CIS Features: Asivak Koostachin

This past January, CIS hosted a live Q&A with Asivak Koostachin, lead actor in Red Snow by Marie Clements. To access the recording of the event, please contact cis.comms@ubc.ca. At the event, Asivak discussed his experience making the film in a dynamic conversation with CIS and UBC students.

Photo courtesy of Asivak Koostachin

This past summer, Sarah Ann Bednash (previous Communications and Outreach Assistant at CIS) sat down with Asivak Koostachin to talk about his role and perspective on the film.

S: Please give a brief introduction to yourself.
A: My name is Asivak Koostachin (he/him). I am Cree and Inuit and I am from Toronto, Ontario.

S: How did you first know you wanted to pursue a career in acting?
A: I was exposed to it my whole life. My mom, she was doing film in university and documentary and whatnot, so I was familiar with it by helping her out and on set and whatnot. And then she started putting me in auditions, which I really, really didn’t like. It was incredibly uncomfortable in that environment and I didn’t want to do it, but she made me. It wasn’t actually until I was 21 years old that I guess I found out that I actually wanted to pursue acting. After my travels, I came back to Vancouver and settled again and really asked myself what I wanted to do and I had all of the options in front of me, which was a great privilege of course, and I decided that the best thing for me to do was actually to become a clown, and so I did clown school and clown performances. And then from there I just kept picking up and getting engaged. Building confidence.

S: How long were you in clown school for?
A: For three months, as a three month course. And then we did a presentation at the end. After that presentation, someone in the audience was working Bard on the Beach. They liked me and then they hired me for that summer to work at Bard on the Beach as a youth intern.

S: How did you first come across the role of Dylan Nadazeau in Red Snow?
A: I was doing a theatre tour with a theatre company called Theatre for Living, touring BC and Alberta, and I believe we had just gone to Northern Alberta when I got an audition for a self-tape for Red Snow. I read the scene that I got, memorized the lines, and just before filming it, I was waiting on another feature film movie that I had auditioned for that was in the final stages, and I found out that I didn’t get it. Just reading the brief part of Red Snow, it was kind of a similar situation where he had things taken away from him. Things are just taken away from him as opportunities also just ended for me. So I used that recent experience I had with the audition, losing out on this big role, with the character dilemma he was going through. We’d both lost things. That’s how I was introduced to Dylan. His was, of course, more dramatic and way bigger than mine. There was still an experience of loss. Dylan’s story starts out with loss. That’s how you get introduced to Dylan in the movie. Everything he loses and then he gains along the way.

S: Would you say that’s what drew you to the role, the similarities of your experiences?
A: No, that’s not what drew me actually. What drew me to the role primarily was that he was Gwich’in and I’ve got some Gwich’in blood on my father’s side, so that was really cool to have that blood relation.

S: What was it like learning Gwich’in and Inuvialuktun for the role?
A: I grew up speaking Cree. My grandparents moved when I was just going to school, so I stop speaking it when they moved out. I lost the language unfortunately, but I lived with them again last year when they moved out to BC and I picked up words here and there, and it was coming back to me. The Cree I was exposed to growing up really helped with my learning Gwich’in and Inuvialuktun. It really helped a lot and it came naturally. It was not the same language, but it really helped that I was raised around Cree and so learning it and memorizing it came really easy. I would listen to the audio of the exact lines I needed and it sounded familiar–not that I knew what they were saying through translation, but it came easy and I memorized it and understood all the different tones. But it was real pleasure learning and I felt privileged to be able to learn.

S: How did learning these languages for the film shape or enhance your perspective on the importance of Indigenous language revitalization?
A: I haven’t learned many languages in my life. I’ve been exposed to a few, as my grandparents and great-grandparents always spoke Cree. I guess learning those languages for the film allowed me to look into a new world. When you learn a language, it’s almost seeing the world in a different way, even though you see with the same eyes. You’re unlocking a whole new world. Indigenous languages are living languages, whereas English, for example, is a dead language. You can really specify one thing in the English language, like “chair”, and you understand what that is. But in Cree, there’s no one word. You have to have a relationship with words to describe something. So for learning these languages, I got a little taste of it. When you learn a language, especially an Indigenous language, it is filled with wisdom and you are not only learning how to speak with the people, you are also building a relationship with the land from which the languages came. You never feel alone. It is magical.

S: What was it like working with Marie Clements?
A: It was an absolute honour. I did not really know what I was getting into–I was pretty ignorant of the theatre world and she was big name in it and I didn’t really know. We worked well together and all I wanted to do was to support her and bring Red Snow to life. She had this leadership quality about her that made you want to do your best because you knew that she was doing it not only for herself, but for everyone. She is a great leader and it was an honour to be part of her vision.

S: How has your mother’s work and dedication to film influenced your career?
A: My mother has definitely influenced me throughout my whole life, and specifically now in my life. I am learning a lot and I never really had a male role model in my life, so it’s always been women, and my mom took on both roles for me. It is not really about gender at this point, but her as a person. I’ve seen her start from the bottom. Living in projects in Toronto, she worked and worked and worked, and went to school and did everything she could to support us and her dreams. So not only did I witness the work ethic and the passion and the sacrifice, but today, now that she’s made it and she’s almost finished her PhD, she has movies on the way, movie scripts on the way, and TV series, and it is all coming from a place of she wants to tell story. Her drive is incredible. I took what I learned from my mom and her hard work and I applied it to my career. I took the spirit of that, and whomever I work with, to support people fully as if I would support my mother because we’ve all done a lot of work to get to where we are, especially Indigenous peoples. My mother has influenced me in a huge way in that regards to appreciate what you have and do your best to help others because you don’t know how they got there.

S: How do you see Red Snow raising awareness about different social and political issues across the globe?
A: A lot of ways! First of all, have you ever heard of an Indigenous North American person culturally interacting with an Afghani person? Those two cultures have seemingly never interacted and so to make a movie with those two cultures, I see Red Snow as our reminder that there are a lot of people in the world and there are a lot of ways to see the world. My favourite thing about being on set was just sitting and watching people interacting, talking about culture and how they view this scene and everyone having their different ideas and just listening to their cultural perspectives. The story is about relating to each other with struggle, loss, and love, and what this means to people culturally. I see Red Snow as a reminder to start having conversations with people. It doesn’t have to be a Western idea of things. It pushes the boundaries in a thoughtful way.

S: How do you think the solidarity displayed on screen between Dylan and the Pashtun family can translate to solidarity with/between Indigenous and non-Indigenous social movements in our reality?
A: Quality time and having conversations. You do not have to march to be in solidarity with others, you can just be at a table and share a meal. Spending time with people that you haven’t otherwise or haven’t been exposed to, whatever the reason. You can start having conversations with each other and learn the histories and exchange wisdoms. It is important to listen but also having the opportunity to listen. It’s a privilege to be able to learn from one another.

S: What was it like working on the various locations of Red Snow?
A: Being on the land was a lot of fun. I was in Yellowknife (NWT) briefly shooting the winter scene. That was nice. Most of the time I spent was in Cash Creek, Kamloops. The cultural advisor said it looks very similar to Afghanistan. It was definitely a supportive environment to get into the character in the movie, because sometimes people just do a green screen and they’re in a room when they’re supposed to be on another planet, but we actually got to be on the land. It was cool because it is Native land, but it looks like Afghanistan, and it made me wonder about home. If you woke up in a helicopter and you were dropped off in Afghanistan or Cash Creek, would you know whose land you are on? What do you put first in terms of land, the people who have been there for thousands of years or the humans who currently occupy it?

S: Where was your favourite location?
A: I’d say Cash Creek because it was so beautiful there. We did an opening ceremony there and the Knowledge Keeper was telling us that that land was and is known as the fertile lands, where all the peoples from surrounding Nations would come to do ceremonies for fertility and to conceive children because it is so potent with life energy. I definitely felt that there. There is something about the land there. It is land that birthed a movie!

S: What was your favourite memory about working on Red Snow?
A: Sitting and watching people share their stories. I felt so rich to sit in listening. Just hearing stories, to me at least, is one of the most exciting, valuable things I can do with my time. Listening to these stories, whatever they may be. Whether it’s an explanation of something or a memory or wisdom learnt. Perhaps through filmmaking, it gives the people making the movie and the audience the opportunity to listen to the stories that they wouldn’t have in their everyday normal conversations.

S: I like your choice of the word “rich.” I think rich is a word often associated with capitalist systems and societies consumed in the importance of monetary and material value. I think using the word rich to describe the experience that you had, listening to these stories, decentres “richness” from capitalist and colonial perspectives and provides alternative ways of perceiving the world.
A: I’ve carried that understanding or belief my whole life growing up: about what wealth truly is. How good the land, water, and the air you breathe is. It’s common knowledge for me and to hear you say that you really like that perspective! It’s beautiful of course, but I go, “what? People don’t think that way normally?” See, having these conversations opens up everyone to new things and understandings of the world.

Watch the Red Snow trailer here:

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CIS deeply thanks Asivak Koostachin for giving his time and allowing us to share in his thoughts. Red Snow is available for student viewing via UBC Criterion on Demand. Log in with your CWL here.