'Kayak to Klemtu': Where Roots Run Deep

Kayak to Klemtu
(Canada, 90 min.)
Dir. Zoe Hopkins; Writ. Zoe. Hopkins, Michael Sparaga, Scooter Corkle
Starring: Ta’Kaiya Blaney, Lorne Cardinal, Sonja Bennett, Evan Adams, Jared Ager-Foster
Courtesy Mongrel Media
Many documentaries chronicle the impact of the oil trade on BC’s oceans and coastal communities. Few dramas, however, invite audiences to build relationships and emotional connections with inhabitants of the land who struggle with this conflict. Oddly enough, writer/director Zoe Hopkins makes her feature debut with Kayak to Klemtu, which draws inspiration from the filmmaker’s effort to document stories from her community of Bella Bella as residents testified to the impact of oil tanker traffic in the Inside Passage. This serpentine waterway is far too congested—an accident waiting to happen in one of the most beautiful landscapes in Canada. Hopkins instead offers a hopeful and accessible story that shares with audiences a deep connection to the land and waters worth preserving.

Kayak to Klemtu paddles down the Inside Passage as plucky 14-year-old Ella (Ta’Kaiya Blaney) decides to honour her beloved Uncle Bear (Evan Adams), who passed away shortly before he was to testify in a hearing comparable to the one that inspired the film. A bit too young and unfamiliar with the waters, Ella enlists the reluctant aid of her cousin Alex (Jared Ager-Foster), her aunt Cory (Sonja Bennett), and her goofy uncle Don (Lorne Cardinal) to share her journey to Klemtu, the island community from which Uncle Bear hails. Ella hopes to scatter Uncle Bear’s ashes throughout the waters he cherished and to pick up his fight by testifying on his behalf when they land in Klemtu.

Blaney proves an invaluable find with her impressive performance as Ella. She carries much of the film with a performance that plays well to her youthfulness and earnestness. Ella’s mix of innocence, irritation, and inquisitiveness offers a relatable window into the character and the world she discovers. Who, at some point growing up, has not experienced a profound need to take stock of their roots and ancestors? Everyone takes this journey in some form, be it with a kayak, VW van or a few minutes of soul searching, and Blaney’s strong performance makes Ella an accessible guide for viewers of all ages.

Surprisingly, the young stars of Kayak to Klemtu outshine their elders as Ager-Foster gets some of the film’s strongest moments as Alex wrestles with the loss of his father and the Indigenous roots of his family to which he feels strongly connected. Cardinal and Bennett, on the other hand, often go for broad strokes of comedy in a film that calls for restraint. Compared to the quietly compelling youths, Don and Cory can be as hammy as rambunctious kids are. The film gives each character some quiet introspective moments to shine, however, and these pauses are startlingly powerful, if occasionally out of place.

The simplicity of Kayak to Klemtu feels like a departure for Hopkins after her breathtaking short Skyworld, a hauntingly captivating portrait of the afterlife in the anthology film The Embargo Project, but one can see where the bravura coup prepared her for her first feature. Kayak to Klemtu is sincere in its unfussy naturalism. The film engages audiences with a gently sentimental character study that conveys the responsibility we have to uphold and preserve the land our ancestors left us.

Hopkins displays a deep respect for the BC wilderness as the family paddles through the waters of the Inside Passage and visits the islands en route to Klemtu. Her direction favours a natural and uncontrived view of the land as the camera drinks up the beautiful sights offered along the coast: trees, whales, and wildlife. Kayak to Klemtu doesn’t offer much by way of landscape porn since Hopkins doesn’t let her eye linger on the golden hues of sunlight rippling along the water nor on the rugged rocks and cliffs that Ella passes by. Instead, the understated direction draws an intimate relationship between Ella and her environment as she discovers the roots of her family and identity.

The sparse use of title cards signals the various tribal territories through which Ella’s kayak caravan passes and Kayak to Klemtu significantly highlights the multiplicity of tribes with roots in this small space of the landscape. Hopkins’ eye for inclusivity is admirable. The roots here go deep and Ella’s story is one among many.

Kayak to Klemtu opens in Toronto on Friday, May 25 at the Carlton.