Winter in the Blood, starring Chaske Spencer of Twilight fame, has won the Grand Prize at the Montreal First Peoples Festival.
The deeply moving portrayal of an alcoholic Blackfoot man who stumbles through a series of revelations, dream-sequence style, to come to terms with a traumatic memory was based on the novel of the same name by Native writer James Welch.
It won “for bringing to the screen, boldly and faithfully, a major work marking the flowering of contemporary Amerindian literature,” said festival organizer André Dudemaine at an awards ceremony on Sunday August 4 as the event drew to a close.
“For a script illustrating the erratic journey of a distraught hero with just enough ironic distancing and emotional proximity, for a film in which realism meets wild imaginings at every turn of a therapeutic odyssey where, at every moment, viewers share the protagonist’s angst, for a complex narrative structure that does justice to the novel, and through its wry takes on classic American movies, acknowledges its own cultural intermix with humor and erudition, the First Peoples’ Festival 2013 awards Teueikan Grand Prize to Winter in the Blood.”
It was the 2013 film’s first screening outside the U.S. and marked a milestone for twin filmmakers Andrew and Alex Smith. At the movie’s final festival screening later that day, the Smith brothers acknowledged Welch as a family friend and writing mentor and paid poignant tribute to him on the 10th anniversary of his death.
“We knew James Welch growing up, he was a friend and a mentor,” said Alex Smith in introducing the film to the Montreal audience. “And today is actually, in a beautiful way, 10 years since we lost Jim. Today. And this film is about how we stay connected to those we lose. So I just wanted to just reach out to Jim. I’m glad it all happens here.”
The subject matter resonates far beyond Indian country and drew people from various backgrounds to two screenings in Montreal and an earlier one in Kahnawake. One of the audience members came because of Twilight—Spencer plays Sam Uley, the head werewolf—and brought her daughter, who was celebrating her 18th birthday. But she was riveted by Winter and Spencer’s work in it, even though she is not indigenous.
“I found it very interesting because it shows a view of Natives that people don’t get to see,” said Heather Crawford of Mercier, after the movie ended. “It’s something pertinent today. It’s something everybody should sit down and see.”
The movie struck an even deeper chord with actor and ICTMN contributor Sonny Skyhawk.
“Watching Winter in the Blood, I experienced a kaleidoscope of visions and impressions of my own history growing up as a young Indian in that environment,” he wrote in a review for ICTMN. “This is a very difficult story to tell, but the film's Native actors pulled it off by virtue of their excellent performances. Spencer, playing the main character, was the catalyst, sparking stellar portrayals from the rest of the cast.”
Skyhawk also noted the performances of Gary Farmer and Casey Camp-Horinek. Julia Jones, another Twilight alum, played Virgil’s wife, Agnes.
Spencer was on hand at the First Peoples Festival, answering audience questions after the screenings. In Kahnawake, someone wanted to know how it felt to portray an indigenous person with alcoholism, which could be construed as fueling a stereotype.
“It wasn’t that hard because I’d seen—I’d been in that environment my whole life,” Spencer said, adding that he welcomed the chance to play a nuanced role so as to more fully tell the character’s story. “You never understand why they drink, or what their journey is.”
The actor, Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux, grew up in Montana and Idaho.
In addition, Spencer said that by the time filming started, he had already been steeping himself in the book and the subject matter for two years.
“I was already there mentally, so I was ready to go,” he said, adding that nevertheless, “it does take a toll on you.”
Alex Smith said the goal was to bring out not only what drives people to drink “but also why they might stop drinking.”
The Montreal First Peoples Festival ends on Monday August 5. Other winning films included Heart of Sky, Heart of Earth by Eric Black and Frauke Sandig, which won for its portrayals of ordinary men and women carrying on the ancient wisdom of the Maya civilization and the “prophetic visions of the new cosmic cycle underway,” Dudemaine said. That movie also won for Best Cinematography and Best Documentary.
The Rigoberta Menchú Prize, named for the famed indigenous leader in Guatemala, went to Gold Fever, which profiles a small Guatemalan community’s fight against a mining company. The second prize went to Point de Fuite, which chronicles the founding of the Inuit nation.
The full list of prizes can be found at www.presenceautochtone.ca, and visit the website of Winter in the Blood for more about the film.