- Interview with When They Awake Director P.J. Marcellino (Calgary Film 2017)

Posted on Monday, September 25, 2017 at 03:00 PM

Interview with When They Awake Co-Director P.J. Marcellino (Calgary Film 2017)

Interview by

In commemoration of Canada 150, the 18th Calgary International Film Festival 2017 has selected a brilliant Canada-made documentary celebrating Indigenous Canadian musicians. When They Awake is the creation of filmmakers P.J. Marcellino and Hernan Farahi following up-and-coming modern Indigenous artists and highlighting their contributions to the Indigenous cultural renaissance. The film showcases a new generation of musicians that are bringing a fresh identity to Indigenous Canadian youth.

Following the Opening Gala screening of When They Awake at this year's Calgary International Film Festival 2017, connected with co-director P.J. Marcellino to ask him some questions:


Directors Hermon Farahi (left) and PJ Marcellino at the Calgary International Film Festival 2017, @CalgaryFilm

CM:  As we celebrate Canada 150 this movie cannot come at a better time. Did you plan to have this movie to be released for Canada 150?

P.J. Marcellino:  Of all things, Canada 150 was definitely nothing we’d plan for... As you know, commemorating this particular date is something that is not uncontroversial in many Indigenous communities, and having spent time immersed in that context, that was the last thing on our minds. In April 2014, when we first started shooting, the film was planned for a year of production; then, we aimed it for 2016; then we prolonged it to spring 2017… and here we are, premiering it in the fall festival season. Feature films have this way of sneaking up on you and taking over your life. Before you know it, it’s four years later. That said, once we realized that our timeline had shifted and landed us in 150, we turned discomfort into an opportunity. We aimed to do 150+ screenings in 2017, in community centres, schools, universities, churches, festivals, you name it… and we’re all on our way. We look at each and every one of those screenings as an opportunity to turn that 150 on its head and engage people in meaningful discussion about what Canada 150 is, what it commemorates, who is included and who has historically been excluded. Individual by individual, we’re having those conversations, and counting on that multiplier effect to add some impact.

CM:  How does it feel to be screening this film at this year’s Calgary International Film Festival Opening Gala?

P.J. Marcellino:  It’s incredible. As an independent filmmaker, you never really foresee something of this magnitude. We were initially selected for the Music On Screen section of the festival, and we were happy enough about it… But one or more of the programmers championed the film within the festival's administration, and suddenly we received a call announcing we had been upgraded to opening night gala, in a concert hall sitting 1600. That is all kinds of crazy! To see that house full to the brim, and to have 50+ of our cast, crew, sponsors, and friends with us, was truly magnificent. And then, to hear Logan Staats, IsKwé, DJ Shub, JB the First Lady performing live before and after the show was the cherry on top of the cake. Kudos to Calgary International Film Festival for programming such an important story in such a prominent slot, and for going all out - along with Telefilm Canada - in providing the film this incredible platform. We are truly honoured, and humbled.


DJ Shub / JB the First Lady @ Calgary International Film Festival 2017 @CalgaryFilm

CM:  This film was co-directed by yourself and Hermon Farahi. Is this the first time working with Hermon? Can you tell us your experience co-directing? What do you love and hate about this process?

P.J. Marcellino:  Hermon and myself have been working together for close to 6 years now, first as social scientists, then as filmmakers. We published a few academic pieces together, and spent a few years discussing how we thought some of these issues we were writing about would be a better fit for film. He made the transition before I did. I went to film school in 2012, and sat on it for a while. Then, one day I had an idea for a film, and he was my first call. We have been working together ever since. Co-directing has its challenges, of course, but our skills and preferences are complimentary to each other, so it has worked for us. We don’t always agree on how we want to see something on screen, but we created a good working relationship that allows us to talk through each of those decisions. And, for the most part, we always came to compromise solutions that eventually improved the film. Compromise is the key word — if you co-direct a film, the price of admission is compromise. That’s especially important for two strong-minded directors. 

CM:  I see that this is your second film? Is this correct? And both of these films are documentaries. What draws you to this genre of film? 

P.J. Marcellino:  When They Awake is our first feature length documentary. I had previously directed After the War: Memoirs of Exile, also in collaboration with Hermon. That was a mid-length film, shot on a TV format. As someone who comes from a political/academic background, documentary just seemed like the logical step to take. There are plenty of amazing real stories out there, and so far I am happy finding and telling them. Not to say that I won’t lean toward narrative fiction one of these days… 

CM:  What are some of your major influences? Movies, Directors, Mentors…etc?

P.J. Marcellino:  When we started working on and pitching this film, we thought about various films, and how they handled various issues. One that comes to mind is Catherine Bainbridge, Neil Diamond and Jeremiah Hayes’ Reel Injun — particularly in the way the narrative is the main thread, but the film unashamedly jumps from character to character. Then, personally, I am a fan of Stanley Kubrick and Ken Loach’s work, and some of Werner Herzog’s — both visually and narratively — as well as simple, subdued films like Fargo, and a lot of underground Canadian and Scandinavian cinema. Seemingly simple narratives that are anything but simple, a slower pace, long cuts, long silences, toned down colours. Hermon, on the other hand, is a musician and a cinematographer/editor, and while I grew up in Europe, he grew up in Las Vegas… so when you put those skills and those geographical influences together, you’ll find that his style is much more energetic. Not to speak for him, but I know he’s a fan of Ken Burns’s camera work and Wes Anderson’s whimsical narrative and filming style, as well as various other American directors. He also brings that music video energy into it. When you look at When They Awake, I think it’s quite apparent how these two very distinctive styles merged to create a style that we both like. 

CM:  Why this film? What made you want to tell the story behind indigenous music of Canada? 

P.J. Marcellino:  We did not seek out this story; it sought us out. We started off following a music engagement project called Listen Up!, spearheaded by the chamber ensemble Gryphon Trio and the Northern Arts and Cultural Centre in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories. For about a year, the film was about the making of that project, but we allowed ourselves some latitude, as we knew the story was far from settled. About one year into the project, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s reports came out and we found ourselves in northern Canada having conversations with each other about what we should do, and seeking advice with people like Leanne Goose, and Susan Aglukark, who would become one of our Executive Producers. That week was crucial in shaping the story. And, once we dove in, there was no going back. We spent about one year on the road, following 40+ musicians, and gradually understanding what was it that was being shared with us — songs, stories, memories. Both of us had worked with communities around the world, and felt strongly about the value of bringing these stories to a broader audience. But, as two non-Indigenous filmmakers, the responsibility we felt/feel was immense. The challenge of expanding into such a big story with very limited resources was immense too.


Directors PJ Marcellino and Hermon Farahi look on as Deneze Nakehk'o brings the crowd to laughter during his introduction. @CalgaryFilm 

CM:  As a non-indigenous film maker did you find it hard for the people to trust you or open up to you? Can you share some stories about the people that we did not see in the film?

P.J. Marcellino:  We had so many conversations over the course of the years. We invested everything we had - mentally, emotionally, financially. We put ourselves out there, allowed ourselves to be vulnerable, and we asked questions, we sought to learn. Slowly, but surely, we accumulated enough knowledge to create this narrative thread. As non-Indigenous filmmakers, the crucial element was meriting trust — that required spending a lot of time travelling to communities or to meet musicians wherever they were; lots of long conversations; feedback screenings; informal times spent with families and communities; answering a lot of questions about ourselves and our own lives and families. Ultimately, if you’re coming from a good place, and you’re honest about what your intentions are, and you engage people as a human being, empathetically, and ethically, you end up with this result. I think both of us would agree that those skills are more due to our personalities, our parents’ influence, and our fieldwork training, than to our savviness as filmmakers. It all worked out.

CM:  What are some of the challenges you had filming/producing this film?

P.J. Marcellino:  Money. I’m not sure of that comes across, but this was an extremely expensive production, for an independent film. You know what they say, necessity if the mother of creativity… so, we had to get creative, and engage in what people like to call “disruptive filmmaking” to bring this film from start to finish. Then, there’s logistics… working in two different cities (Toronto and Las Vegas), filming all over Canada, with inherent travel costs, and following dozens of musicians… in hindsight, maybe we should have tackled a smaller film to start with!


IsKwé, @WhenThenAwake

CM:  What did you learn from this film? What do you want people to get out of this film?

P.J. Marcellino:  We hope people come out of this film with a deeper understanding about the realities of being Indigenous in North America, and the challenges and injustices that Indigenous peoples has suffered. However, once that understanding is there, we’d love for people to see that Indigenous musicians — who are, really, culture keepers, and cultural brokers — have always been at the forefront of preserving and celebrating their cultures, and that the art they create is a perfect way to engage in meaningful conversations. Dialogue begets understanding, and understanding is a key element of reconciliation. So, we’d love for non-Indigenous viewer to come out of this film more aware of the issues, but also willing to talk, and to celebrate the music — the way we celebrated at the Opening Gala after-party. For Indigenous viewers, especially the younger ones, we truly hope people see themselves represented, and come our feeling proud, and empowered by all the beauty being created within their communities, and shared with the world.

I couldn’t possibly tell you what we have learned ourselves, unless you’re ready to give me 10 pages. We went through every kind of feeling — euphoria over some of the most magical moments of principal photography; deep sadness when Hermon’s father (one of our biggest supporters) passed away suddenly; a sense of privilege when Elders sat with us for hours, telling us stories. We’re putting all those experiences in writing, but it will take a while to process everything we’ve experienced.

CM:  Can you talk about some of the most unexpected experiences you had during the filming of When They Awake?

P.J. Marcellino:  Back in April 2017, in the middle of our Arctic Community Tour, we got stranded in a fly-in only artsy little town in Nunavut, called Igloolik. Because of spring melt, weather patterns are notoriously fickle at that time, as we’ve learned. The airplane stopped in the small hamlet of Hall Beach, 15 minutes away, and turned back. We had just randomly encountered legendary filmmaker Zacharias Kukuk and actor Natar Ungalaq (Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner), and they had — righty — guessed that we would not be able to fly out. So, we ended up screening the film to both of them at their studio, in what turned out to be an amazing afternoon. Then, Natar helped us locate an experienced hunter with a good skidoo and a GPS, to drive us across the frozen strait to Hall Beach. I was adamant that we’d get on that flight the following day. We managed to get to Hall Beach… but then the flight got cancelled (or went to Igloolik instead) for another three days. So, we just waited. That could have been another movie. A pretty slow one...

CM:  What’s next?

P.J. Marcellino:  We still have the original project we started with left to finish. It won’t need much time, but it will have to wait until the festival craziness surrounding When They Awake subsides a little… likely by spring. Personally, I have optioned an excellent book and have started writing an adapted script, for this narrative political thriller series based on true facts. Hermon is preparing to launch his campaign for a congressional seat for the State of Nevada… so, that’s pretty huge, and it's keeping him busy.   

When They Awake screens at the 18th Calgary International Film Festival 2017 on Wednesday, September 20, 2017 at 7:30 PM at Jack Singer Concert Hall, Art Commons for the Opening Gala selection with an encore screening on Sunday, October 1, 2017 at 1:00 PM at Cineplex Eau Claire Cinemas. Special thanks go out to P.J. Marcellino, @CalgaryFilm, longyearbyen Media, and @WhenTheyAwake.

Calgary Showtimes: When They Awake >

PJ Marcellino and Hermon Farahi at Dettah Ice Road, @WhenTheyAwake


NOTE: The showtimes listed on come directly from the theatres' announced schedules, which are distributed to us on a weekly basis. All showtimes are subject to change without notice or recourse to