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'Wilfred Buck' documentary explores the journey and wisdom of Indigenous 'star guy'

TORONTO — When Wilfred Buck looks up at the sky, he sees Indigenous history and even his own story reflected back at him, as though it were all written in the stars.
Wilfred Buck is shown in a handout photo. Buck, the Cree elder at the centre of Lisa Jackson’s new documentary, is known as “the star guy.” THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-NFB **MANDATORY CREDIT**

TORONTO — When Wilfred Buck looks up at the sky, he sees Indigenous history and even his own story reflected back at him, as though it were all written in the stars.

Buck, the eponymous Cree elder at the centre of Lisa Jackson’s new documentary, is known as “the star guy.” He’s an astronomy expert and educator – with a jovial spirit and a rascally sense of humour – who has spent the last couple of decades gathering Indigenous knowledge that has been passed down orally across generations. He connects the dots – or rather the Cree, Anishinaabe and Lakota constellations – between modern science and ancestral tales, and teaches communities about these ties with help from an inflatable planetarium.

“It’s cosmology and world views,” the 69-year-old Buck says over the phone from Winnipeg, where he resides, summing up what he has to offer.

“Any Indigenous culture – from all over the world – views their reality as a whole. Nothing's compartmentalized. Everything fits together. Everything has repercussions. Everything has connections. Everything has responsibilities.”

“Wilfred Buck” director Jackson, a Toronto-based Anishinaabe filmmaker who is as cheery and wide-eyed about physics and the cosmos in a recent interview, says she was introduced to Buck’s work at an Indigenous astronomy presentation in 2017.

“I heard [the name] ‘Wilfred Buck’ and this voice in my head said: ‘Somebody has to make a film about [him],’” Jackson says on a Zoom call from her Toronto home.

Jackson’s film adapts “I Have Lived Four Lives,” Buck’s harrowing and uplifting 2021 memoir.

In it, he recounts how his family was torn apart during the '60s Scoop, leaving him to fend for himself at a young age.

Buck, who is originally from Opaskwayak Cree Nation in Manitoba, survived addiction, systemic oppression and brushes with the justice system before becoming a keeper of Indigenous knowledge, passing wisdom that colonization tried to erase onto a new generation.

The film’s narration starts with an excerpt from Buck’s book that Jackson describes as “beat poetry” to kick off her doc’s “rock’n’roll journey”: “I am of the fresh-out-of-the-bush, partly civilized, colonized, displaced, confused, angry people, trained and shamed by teachers, preachers, doctors, nurses, law enforcement officials, movies, radio, and television programs to be a pill-popping, hard drinking, self-loathing, easily impressed, angry, non-conformist, maladjusted, disaffected youth of the ‘dirty-Indian’ baby boomer generation.”

Jackson describes her film – a co-production between the National Film Board and Jackson’s Door Number Three Productions – as a story about resisting colonization. It just happens to have “bell bottoms in the bush,” she says.

To recreate Buck’s journey, the good times and the bad, Jackson blends dramatic recreations shot on 16 mm film with archival NFB footage and era-appropriate home videos recorded by other families, which she would discover on YouTube. She also frequently returns to the present, using a hand-held camera to show Buck at work. He camps out with an audience, pointing at the sky, giving the elements personalities, telling stories about stars motivated by purpose and emotion, falling to Earth and becoming people.

“Energy, light, that is what we are,” says Jackson.

“The reality is, so much of what we know in science now, the same things are being said in these stories.”

She says Buck’s storytelling weaves together science, creativity and emotion in an enduring way to store knowledge and counter the “Euro-western” instinct to compartmentalize.

“Everything is separated. It's rational. It's measurable. It's, like, very cut and dried.… The thing about Wilfred, his story and what he stands for, is he's saying, ‘No, you cannot divide it all up and separate it out.”

As a filmmaker, Jackson defies categorization while working across formats and genres.

Jackson’s first short, 2004’s “Suckerfish,” is a whimsical and emotional doc about her relationship with her mother, a residential school survivor. Her 2018 virtual reality project, “Biidaaban: First Light,” places viewers in a downtown Toronto landscape that has been reclaimed by nature. Her Imax short “Lichen,” which premiered in 2020 at the Sundance Film Festival, is a poetic nature doc about an organism with a resilience that subtly parallels that of Indigenous communities.

Stylistically, “Wilfred Buck” is an amalgamation of Jackson’s past work. It’s a hybrid documentary where dramatic recreations bleed into archival footage and in-the-moment reportage. Buck’s personal history, which bears the trauma of colonialism, is interspersed with his efforts to reclaim Indigenous knowledge and identity.

“I saw in his story someone who returned to his roots,” says Jackson.

“This film was an opportunity for me to explore that with someone who I still have great admiration for. We're kind of kindred spirits. He's a total joker and he's so down to earth but he also has this intellectual curiosity. I'm kind of a nerd and I'm an artist, both at the same time. We share those things.”

“Wilfred Buck” opens May 17 in select theatres in Vancouver, Saskatoon and Regina and on May 24 at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema in Toronto.

Its festival run includes stops at the Yorkton Film Festival in Saskatchewan on May 23 and Whitehorse's Adäka Cultural Festival on June 27.

— Radheyan Simonpillai is a freelance writer based on Toronto.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 14, 2024.

Radheyan Simonpillai, The Canadian Press