Dir: Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers | Sea to Sky | BC Spotlight | Canada | 2017 | 75 mins
Friday, Oct. 6, 2 p.m. | International Village 10
Sunday night saw the premiere of VIFF alumnus Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers’s striking documentary c̓əsnaʔəm: the city before the city, a documentary reflecting on the modern city of Vancouver and the 5,000-year-old First Nations civilization that preceded it.
The first shot of the film, and one that has remained with me, is that of a “No Trespassing” sign on a chained metal fence. This is followed by a stunning landscape shot of the city of Vancouver by sunset. Against the image of this blood red sky, we learn that before “first contact,” this land had been inhabited for 9,000 years. Canada’s youthful 150-year history is truly a “blink of an eye,” as Musqueam councillor Howard E. Grant notes. We are presented with a staggering statistic: The current Musqueam territory is but a minuscule 0.2% of the traditional territory.
For the Musqueam people, the river grass people, the mouth of the Fraser river was the lifeblood of the community, a place to fish and to gather medicines. This has been replaced with a concrete jungle of transit systems. The modern-day neighbourhood of Marpole, southern Vancouver, lies on the ancient Musqueam village of c̓əsnaʔəm — the film’s namesake.
The film is one of marked contrasts: The beautiful words used by the Musqueam community are juxtaposed with shots of ugly urban structures: abandoned shopping carts and fenced-off dereliction. Song and laughter pierce the low monotonous growl of traffic.
c̓əsnaʔəm gently introduces us to some of the Musqueam First Nations’ history and philosophies. The film is incredibly well researched, as Tailfeathers collaborates with UBC’s Museum of Anthropology and with the Musqueam First Nation. Intimate interviews are conducted with Musqueam community members, old and young, against a dark background. They tell stories of past and present, but their message is clear: Hear our voices. Tailfeathers has triumphed here: You can’t help but listen.