Wildhood opens the 2021 Atlantic International Film Fest with a story of connection and discovery

The Nova Scotia-shot coming-of-age tale will take full advantage of this year's festival options with both in-person and online screenings.

Writer, director and producer Bretten Hannam (left) on the set of Wildhood with Phillip Lewitski who plays Link in the film. Photo by Riley Smith.
Writer, director and producer Bretten Hannam (left) on the set of Wildhood with Phillip Lewitski who plays Link in the film. Photo by Riley Smith.

With 158 films in a hybrid mix of 87 in-cinema and 28 online screenings, this year’s FIN Atlantic International Film Festival (AIFF) will look a little different from previous years. But while AIFF executive director Wayne Carter is looking forward to safely welcoming audiences back into the cinema, the addition of FIN Stream again this year opens up the opportunities for audiences even further.

“With last year’s introduction of our FIN Stream event, we now have multiple ways to bring the magic of movies to our audience, not only locally in person but online to the rest of Atlantic Canada,” he says.

One of the films taking full advantage of both festival options is this year’s opening night gala, Bretten Hannam’s Wildhood. The film will screen on September 16 at the Park Lane Cinemas in Halifax and online as part of FIN Stream. A special in-person encore presentation on September 18 will feature a Mi’kmaq language version.

Phillip Lewitski (left), Avery Winters-Antonly (middle) and Joshua Odjick (right) in a scene from Wildhood. Photo by Riley Smith.
Phillip Lewitski (left), Avery Winters-Anthony (middle) and Joshua Odjick (right) in a scene from Wildhood. Photo by Riley Smith.

Wildhood is the Nova Scotia-shot coming-of-age tale that speaks to the importance of connecting with language and culture and discovering who you truly are.

Opening in a rural east-coast trailer park, the film follows Link, who lives with his toxic father and younger half-brother Travis. When Link discovers his Mi’kma’ki mother could still be alive, the two boys make a run for a better life. On the road, they meet Pasmay, a pow wow dancer drawn to Link, and as they journey across Mi’kma’ki, Link finds community, identity, and love in the land he belongs.

Written over ten years, it is a story that pulls from Hannam’s own life and that of friends, family and the community in which they lived. It was also a story they were not willing to compromise.

“When I first started writing it, I got a lot of feedback that while people liked it, they wanted me to change things,” says Hannam. “I wasn’t willing to make those changes, so I was content to continue writing, exploring the story and characters to dig deeper into what the core of it is and what the heart of it is.”

It would take a call from friend Gharrett Paon, who Hannam had cast in their first student film when studying at NSCAD, to finally see Wildhood brought to development.

“When he reached out and asked if I had a script that he might be interested in, I sent him [Wildhood],” says Hannam. “He responded quite strongly, saying he was in love with it. So I said great, let’s work together and go from there.”

“I immediately connected with the protagonist’s journey,” says Paon. “Having never met my own father and having imagined what a journey like Link’s might have been like as a kid, I felt I could contribute something to the character’s journey and the development the script still needed to go through over the next couple of years.”

With Paon on board as one of the film’s producers, Wildhood moved ahead, eventually becoming one of the first film productions in Nova Scotia to start up post-COVID lockdown.

Looking to the future, I hope this film is a stepping stone on a bridge that leads to a better place for all of us to live. – Bretten Hannam.

With filming in the Annapolis Valley in the summer of 2020, Hannam says shooting on-location was an essential part of Wildhood despite the challenges of filming in a pandemic.

“The goal is to bring the viewer into the world of the story; to be on the land and immersed in these experiences and surroundings,” they say.

And while Wildhood will see its world premiere at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, Hannam was excited to learn that AIFF chose it as the opening gala film. “When that news came, I was super happy, mostly because I really believe in telling our stories here.”

But more than Indigenous stories, Hannam believes in celebrating stories in all forms, including those from settlers and immigrants.

“There are very rich stories from all of our experiences that aren’t always given the attention they deserve, and I think it’s beautiful to champion those stories,” they say. “And the film festival here does an amazing job at that.”

With easing pandemic restrictions, Hannam also views the festival as an opportunity to celebrate community, mirroring another of the film’s central themes.

“This story is about coming together and about making a small little family and going through these trying experiences and laughing and figuring out who you are all together with a group,” says Hannam. “And for me, at least right now, I think that’s very appealing because the COVID lockdown and the restrictions have made us more aware now, more than ever, how much we need each other.”

"FIN audiences can expect to see Nova Scotia/ Mi’kma’ki celebrated on screen in a way like never before by homegrown cinematographer Guy Godfree, as well as stellar performances from the entire cast, including Mi’kmaw elder and residential school survivor Becky Julian from Sipekne'katik First Nation who’s going to blow everyone away in her first appearance on film. She’s absolutely incredible." - Wildhood producer Gharrett Paon. Photo by Riley Smith: Phillip Lewitski (Link) and Becky Julian (Elsapet) in a scene from Wildhood.
“FIN audiences can expect to see Nova Scotia/Mi’kma’ki celebrated on screen in a way like never before by homegrown cinematographer Guy Godfree, as well as stellar performances from the entire cast, including Mi’kmaw elder and residential school survivor Becky Julian from Sipekne’katik First Nation who’s going to blow everyone away in her first appearance on film. She’s absolutely incredible,” says Wildhood producer Gharrett Paon. Photo by Riley Smith: Phillip Lewitski as Link and Becky Julian as Elsapet in Wildhood.

Paon is also looking forward to something the pandemic would not allow.

“Because of COVID, we weren’t able to hold a wrap party for our cast and crew last summer, so I’m excited to finally be able to share this massive accomplishment with our Nova Scotia film family, and of course the entire Mi’kmaq community,” he says.

Hannam agrees, giving shoutouts to cast and crew, Wabanaki Two Spirit Alliance, the LGBTQ+ community, the many L’nuk involved in bringing their story to life on the screen. They are hopeful it will be “a good thing for everyone that sees it, no matter where they are in their path through life.”

“There is so much beauty in the land around us, and though our histories together have sometimes been difficult, ultimately, it’s peace and friendship that guide us,” they say. “Looking to the future, I hope this film is a stepping stone on a bridge that leads to a better place for all of us to live.”

Wildhood opens the 2021 FIN Atlantic International Film Festival on September 16 at Cineplex Cinemas Park Lane in downtown Halifax and online as part of FIN Stream. The festival continues through September 23. Tickets for all screenings are now on sale. Visit finfestival.ca for more information.

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