A mythical Haida love story
In The Mountain of SGaana, sea hunter Naa-Naa-Simgat is abducted by a killer whale and his lover, Kuuga Kuns, must try to save him. (image from National Film Board of Canada)
One of the highlights at this year’s Vancouver International Film Festival will be the animated short The Mountain of SGaana, presented by the National Film Board of Canada.
In The Mountain of SGaana, Haida filmmaker Christopher Auchter tells the tale of two lovers, sea hunter Naa-Naa-Simgat and Kuuga Kuns. When Naa-Naa-Simgat is abducted by a killer whale (SGanna, in Haida), Kuuga Kuns must negotiate a supernatural undersea world in order to save him. If she doesn’t succeed, they will both become part of the spirit world forever.
The film starts in the present-day, with a thoroughly modern fisherman, Skipper, ignoring all that is around him; his focus being solely on his cellphone, until a small mouse catches his attention and, literally, knits the supernatural tale. Auchter notes in an interview on the NFB website that SGaana also means “supernatural” in the Haida language.
“The Haida are an indigenous people whose island territories lie off the West Coast of Canada and in the southern regions of Alaska,” explains Auchter in the interview. “The modern name for the archipelago is Haida Gwaii, which best translates to “people’s island.” There was a time when the islands were called Xaadlaa gwaayee, which means ‘coming out of concealment,’ appropriately named for its location in the world’s largest remaining temperate rainforest.
“Haida Gwaii was formerly named the Queen Charlotte Islands, after the ship of a British explorer who landed there in 1787. The lands of the Haida nation were re-named in 2009.”
Auchter first read the story told in The Mountain of SGaana years ago in an anthology. In subsequent research, he encountered various versions of the tale, but all contained the same fundamental elements.
In addition to directing the 10-minute short, Auchter co-wrote the film with Annie Reid and the film’s vivid and magical animation was created by Auchter, Tara Barker, Marco Li and Sitji Chou. Jewish community member Michael Mann is listed as compositor, VFX and after-effects animator.
“Chris Auchter designed and created this beautiful world of The Mountain of SGaana, which had this beautiful Haida iconography and told a really wonderful story,” Mann said in a phone interview with the NFB. “What I did is, I took this 2-D animation and basically added lighting, camera moves and visual effects. Say, I get a flat image of water, I make it feel more watery and rippley.”
Mann also colour-graded the film. He explained that certain parts of it needed to look aged, as the film contrasts an older world with a more modern one. He said, “My reading of the story is, it’s a modern-day character [Skipper] who’s lost connection with his stories…. For a long time, they’re very separate and by the end they connect.”
And Mann also had to unite the characters that inhabit the different worlds. “One thing that’s really fun,” he said, “is playing with sunlight and darkness and rain. And all these mythical characters, how do you make them feel they’re all in the same world?”
He said, “I think of myself as a visual sandwich maker sometimes because, basically, someone gives me one layer of the sandwich and then I add all those other layers up to it so that it looks like it’s all one meal, like it’s all one world.”
Mann mostly worked on The Mountain of SGaana remotely from his studio on Salt Spring Island, but came to the NFB offices in Vancouver at the end for an intense 36-hour session with Auchter to finalize all the film’s effects.
Mann’s work as a visual storyteller – using animation, illustration and graphic design – has been featured in the opening ceremonies of the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, on Nickelodeon, on PBS, in advertising campaigns, in documentaries, in video games, at Ontario’s Stratford Festival, the list goes on.
“Whether working on documentaries, commercial projects, government initiatives or collaborations with other artists,” reads his bio, Mann “loves using creativity to translate cultural concepts to new audiences.”
And The Mountain of SGaana certainly communicates, if only in a small way, something about Haida culture.
“I used Haida art to help frame the action and highlight key moments in the story, and to give those important moments an exclamation mark,” explains Auchter in the online interview. “I also use the Haida art as symbolism: at the beginning of the film, the character of Skipper is surrounded by multiple frames featuring various scenes from his environment. He ignores what’s going on around him, and doesn’t engage with his world. These scenes that surround Skipper are framed with black lines. This works in contrast with the other more complex multi-panel Haida formline shots we see throughout the course of the film. Skipper doesn’t get this more complex visual treatment until later in the story when he actively begins to engage with the world around him. His biggest moment comes when he throws the rope to Kuuga Kuns and Naa-Naa-Simgat and pulls them in. This symbolizes that he is pulling his culture closer to him.”
The Mountain of SGaana won the Young Audiences 6-12 Official Competition at this year’s Ottawa International Animation Festival and was an official selection for ImagineNATIVE 2017 and the Vancouver International Film Festival. It screens at VIFF on Oct. 5, 9:15 p.m., and Oct. 12, 3:15 p.m., at International Village 8, as part of the Strangers in Strange Lands shorts program. For tickets and the full festival lineup, visit viff.org. The festival runs Sept. 28-Oct. 13.