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‘Wilfred Buck,’ About Indigenous Star Lore Expert, Is a Feel-Good Story, Director Lisa Jackson Says

Speaking to Variety ahead of her film’s world premiere at leading European doc fest CPH:DOX, Lisa Jackson was keen to emphasize that “Wilfred Buck” is what she calls a “feel-good story” despite addressing dark issues related to Canada’s colonial past.

Written and directed by Jackson (“Biidaaban: First Light”), the film is a hybrid doc that follows the extraordinary life story of the eponymous charismatic science facilitator, an expert in Indigenous lore about astronomy, who overcame a harrowing history of displacement, racism and addiction by reclaiming ancestral star knowledge and ceremony.

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Buck, who dropped out of school as a teenager, went back to complete his education as an adult and has two degrees from the University of Manitoba. He has dedicated 25 years to teaching students, from kindergarten to university level, through lectures and planetarium presentations.

The film is adapted from Buck’s memoir, “I Have Lived Four Lives,” a story of colonialism told from the inside, that took him, in Jackson’s words, “from the gutter to the stars.” In addition to being a highly respected educator, renowned for his deep knowledge of astronomy from both an Indigenous and a Western approach, Buck is an elder and ceremonial leader for the Cree, one of Canada’s largest First Nations groups.

“I want to underscore how deeply hopeful I find this film. I hope it can be seen as something that will open doors to new ways of looking at the world through an Indigenous lens, and that viewers will enjoy getting to meet this phenomenal man in the process,” says Jackson, a filmmaker and media artist from the Anishinaabe, a group of Indigenous peoples from the Great Lakes region of North America.

The film weaves together three strands: archival footage of Indigenous people from the National Film Board of Canada, re-enactments of key moments in Buck’s life shot on film for a grainy, authentic look, and Jackson’s vérité footage documenting his life today as an educator and science facilitator.

It is also peppered with poetic, abstract scenes of meteorites seen through a microscope, used as a metaphor to allow the viewer to move fluidly in time.

“The idea with the film is that we would be time travelling — from Wilfred’s past to present — but also that this more atmospheric third thread would represent deep time, this idea of deep ancestry, the beginning of the Earth — almost like a Greek chorus — something more elemental, more visceral than a purely rational method of looking at the world,” she explains.

Jackson had initially expected to document a dialogue between Western science and Indigenous ways of knowledge, but as the film took shape, things turned out differently, and it became “the film it was meant to be.”

“What I saw was that they’re not even speaking the same language — I witnessed a real willingness, an interest in Indigenous methodologies, ways of knowing, but I think the film is an invitation for that dialogue to start,” she says, referring to the growing conversation between the Western scientific community and Indigenous knowledge keepers, illustrated in her film by a high-level conference at Harvard University where Buck is invited to share his star knowledge.

Jackson explains that what she learnt from Buck, and hopes to convey in her film, is the fundamental difference between the Western and Indigenous approaches to science, and how complementary they are.

“Western science is excellent at breaking things down into the tiniest parts, and Indigenous knowledge is really expert in seeing how the parts fit together as a whole, understanding that relationship, and where we, as humans, fit into the big picture. It is much more connected to personal development, to community and to land itself,” she tells Variety.

In the case of Buck, this journey took him through his personal healing, but he didn’t stop there, she says. “He’s brought together a larger community as an ongoing mission: it’s the journey of a hero who is dedicated to his community first and foremost, and who continues to do the work and spread what he knows.”

Jackson and her team are currently working on a short 360° film, sharing four Cree star stories, narrated by Buck, which will be screened in planetariums and domes.

“Wilfred Buck” is a Door Number 3 and National Film Board of Canada production, in association with Clique Pictures, Crave, the Canada Media Fund, Telefilm Canada, Ontario Creates, the Rogers Documentary Fund, the Indigenous Screen Office, Justfilms, the Ford Foundation and APTN, with the support of Sandbox Films and the Sundance Institute.

The film will have its world premiere at CPH:DOX on March 18. The festival runs in and around Copenhagen until March 24.

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