Canadian artist Marie Clements’ career spans decades and includes acting, writing and directing in theatre, television and film. As a writer and filmmaker for screen media, she has worked in both scripted and unscripted entertainment and has developed the skills to tell nearly any story.
Her latest film, Red Snow, is the poignant story of Dylan, played wonderfully by Asivak Koostachin, a Gwich’in-Canadian soldier is caught in an ambush in Afghanistan. His capture and interrogation reminds the young soldier of his Inuit cousin Asana, and in the process, brings him closer to a Pashtun family as they escape across the treacherous, war-torn Afghanistan.
Clements’ film captures one young man’s struggle to embrace his identity and come to terms with a history he has been running away from. As Dylan begins his difficult personal journey, he also begins to realize that his captors are not the terrible enemy he thought them to be and that in the end, he shares more in common with this family than he could ever have anticipated.
I recently had a chance to speak with Clements about her move from theatre to film, the inspiration behind Red Snow and the importance of language and culture in filmmaking.
Red Snow is now available on VOD.
Marina Antunes: I know that you have a background in writing. How did you make the jump into filmmaking?
Marie Clements: Quite a while ago I did a year on Da Vinci’s Inquest in the writing room and that kind of sparked some real interest in shifting into another realm of storytelling. Way back when in 2006 I adapted a play of mine called The Unnatural Accidental Woman into a screenplay and it ended up being produced and directed and that’s really when I feel in love with the form and started to commit to it.
MA: Having worked in TV, film and theatre, how do you decide what mode to use for your storytelling?
MC: I started out in theater, coming up as an actor and then shifting over to writing and directing and producing. I was really dedicated to that form which is led by performance. But even in theatre my work was often very image based and had documentary aspects to it so in some ways, it felt natural to translate that into stories that I could tell in documentary.
Writing drama for so long for theater, it seemed natural to find stories that I was really passionate about telling. And, you know, there’s an excitement around the possibility of reaching more people and to tell a story in a different way.
I think every story is different and has different bones and you’re really trying to find the right home for that story to be told and the right way in which it can reach an audience in what is hopefully a profound way.
MA: What was the basis of Red Snow. What inspired this particular story?
MC: I was looking at photos from a photo essay of Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan and I was really struck by the indigenous peoples’ faces there and how in some ways, they resembled indigenous people from Canada and it really got me thinking about the similarities between these two indigenous peoples that have survived so many wars and are still here in this modern time. I was really interested in what that dialogue might be. And we also rarely see indigenous soldiers and their experience and perspective.
MA: The film feels very authentic and I’m curious about the research you did to prepare.
MC: Like all writers we sit in rooms and we do as much research as we can but obviously there comes to a point where you’re really looking to get hands on experience. I think I was really lucky and privileged to work with three different cultural keepers from those different cultures. They also became the translators and language coaches. It became quite layered in the sense that I was working through every scene with different cultural keepers, making sure that what I had on the page was authentic and working through all those details. But also the language became a huge part film.
In language, you’re really looking at every sentence, every period. Every expression represents a view of the world that’s just a little bit different than the next world. So I think in that way, when you’re talking in that detail, you really do come to, you know a different level of understanding with the people that you’re working with.
Then that was passed on to the actors and the coaches and everyone on set from set up to design. All of that gets filtered in every layer of the film.
MA: I think it’s so fascinating that you speak with such care and passion about being authentic to the culture and the language and that’s something that’s often gets lost in filmmaking or it’s taken for granted. We often see stories from one angle and regardless of what language or the cultures that are involved, it’s always in English and there’s a tendency to lose some of the nuance of the culture. I assume this is something that’s always a consideration for you when you’re creating your next project?
MC: Yes, it’s a process but one that I have worked on from the beginning. I definitely do feel privileged to be training with and working with artists that have different worldviews or different languages or perspective and I’m really trying to get that to register on screen in a way that it’s not over the top.
I think just really natural to want to see people in their natural environment, through their own emotional filter. I think you really have to work with artists that are from so many different departments that are willing to commit to that kind of detail and authenticity.
MA: What does it look like on the page when you’re writing in so many different languages, some of which you may not be familiar with? Are you writing it all in your own voice and then bringing in individuals to help you finesse the details or are you working with somebody in tandem as you’re writing the first draft?
MC: For this film I worked alone creating beats and the narrative for the characters. Then I started bringing in people to help with broad strokes and bringing in cultural people that could comment on what was right or wrong and who helped me work through the various perspectives.
One of the big things when you’re working in different cultures or ideas of the world is that, for me as a writer, I’m really working on the word and working on beats and how, the language dialogue can push the action. Those are all valid things that you have to be working on, but you have to consider another layer. In English your dialogue could be an entire sentence but in Pashto it may only be 15 words.
All languages have certain rhythms and most times those rhythms don’t originate in English so you have to always be prepared to take into account that there’s certain things that we say in English that others don’t say. They might not even have a word for it in their language. So you have to look at your script word-by-word and sentence-by-sentence to ensure that it’s authentic.
It’s intense but I kind of loved the challenge of it cause it’s really making you work for things that are worth working for.
MA: How long was the, writing process for you on Red Snow?
MC: Originally it came pretty fast. The story itself came on page fast. Then of course it takes drafts and drafts to get to another level. And then you’re working with the translators and cultural keepers and that’s probably, six to seven, eight months back and forth. And then working with the actors, with the languages, with the cultural keepers, and then getting to set.
It was a really long process to get from the first draft to raising the money and getting to be able to do the art.
MA: What was the casting process like?
MC: We cast in Vancouver and Toronto, Edmonton, Yellowknife, New York, and LA. We really tried to get actors from those different communities.
MA: And did they all speak the languages or was there a lot of sort of coaching that goes along with that as well?
MC: Every actor had to learn every language. There were no passes there. They really had to because they’re from different nations and different places. It was a real commitment on their part. They really understood, the responsibility, and the gravity of working to get it right. I was very lucky that they took that on.
MA: Over the years, have you seen a shift in the opportunities for female filmmakers and indigenous filmmakers?
MC: I can honestly say there has been a profound shift. There have been so many artists and activists working hard to make it happen. So it’s not that it happened over night. It happened through a lot of work from a lot of people but it’s definitely shifted. And I think we’re starting to see the doors are becoming a jar and people are getting through them.
I think that’s one of the greatest things to see, not only experiencing it myself as a filmmaker, but to be able to see it actually happening.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Read Alexandra Heller-Nicholas’ review of RED SNOW.