'Portraits from a Fire' Is a Spellbinding Debut Directed by Trevor Mack

Starring William Magnus Lulua, Sammy Stump, Nathaniel Arcand, Asivak Koostachin
'Portraits from a Fire' Is a Spellbinding Debut Directed by Trevor Mack
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Time and again in Portraits from a Fire, the face of protagonist Tyler's (William Magnus Lulua) late mother coalesces from colourful pixels to tell him her story, but just as he looks at it, it swiftly disintegrates into a mess of visual snow, like a ghost into vapour, like ancestral memories that shy away from the spotlight of the mind. Tyler tries in vain to talk to her, to touch her, to get to the bottom of the mystery surrounding her death, but it's like trying to follow a hazy spectre through overbearing fog — it's this frustrating, futile grasping, which stems from the kind of desperate longing that knocks the breath out of you, that director Trevor Mack expertly and subtly depicts through compelling visual storytelling in his feature debut. Portraits from a Fire is a film that delivers not only a moving story but also a visual feast, bringing the act of remembering, and all the pain it unearths, to life in a way that few filmmakers have done.

Written by Mack (who is from the Tsilhqot'in Nation in central British Columbia), Manny Mahal and Derek Vermillion, and shot entirely on the Tsilhqot'in territory of Tl'etinqox, Portraits from a Fire opens with 16-year-old aspiring filmmaker Tyler screening his film starring cardboard cutouts, First Space-tions, to a shrinking audience in an abandoned lot. His biggest fan is his grandfather Sammy (Sammy Stump), who wants Tyler to film a Western so he can star in it and shoot a white man. Tyler's father Gord (Nathaniel Arcand) never attends his son's screenings, never pays him much attention in general, leaving Tyler to roam the reserve, trying to bring to life the worlds he conjures up in his imagination. It's during his adventures that he meets and forms a deep bond with a mysterious boy from the community, Aaron (Asivak Koostachin).

One day, Tyler discovers a tape hidden away in his father's things; it's footage of his father with his late mother and a baby Tyler assumes is him. Tyler doesn't know how or why his mother passed away, though everyone else in the community seems to. The young boy decides to create a non-fiction film. Titled My Mother and Me, it contains his father's footage of his mother spliced through with Tyler's own diaristic confessions and notes to her. He hopes this film will finally get his father's attention and love, and potentially unearth the mystery of his mother's passing. As Tyler works on his film and gets closer to figuring out his family's mystery, he is helped along by the kind but tragic Aaron.   

The dialogue in this movie is predominantly in English, but various bits, especially conversation among elders, is in the Tsilhqot'in language. That being said, dialogue in general is fairly sparse throughout. Cinematographer Kaayla Whachell's stunning, expansive landscape shots, with reserve dogs constantly sniffing about them, house Tyler's grand ambitions and his towering imagination. It's thanks to these silent but roaming scenes that Tyler's loneliness and desperation to be loved can be felt in magnitudes — he seems so small as he wanders about, giving himself purpose. 

Wachell's cinematographic storytelling is equally complemented by Mack's endlessly interesting telling of Tyler's past: his mother appears to Tyler as though she were a figure on a damaged VHS tape, her face constantly on the edge of comprehension. At times, Tyler veritably steps into her story as though stepping onto a film's set. This blurring of the line between reality and representations of reality, vague memories you think are yours, do a brilliant job of showing the story without telling and without belabouring the point. Ultimately, Mack shows in his visual style how the past really is passed down through bloodlines so it becomes intuition, how generational pain will survive until someone does something about it, how secrets kept hurt more than the truth ever can, and how art can save so many lives.

The performances, too, are worth writing home about. Lulua as the lonely young artist who taught himself everything he knows is pitch perfect: he mispronounces Cannes and is constantly participating in Inside the Actors Studio-esque interviews. Koostachin as the smouldering Aaron, who has a penchant to wax poetic, is endlessly intriguing. Stump as Sammy is as warm as a hug, and Arcand as Gord is formidable, cold and absent. Mack has written a tragedy into Arcand, borne of shame and guilt that ultimately stems from a dark secret, which the latter lets show in his molten, teary stare, which is wonderful, if painful, to see. Mack shows through Gord — through the juxtaposition of his smiling face in his old tapes and his present-day inertia toward Tyler — how it's possible to become a version of yourself you loathe, and how often this turning is never within our control.

With an amazing score (by Andrew Dixon and Conan Karpinski), stunning photography, and a storytelling style that not only reimagines how to tell stories, but also depicts memory work in a breathtaking way, Portraits from a Fire is a spellbinding debut that you can't miss.

Portraits from a Fire is out now on VOD. (Photon Films)