TIFF 2022 Interview: Asia Youngman on Testing the Waters with “n’x̌ax̌aitkʷ: Sacred Spirit of the Lake”

If the saying goes “big fish, small pond,” it hasn’t seemed to reach Zarya (Kiawentiio) in “n’x̌ax̌aitkʷ: Sacred Spirit of the Lake,” when she can be seen swimming alone in a pool where she’s hardly feeling as if she has much of a presence. Recently moving to the Okanagan Valley from Vancouver, she’s quickly dubbed a “city girl” by Amanda (Emilie Bierre), a neighbor her age who is intrigued by what she must know from living in a metropolis, but Zarya is at a loss while adapting to her new surroundings, unsure of what to make of an invitation out to the nearby lake where Amanda is heading out with her boyfriend (Riley Davis) and one of his friends (Aiden Howard) to scope out the Ogopogo, a sea creature of local legend that is believed to only come out at night.

In Asia Youngman’s endearing short, the sea is full of secrets, including what Zarya needs to unlock her confidence as she starts a new chapter in her life and one could say the same of its director in her narrative debut. After last making a splash at the Toronto Film Festival with her doc “This Ink Runs Deep,” Youngman is arriving with a triumphant return with the VFX-tinged coming-of-age tale where Zarya has a different set of fears to conquer in a community that has built up concerns about the unseen as she’s forced to play truth or dare and offered beer on the boat while waiting for the Ogopogo to emerge. With Zarya feeling like an outsider because of her indigenous heritage as well as being a newcomer to the area, Youngman finds the beauty in her lead embracing what’s within herself and allows it to come out in full flourish, showing there’s nothing to be afraid of.

Shortly before “n’x̌ax̌aitkʷ: Sacred Spirit of the Lake” is set to take Toronto by storm, the writer/director spoke about navigating the difficulties of filming on the water and employing VFX to illuminate the most special effect of all in seeing Zarya grow up right in front of her lens.

How did this come about?

The project came about based on my own experiences growing up. My family and I would spend a lot of summers in the Okanagan and remember spending time out in the lake, swimming in the water and hearing stories of the Ogopogo. Our family friend and I would scare each other with stories and I realized later in life that there’s this whole other story about what the Ogopogo really is and where it comes from, so it was a really great opportunity to work with the Okanagan people, specifically the Similkameen people to hear the accurate story about what it is. To the people there, it’s a sacred spirit that’s really special to and it’s not seen as this evil green monster that a lot of mainstream media portrays it to be. In a lot of different cultures, there are stories of lake monsters, like the Loch Ness Monster and for telling the story of the n’x̌ax̌aitk, it seemed like the first time that the story has been told from the indigenous perspective in a fiction film. I’m hoping that people will rethink what the Ogopogo really is and take away a more accurate story of what it is.

How did a teenage girl become your way in to tell this story?

I was in a lot of scenarios growing up [where] I was the only indigenous girl in my high school, and I was really disconnected from my own identity and culture, just because my parents were also disconnected from their culture, so I could really relate to being the only indigenous teenager like this character Zarya and the peer pressure and the want to fit in. She’s moved to a new town, she meets her next door neighbor who thinks she’s kind of cool and she wants to be friends with her, but she puts herself in this dangerous position out on the water in search of this lake monster, but it really just comes from her wanting to fit in and belong. Hopefully that’s something a lot of people can relate to and I wanted to draw on my own experiences in those themes of peer pressure and bullying that a lot of young people face, but also tie into things that have actually happened in Okanagan. In the mid ‘80s, people actually put out a call for a million dollar reward if they found proof of the Ogopogo, so I have pulled from some of the things that have actually been done, but hopefully in a way that’s fun.

There are references throughout to jewelry that certainly add an air of intrigue…

Yeah, I just wanted to build a bit of mystery about this girl that has gone missing because initially I think people relate it to this lake monster and it has deeper themes. I didn’t want to go too far into this, but because this is set in the ‘80s, it is acknowledging this pandemic of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls. I wanted to do something that didn’t tie everything together at the end, and I’m hoping audiences will come up with their own ideas of what actually happened and just start a little bit of conversations around that.

How did you find your cast?

I found Kiawentiio through Tracey Deer’s film “Beans,” which premiered at TIFF and she did such a phenomenal job in that, I really had my eye on her for a while and crossing my fingers that she might be interest in this. This was the first short film she really agreed to do and I felt really honored that she wanted to be a part of it. And then with Emily [Bierre], I saw her win an award at the Canadian Screen Awards back in 2018 for “A Colony” and I was just blown away by her performance. She was on my mind for a few years and it all came together really nicely, a combination of me having some actors in mind and then just doing an open casting call and they all worked so well together. It was a really special experience for all of us to be a part of it.

Once you start hearing it come out of their mouths or see the relationship dynamics, does it change in your mind?

It always changes, which is exciting. As a filmmaker, I have to let go of what I might initially expect because it always changes and what makes it so great is an actor can take something and make it their own and just introduce things that I would never initially think about. We’d have these deeper conversations about giving the characters more backstory and that can have an effect on how they might deliver a line. It just turned out to be a lot better than I ever expected it could be.

What was it like getting the cast out to the water?

It was so challenging. We shot it last summer during the heat dome, so it was already like 45 degrees celsius and we were already in these harsh conditions and of course we had to get everyone out in the water. For our last day of shooting, we had this company Crosby Marine Services come out and help out, which was great because they had this massive boat that fit all the crew and then we were all able to hop on their little zodiac and zip around and reposition the boat. It made things run a lot smoother, but it made things quite challenging because they were still on such a small boat I couldn’t actually be there with them, so I’d have to communicate through walkie. We’d have to reset and that was a whole ordeal. Like for myself working with actors, to give my notes as privately as possible just wasn’t possible because I wasn’t on the boat with them. I’d have to communicate via walkie and everyone would hear everything I’m saying. And we had issues with the boat as well because it was from the ‘70s, but we had an amazing team that made it all work and made sure the cast had what they needed. There was a lot of challenges shooting in the water and hopefully in the future, I can just shoot those things in a studio and not an actual lake.

And I think it’s safe to say there are VFX, though I don’t want to specify – what was that like to work with?

It was exciting because I was working with this studio called DNEG that I actually used to work at as a VFX artist. I remember when I was leaving the company, I was really torn because I did have so much love for the VFX industry but I also wanted to be a storyteller and I remember thinking, “One day when I’m a director, I’ll be able to work with DNEG on a different project and still get to collaborate with them, just because I think their work is so phenomenal.” So it was cool that I was able to partner with them on this project in a very different capacity and create this sacred spirit alongside them. We had this amazing concept artist from the DNeg team, who worked with ourselves and also our cultural consultant to make sure it was depicted in a way that was true to how the people in the Okanagan really saw it or at least through the stories that were passed down from their elders.

It’s interesting to hear of your background in both VFX and knowing this area since the framing of shots seems to reflect that knowledge in how careful it is. What was that like to figure out?

When I was working with my cinematographer Alfonso Chin, we always talked about making the land feel like it was a character, so one of the great things about shooting anamorphic was that you just get so much of a wider lens in terms of capturing the environment and the landscape, especially since it’s so beautiful out there and it is such a big part. That story is embedded in the water and in the land out there, so it only really made sense for it to feel as a character as well.

What’s it like getting to the finish line with this?

It’s really exciting. We finished the film late last year, and we’ve been sitting on it this year, hoping for a big premiere and we were really crossing our fingers for TIFF, so it’s been really been amazing for us to share it at such an amazing festival. I had a film there in 2019, but this is my first fiction film, so to me it feels just as special to have another film play at the festival and it really feels like a dream come true for all of us.

“n’x̌ax̌aitkʷ: Sacred Spirit of the Lake” will screen at the Toronto Film Festival in the Short Cuts Programme 5 on September 12th at 8:45 pm at Scotiabank 3, September 14th at 6 pm at the Scotiabank 14 and September 17th at 9:30 am at the Scotiabank 13.