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Become a Cultural Navigator

Indigenous filmmaker Asia Youngman reclaims sacred spirit of Okanagan Lake and stays true to her vision with “N’xaxaitkw”

Asia Youngman
Vancouver director Asia Youngman makes films showing young Indigenous people in a positive light.

Vancouver screenwriter and director Asia Youngman has many reasons to feel good about her career. Two of her award-winning short films, “N’xaxaitkw” and “This Ink Runs Deep”, have screened at the Toronto International Film Festival.

In addition, Playback included the Cree-Métis filmmaker on its list of “10 to Watch” in 2020. Plus, she’s been featured on PBS and has several TV projects in development. That includes one with Leonardo DiCaprio’s production company.

If that’s not enough, Youngman is co-directing and executive producing a feature-length documentary for ESPN.

These are heady days, indeed, for the 31-year-old director. This week, “N’xaxaitkw”, which stars Mohawk teenage acting sensation Kiawentiio (Anne with an E, Beans), will be screened at the Vancouver International Women in Film Festival.

But life wasn’t always so rosy for Youngman, who grew up in the South Surrey–White Rock area.

In a phone interview with Pancouver, the articulate filmmaker recalls difficulties faced by her and her brother as the only Indigenous students in their school. Bullying and racial taunts left a searing impression.

“I felt really ashamed to be Indigenous for a long time,” Youngman acknowledges. “I didn’t want to associate with it.”

She doesn’t blame her parents. Her Indigenous father, a law school graduate, had been adopted by a white family. Her mom grew up in different households.

“I think my parents tried, especially my mom, when we were in school,” the director recalls. “She put us in certain workshops or would take us to powwows.”

In 2013, Youngman earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology and sociology at the University of Victoria. But it wasn’t until she went to work for the Provincial Health Services Authority that she began to truly appreciate her Indigenous identity.

Kiawentiio
Asia Youngman cast star teenage Mohawk actor Kiawentiio (above) as Zarya in “N’xaxaitkw”.

The imagineNative fest transforms Youngman

She was assigned to the youth Indigenous wellness program. That’s when Youngman began spending a lot more time in Indigenous communities. And she loved inspiring youths to become more connected to their culture and proud of who they were.

“A lot of the work we were doing was creating video content for youth,” Youngman says. “We were always looking to involve youth in some way, whether it was behind the camera or on-screen.”

Realizing that she needed more skills, she studied multimedia and web development at UBC. Then she spent a year at Vancouver Film school, earning a diploma in 3-D animation and visual effects. From there, she went to work in the visual-effects industry.

In 2017, Youngman directed her first short film, “Lelum’ ”, which is the Hul’q’umi’num’ word for home. She made it with the now-deceased Indigenous Vancouver actor and writer, Taran Kootenayhoo. It won best documentary short at the 2017 imagineNative Film Festival.

“Taran is someone I think about very often,” Youngman says. “I was very lucky to work with him on my first project.”

Attending imagineNative in Toronto marked a turning point in her career because she was able to see amazing work by so many other Indigenous filmmakers. She felt compelled to pursue a directing career, even though it meant leaving a secure job in visual effects to make movies.

“That was really just the pivotal moment for me to see what was happening in terms of Indigenous storytelling,” the director declares.

From there, Youngman went on to make two more short inspirational films, “In the Valley of the Wild Horses” and “The Wild Ones”. Again, they showed Indigenous people demonstrating pride in their heritage through their attachment to the land.

Her goal is to make more films and TV shows about Indigenous people celebrating joy, romance, and other universal themes, rather than solely focusing on trauma. And she’s thrilled to see how so many other Indigenous filmmakers are changing the landscape of Canadian cinema.

Zaraya, played by Kiawentiio, and Violet, played by Isla Grant.
Zarya (Kiawentiio) and Violet (Isla Grant) form a bond in Asia Youngman’s short film “N’xaxaitkw”.

Cinematography and music reinforce mood

Youngman’s latest short film, “N’xaxaitkw”, is her most personal project to date. The name refers to syilxʷ people’s word for a sacred spirit that exists in Okanagan Lake. As the writer and director, Youngman spent a great deal of time checking the facts with the local First Nation to ensure that she was presenting their beliefs accurately on-screen.

The story centres around a teenage girl named Zarya, played by Kiawentiio, who’s been adopted into a white family. They’ve just moved to the area from Vancouver and she’s not very knowledgeable about Indigenous traditions.

Soon after arriving in town, Zarya meets the girl next door, Amanda, played by Emilie Bierre. Amanda invites Zarya to go swimming, but not before a young Indigenous girl, Violet (played by Isla Grant), offers the newcomer a warning about potential dangers at the lake.

The supervising sound editor and sound designer, Matt Drake, ensures there’s a variety of music to set the mood, closing with Kiawentiio’s haunting song, “In what world”.

Listen to Kiawentiio’s “In what world”.

Celebrating the syilxʷ spirit of the lake

Meanwhile, cinematographer Alfonso Chin shows off the beauty of the landscape. This includes the magnitude of Okanagan Lake, as well as how it can appear more menacing at night. That, in turn, shapes the overall feel of the film.

“It does have this dark aspect to it,” Youngman says. “But ultimately, it’s about this young Indigenous woman finding her voice and her confidence—and standing up for herself.”

Youngman used to visit the Okanagan with her family and swam in the lake. And like her lead character, Youngman was also unfamiliar as a teenager with the region’s Indigenous heritage.

Okanagan Lake
Okanagan Lake looms large in “N’xaxaitkw”.

This is not the only B.C. film to focus on the syilxʷ people’s belief that Okanagan Lake is home to a sacred spirit. John Bolton directed the 2022 music documentary The Lake / n’-ha-a-itk, which revealed how a Métis man, Johnny MacDougall, distorted the story in the 19th century.

MacDougall told settlers that a sea serpent, not a sacred spirit, lived in the lake. Moreover, the Métis man made up stories that this reptilian monster, later known as Ogopogo, was fed pigs and other animals.

That tall tale turned into a tourism-marketing bonanza. However, it tramples over the beliefs of the Indigenous people.

Youngman reveals that her film’s title is an attempt to reclaim the syilxʷ people’s version and its name for the sacred spirit. In addition, “N’xaxaitkw” also subtly alludes to terrible historical truths about interactions between settlers and Indigenous girls and women.

Furthermore, the director stayed true to her vision of creating positive cinematic role models for Indigenous youths.

“I did want to address serious subject matter,” Youngman says, “but I also wanted it to be this coming-of-age story.”

The Vancouver International Women in Film Festival will present “N’xaxaitkw” in a program of short films at the VIFF Centre at noon on Saturday (March 11). For more information, visit the VIWFF website. Follow Pancouver editor Charlie Smith on Twitter @charliesmithvcr. Follow Pancouver on Twitter @PancouverMedia.

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Charlie Smith

Charlie Smith

Pancouver editor Charlie Smith has worked as a Vancouver journalist in print, radio, and television for more than three decades.

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We would like to acknowledge that we are gathered on the traditional and unceded territories of the Coast Salish peoples of the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), and Səl̓ílwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations. With this acknowledgement, we thank the Indigenous peoples who still live on and care for this land.