Chaakapesh is an introspective exploration of musical performance

Roger Frappier and Justin Kingsley’s new film documents the creation and performance of a First Nations opera.

In the fall of 2018, the Montreal Symphony Orchestra went on a tour of Quebec’s far North. Ten years earlier, they had done a similar road-trip, but this time, they wanted to bring something new. The orchestra commissioned an original work, a chamber opera called Chaakapesh, written by Tomson Highway and composed by Matthew Ricketts. Headed by Maestro Kent Nagano, they journeyed to these villages to perform in churches, school gyms and town halls. More than just a series of performances, it was an attempt at reconciliation through music and art. 

Combining talking head interviews, observational filmmaking and live-performances, Chaakapesh paints a complex portrait of a musical performance from the inception to its unveiling. The film tracks the beginning of the idea to its unveiling, balancing questions of creation, collaboration and culture. The unique challenges of Chaakapesh, a comic-opera about an Innu hero sung in three languages (Innu, Cree and Inuktitut), come into focus logistically and socially. In a variety of different approaches, the documentary explores Canada’s need to face its history. 

Language, formally and narratively, takes on significant importance. Amidst a history of genocide that once prevented First Nations people from speaking their language, the decision to celebrate and enshrine those languages is powerful. The cadences, rhythms and structure of speech are considered carefully and poetically. 

The talking-heads interviews similarly offer portraiture of language. The various subjects, including Kent Nagano, often speak in different languages throughout the film. The inclusion of Innu, Cree and Inuktitut among French and English expands a cultural understanding of linguistic identity within Quebec and Canada, and the way that language is not only political but connects with singing and performance. 

These various talking-head moments subvert traditional expectations, painting not only a sharp portrait of personal investment but work through questions of self and tensions with the broader sphere of identity. The documentary does an outstanding job of subverting the colonial objectivity generally associated with this structure by featuring a wide-cross section of subjects speaking the truth of their experience but also allowing room for doubt, tension and uncertainty in the interviews as well.

The tour itself makes up the majority of the running time. Travelling to the furthest corners of Quebec, the OSM performs for boisterous and enthusiastic crowds. Young children are often present, whether in actual school settings or as part of the larger performances. As often as they are transfixed, they play, joke and laugh. This communal aspect connects to the deeper idea at the heart of Chaakapesh, and an anecdote Highway tells about reading the Bible three times in search of laughter. The opera itself is composed heavily of variations on laughing. Chaakapesh is a funny God, one that loves to laugh. There is a running theme of joy and happiness that permeates both the music and the interactions, an almost childlike glee in sharing cultures, music and love.

The project itself is born, in part, as a means of creating a connection through music. As art can often be an experience in sharing culture, experience and history, the composition of Chaakapesh and the tour is a small step in bridging a connection between the North and the South, and in particular, extending respect towards the First Nations communities by privileging their artists and performers. There are no illusions that the tour will “solve” anything, but there’s still something equalizing in the love and experience of music. There is a deep, pervading sense of curiosity and exploration that runs through the entire film.

The film though deals with much darker themes as well. Through talking-heads, in particular, the film touches on Canada’s dark history of genocide against the First Nations people and the lasting effects of residential schools, resettlements and the sixties scoop. More than just those incidents, the film explores how those events have echoed through time, and the effects continue to be felt today. In many cases, music became an outlet to reintegrate into lost cultures and to work through trauma. After being angry and divorced from family members and their communities, finding songs and stories like the one in this film, became an essential means of reconnection. 

For those who were unable to see Chaakapesh performed live, the documentary not only offers extended sequences of the show but the context that made it possible. It is a documentary rooted in reflection, reality and a love of music. It has a rare curious sense of introspection that will be sure to excite conversation.  ■

Chaakapesh opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, Dec. 13. Watch the trailer below.

For our latest film reviews, please visit our Film section.