VIFF 2018 Interview: HOLY ANGELS director Jay Cardinal Villeneuve


The following is an interview I conducted at last year’s Whistler Film Festival. It has been edited for inclusion in this year’s VIFF coverage.

“Holy Angels uses the life-affirming power of dance and the resilience of an unbowed young protagonist to explore the devastating impact of residential school.” Director Jay Cardinal Villeneuve on HOLY ANGELS which screens at the 2017 edition of VIFF.

Tell me about the idea behind this project and how you put it all together!

I had been working with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission for many years, filming the private statements of residential school survivors, when I met Lena Wandering Spirit in Edmonton at the Alberta National Event. I felt a connection to her and her story and found it very unique. I kept in touch and approached her about an idea where she could tell her story in a documentary. I already knew the father of the film’s main performer, young Phoenix Alec, and thought it might be visually interesting to have her interpret Lena’s memories through ballet and powwow dance inside the residential school. At the time I was really into silent film and watching old black-and-white horror movies, which influenced the project immensely.

Who are some of your main creative inspirations?

My three children, my family, my mom, my Grandparents, artists who think outside the box and push boundaries in their creative field, Indigenous activists, awesome humans who stand up for good causes regardless of the ramifications, animals, random people I meet on the street, actors and filmmakers whom I admire!

How did you put the short together from a technical viewpoint? What sort of cameras/lenses did you use, and any creative challenges?

We shot on the ARRI Alexa Mini using vintage Russian Baltar lenses from the 1950s. We purposely shot exteriors of Fort Chip with a tobacco filter. We were supposed to film Lena inside the Holy Angels church in Fort Chip. I thought it would be nice, seeing as she is very religious; but she became very ill right before we got into town. She was in a very dark place mentally, and psychically she wasn’t doing well either. She suffers from many ailments resulting from residential school and simply from living in Fort Chip, which is not a healthy environment to begin with. She ended up in the Fort McMurray hospital, where she was recovering quite well, and we ended up filming her in the chapel in the basement of the hospital.

What would you suggest to theaters or even film festivals as a way to show more short films in theaters or make them more accessible to audiences across the country?

Play a short film in front of every feature! Play two! Play a short-film teaser! Make every screening a mini-festival!

If you know of anyone around you wanting to become a filmmaker, or even put together short films, what would you suggest to get their start?

Come up with an idea and start shooting using whatever funds you have available, for reel! Pun intended. Today there is no excuse for not finding a way to shoot a short film.

And finally, what is your favorite short film of all time?

The Colony (Jeff Barnaby), Wakening (Danis Goulet), Pilgrims (Marie Clements), The Cave (Helen Haig-Brown), Tonto Woman, Attack of the Killer Sandwiches (YouthRise), Four Faces of the Moon (Amanda Strong), Christmas at Moose Factory (Alanis Obomsawin) & The Iron Detective (Jason Turner).

For more information on the film screenings at VIFF, point your browser to!

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