back or to say “Can you speak to this?” or “I am uncomfortable doing this, can you do this? Or can another queer person do it?” That’s real ally work, too.  

I also find that surrounding yourself with people who are queer or are allies is important, but also those who have the same thirst for creative collaboration. Often people might be one of those things, but not both. 

I think a lot about the way that I’m going to work and engage, you know? The way I like to work is collaborative. I tend to be more of a consensus-builder than leaning into a hierarchical structure; to say, you know, “This person is the director, and they’re at the top, and they give the orders.” I have a responsibility to guide, to keep the space safe, to make sure that actors are protected. That they can express themselves fully, without the outside world looming in. 

Is there a message you hope people take away from this movie? A reminder, or something that will allow them to move forward with a greater understanding?

Life, this life, it comes down to relationships, and the idea that relationships are the centre of everything. And when I say relationships, and when I say people, I don’t mean just human beings—I mean that you have relationships with the land. You have relationships with the language, with the animals and the plants. “All my relations” is something you hear expressed in different ways in different nations. And that’s what it means—really at its core—that we are all related, that we are all a part of each other, that we are all part of a family. We are all living together, and we all exist in a way that there’s a constant give and take between us all. Everything that we do is together. 

We only fool ourselves into thinking that we’re doing things alone. Or sometimes, we can feel alone or isolated. But there are all of these relationships around us that are there, just kind of waiting. Sometimes we don’t see the people around us who are our families. You know, we often talk about in queer communities, the family that you’re born with and the family that you make or you find. They lift you up and they hold you and sometimes there’s conflict but you’re still connected. We’re all connected in more ways than we can imagine.

As the opening film of Montreal’s Image + Nation festival, Wildhood is screening at the Cinéma du Musée on Nov. 18 at 7 p.m. ET and streaming online for Quebec residents only; tickets are available here.

S Bear Bergman

S. Bear Bergman is a writer, educator and advice columnist. His ninth book, Special Topics In Being A Human, was published by Arsenal Pulp Press in the fall of 2021.

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