in studio… with Marie Clements
WORDS Lin Stranberg X PHOTOGRAPHY lia crowe
“Crazy storytellers are always inspired by their stories. They don’t give up.”
Marie Clements, a multitalented artist and playwright, likes to keep it simple. She is just grateful she is able to tell her stories. After a long festival run that continued into 2020, her feature film Red Snow was scheduled for theatrical release on March 13, 2020—the day that COVID-19 closed everything down.
“You can’t plan for a pandemic,” she said.
Nothing stays the same, either inside or outside a pandemic. Red Snow, which launched on CBC Gem in October 2020, has since become widely accessible via streaming services across the border. It was recently picked up by Elevation Pictures and released in the United States across all digital platforms. It’s streaming on Netflix in the US and available as a DVD, opening it up to reaching a much broader audience.
Filmed on location in the Northwest Territories and BC’s desert interior, Red Snow tells the story of a Gwich’in soldier from the Canadian Arctic who is captured by the Taliban in Panjwayi, Afghanistan, and escapes across rough terrain with a Pashtun family. Written and directed by Clements, a Métis/Dene playwright, screenwriter, composer, director and producer, the film was shot in four languages: Gwich’in, Inuvialuktun, Pashto and English.
It was nominated for 10 Leo Awards from the BC film industry, and named Most Popular Canadian Feature Film at the Vancouver International Film Festival (VIFF) and Best Canadian Feature Film at the Edmonton International Film Festival. At the 2019 American Indian Film Festival (AIFF) in San Francisco, it earned nominations for Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress and Best Film. Red Snow also won the Best Feature Director and Best Achievement in Film from the LA Skins Festival in Los Angeles.
Clements’ award-winning documentary and feature films have screened around the world—Cannes, TIFF, MOMA and VIFF, the Whistler Film Festival, American Indian Film Festival and imagineNATIVE Film + Media Arts Festival.
Her work as a playwright has been recognized with the 2004 Canada-Japan Literary Award and two Governor General’s Literary Award nominations, and her 15 plays have been presented on some of the most prestigious stages for Canadian and international work. The Unnatural and Accidental Women opened the first national Indigenous theatre at Ottawa’s National Arts Centre and her opera Missing toured nationally.
Of her extraordinary career as an artist across multiple media, Clements simply says, “I was interested in broadcast journalism in my teens and early 20s. I was looking for a place where I could tell stories, and theatre was going to allow an entry in. I expanded my craft, always asking myself what the genre was about and looking for how story works within the capabilities of each genre. All these different things are great taskmasters—they make you hone your discipline. It’s always exciting to be challenged and to rise to the challenge of every story.”
She admits it’s taken a lot to get her work out there: “The reality of making things real is not for the faint of heart—you not only work as a craftsperson, but you have to be strategic, too. It’s not all sexy and great.”
Before the pandemic, when travel was still a thing, Clements was always on the move, showing her work at festivals across North America and in Europe. Now she lives quietly on Galiano Island; these days even her trips to Vancouver are less frequent.
But Clements is okay with that.
“I’m a West Coast girl, born and raised in Vancouver and I live primarily on Galiano. There’s a certain grace to living here—my aunt and mother came down from the north and had their children here, so there’s a strong family connection,” she says. “I’ve been doing a lot of writing lately, and on the island you’re close to nature, which is a great backdrop to writing a lot. The island is still quite small. There are no banks. There’s a gas station, a pub. We’re close to a lot of things in nature, the ocean, the rain forest…it’s a simpler life.”
While her work on features and documentaries “kind of goes on and on,” she is largely focused on writing a five-episode mini-series, Bones of Crows, about a Cree matriarch, a Second World War code talker, across five generations of her family’s experience of the residential school legacy.
The Road Forward, a soul-stirring musical documentary that Clements first presented as a live musical performance in Vancouver, is probably her best-known film. Through song and narrative, she tells the compelling and powerful history of six generations of Indigenous activism, linking the beginning of Canadian First Nation nationalism in the 1930s with the First Nations activism of today.
The Road Forward was produced by the National Film Board and had a huge festival run, premiering at Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival in Toronto in 2017, opening the 2017 DOXA Documentary Film Festival in Vancouver, closing the 2018 imagineNATIVE Film + Media Arts Festival and receiving five Leo Awards, including Best Production, Best Director and Best Screenwriter.
Despite all the acclaim, Clements is very much that nature-loving West Coast girl. She feels the difference out here.
“Certainly, the West Coast has its own style of activism and environmental concerns. We’re not separated from nature, we’re still in it. It makes us different people,” she says. “The culture that shapes the land and the language informs and shapes who we are.”
She adds: “Like all creators around the world, I create different stories at the same time and there’s a natural rhythm to how they ultimately get told. This has changed radically for everyone—and we’re all looking to find a way in this new paradigm, understanding the urgency to tell a story always finds the way.”