Fresh from making waves with his ground-breaking debut documentary about a Texas river, Vancouver born-and-raised filmmaker Paul Collins will return home for his next feature – starring the Pacific Northwest this time.
Mr. Collins left Vancouver for Texas at 13. But his B.C. upbringing was an inspiration for Yakona, the film he co-directed with Anlo Sepulveda about the San Marcos River in Texas. Nothing like a straight-up documentary, Yakona is a contemplation of the river told with stunning cinematography (much of it underwater), by enacting scenes from history – in particular European settlers' impact on the indigenous population – and without narration. Experimental and bold, it was a hit at SXSW, where it premiered this year, winning the audience award in the visions category.
The Globe and Mail met with Mr. Collins, 33, at the Vancouver International Film Festival, where Yakona is having its Canadian premiere.
What was the spark for Yakona?
I got my undergrad in a college town in Texas called San Marcos, and a river ran through campus, the San Marcos River. There had been this bankrupt dilapidated theme park they had just kind of left alone to kind of rust; polluted material was kind of leeching into the river system. But the river was crystal clear, 73 degrees – even in the winter you could swim in it. And it kind of made me feel like a young boy again in B.C., exploring the mountains, the woods. And it's one of the few rivers that's never dried up, which allowed all these amazing species to evolve that are nowhere else on the planet. There's eight distinct species that live in just the first mile of this river that don't live anywhere else in the world. So if this river dries up, it's basically going to make eight species extinct overnight. The other thing is that archeologists discovered that this could be one of the oldest neighbourhoods in North America. My friend Anlo Sepulveda and I really were blown away with the beauty of this river, especially underwater. But most people on the river were using it for recreation – tubing and drinking and barbecuing. Nobody really spent the time to intimately look under the water.
You made this bold decision to make an experimental film, as you call it. There's no voice-over. Why did you decide to go that direction?
To represent this particular river, I think we had to do it in a bold way. We felt like a traditional-style documentary wouldn't have cut through. Even though for some people taking that bold move was the confusing part of the film, it's also the successful part of the film. We always had a vision of creating the film without narration. The inspiration was snorkelling in the river and discovering these things. There wasn't anyone whispering in my ear telling me what I was seeing. So having this kind of magical intimate moment at a deeper level was what we really wanted to take to the screen. That's why we love the river so much – not because of facts about water flow or [whatever]. Jacques Cousteau said that people protect what they love, so invoking those kinds of emotions to the river we felt like maybe people would stop and think before they throw trash in the river or treat it [poorly].
The underwater photography is spectacular. How did you get that extraordinary footage?
We shot over 350 hours of footage over 3 1/2 years. We really did a lot of experimenting. We wanted to take the human perspective out of it. We studied a lot of underwater photography and it just felt like you're a diver kind of [moving] through the water. So we decided to take tripods underwater so you had this static kind of landscape feel to the shots. Also everything was done in slow motion.
How do you think your beginnings here in B.C. may have contributed to your interest in the subject and your perspective?
Growing up here as a child, nature is the elephant in the room. Even when you grow up in the city, the mountains are towering over you. In Texas, it seems civilization surrounds nature, and here nature surrounds civilization. Growing up here, I was really inspired by how nature made me feel, and it made me feel comfortable going into the woods alone. Down there, you don't.
And your next film is about this part of the world?
I'm trying to make my next feature here – a cross-border story. I'd really like to tell the story of the Pacific Northwest, building on the style of Yakona, so using a lot of First Nations history and showing kind of the modern-day relationships we have with this land. The film builds on Yakona in terms of these stylistic choices – a lot of that same kind of non-linear approach. We definitely want to make it experimental. The tag line is: the spirit story of a land that rose from the ocean, giving birth to a dynamic ecosystem like no other on earth where native indigenous people build a civilization and modern man learns to dominate the land.
Getting back to Yakona, what are your hopes for the film?
I feel like it's gone a lot farther than we had expected. Before it was more like, 'Wow, this is a cool film with this really cool underwater photography and no one's done something similar.' But it's evolved into an inspiration film. I forgot to mention that some scientists think [the river] will dry up in the next 10 years. In the 15 years since I arrived there as an undergrad, I feel like it's half the flow. I would hate [Yakona] to be the tombstone for the river; that for people to remember the river, they have to see the film. That would be heartbreaking. I want the film to hopefully do the opposite.
Yakona is at VIFF Oct. 9 (The Cinematheque, 9:15 pm).