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North Vancouver filmmaker Charles Wilkinson documents the life and times of Haida sculptor Robert Davidson in the new documentary, Haida Modern.

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  • Haida Modern
  • Directed by Charles Wilkinson

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That Robert Davidson is a ‘rock star of native art,’ as one person puts it in this documentary, is indisputable. In the opening scene, we see Davidson’s totem poles at a New York sculpture garden, along with the work of Rodin, Giacometti, Henry Moore. Then there he is performing at a fancy opening at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. “Pay attention!” he commands in Haida. “A supernatural being approaches!”

If you weren’t paying attention to Davidson’s extraordinary work, then Haida Modern should change that. Not just because of Davidson’s skills as a carver, painter and printmaker. What this film cleverly and beautifully lays out is a deeper argument – that Davidson was a critical force in bringing Haida culture back to his people, who had been so traumatized by colonial oppression that some were actually fearful when he decided he would create and erect a totem pole on what was then known as the Queen Charlotte Islands.

The reverberations of that extraordinary act 50 years ago – and so much of what he has done since – have been felt well beyond Haida Gwaii. Davidson, who was born in Hydaburg, Alaska, and moved to Masset when he was very young, has helped carve the way for other First Nations artists (including the man behind the “rock star” comment, Shawn Hunt), environmental activists and Indigenous people who celebrate their culture with pride, fervour – and without fear.

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Haida Modern screens as part of the Vancouver International Film Festival at the Vancouver Playhouse Oct. 1 at 6:30 p.m. and Oct. 11 at 3 p.m. (viff.org)

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