When They Awake celebrates the current popularity of Indigenous Canadian musicians while still asking the tough questions

It seems like a softball question with an easy answer.

Q: Is it exciting to have your film When They Awake as the opening gala for the Calgary International Film Festival.

A: You know what? It is.

But it actually comes with a little context and needs a little background before the back-and-forth with Toronto-based filmmaker P.J. Marcellino is dismissed as lazy foreplay.

See, yes, it is obviously an honour to be chosen as the film to kick off the 12-day Calgary Film this Wednesday night at the Jack Singer Concert Hall. And the documentary about the current state, popularity and importance of Indigenous music in Canada is an incredibly worthy choice for that honour.

But there’s also the fact that this city is home to the Indigenous-owned Canadian North Airlines, who helped this four-years-in-the-making film come to fruition.

And, most importantly, in 2015 Marcellino, co-director Hermon Farahi and their crew travelled here to attend and film at the Calgary Folk Music Festival, which, long a supporter of — and showcase for — Indigenous artists from around the world, had managed to land the musician that the filmmakers considered their great white whale.

“Calgary is the first place where we met Buffy Sainte-Marie,” Marcellino says of the artist, who headlined the Saturday Mainstage of the local fest.

He laughs. “It took us quite awhile to do that, as the elder, the godmother of this generation of musicians, the one that everyone makes reference to — that’s the place we met Buffy for the first time …

“So to come back to Calgary is pretty special.”

And it should be a special night, as Marcellino, his partner and an entourage of about 20 people involved in the film touch down in this town for what should be an amazing kickoff gala — complete with after-party performances by some of the artists featured in the film, including Iskwe, former A Tribe Called Red member DJ Shub, and JB the First Lady.

Other artists featured in When They Awake represent the who’s who of Indigenous stars in this country as well as some up-and-comers, such as Sainte-Marie, Tanya Tagaq, A Tribe Called Red, the Jerry Cans and Leanne Goose.

The doc, which features the filmmakers travelling across the country speaking with the artists about their music and the issues Indigenous people, period, face in this society, takes its name from a speech from Metis leader and politician Louis Riel, who said: “My people will sleep for 100 years, but when they awake, it will be the artists that give them their spirit back.”

Interestingly enough, when asked why the film was such a timely one, why he thought Indigenous artists were finally enjoying the spotlight, Marcellino explains that it’s less about the musicians than it is about the audience.

More specifically, he notes that there is “nothing inherently new” with those creating the art or really how they do it, save for some of the more modern influences — hip-hop, electronica, etc. — that they bring into their many different styles and genres.

“What changed was not that side, what changed was our side,” says Marcellino, who, like his American collaborator Farahi, is not Indigenous.

“We’re not really changing fundamental things, we’re still dealing with the same problems. So the only crucial thing that changed here is really that the musicians continue to be as vocal as they’ve always been but we are now paying attention.”

He points to 2012 as the main turning point, when we were in the midst of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada and “when a lot of Canadians became aware of things that they were perhaps not aware of” and stopped saying things such as “that was a long time ago — get over it.”

That includes such issues as broken treaties and, of course, residential schools — the last one, as they note in the film, closed only two decades ago.

And Marcellino explains that despite this awareness, other recent events such as the Standing Rock protests south of the border and, at home, this year’s Canada 150 celebrations have forced non-native people to continue to “ask yourself questions, ask yourself tough questions.”

That, in a more general way, means discussing environmental rights and minority rights, not just in Canada but across the world.

“It’s important to take into consideration that whatever is going on in Canada and the United States is going on in Brazil, it’s going on in Australia, it’s going on in New Zealand,” he says, pointing to a story that has just surfaced in Brazil where miners allegedly bragged in a bar about killing 10 members of an uncontacted Indigenous tribe.

“These things are still going. And musicians are at the forefront of pointing the finger at them and saying them in people’s faces in a way that is an easy gateway. Music gives us (permission) to talk to people about serious stuff and I think that’s what musicians have been doing.”

He continues. “To paraphrase Tanya Tagaq in the film, when you have people like Buffy Sainte-Marie pounding and pounding the pavement for decades, this is what you get. You get people that get to this point and empowered enough to tell you in a very unapologetic way, ‘This is what’s wrong, and if you can’t figure out that this is wrong then there’s something wrong with you.’

“I think that’s a very important message.”

That, he says, is the main reason that the film took so long to complete, because not only did they want to tell the story, to impart that message, but they wanted “to guarantee we were doing the right thing … earning their trust and asking the right questions” of the Indigenous community.

That included many months of screening it for the artists and groups, taking the film to some of the most northerly populations, asking for feedback and suggestions on how best to tell the story of another people.

Marcellino says the reaction was “overwhelmingly positive,” but there were some changes they had to make with When They Awake in order to do a service to the people they were hoping to represent in a meaningful and truthful way.

“This story was shared with us, imparted to us by so many different people that trusted those memories to us, those stories, those songs, and we felt it was important to push through with it and make sure that it came out now,” he says.

“And quite frankly the fact that people trusted us with those answers is a privilege to us and it’s a testament to the work that we’d done …

“We know in our hearts that we tried our darnedest to get the story right.”

When They Awake screens Wednesday, Sept. 20 at the Jack Singer Concert Hall and Sunday, Oct. 1 at Cineplex Eau Claire as part of the Calgary International Film Festival. For tickets and more information go to