Song is arguably the most fundamental human form of artistic expression. It is unknown when we first used our voices to create music — about 2 million years ago our ancestors’ larynges dropped to a position in the throat that allowed for these sounds to be made.

But researchers believe it was almost certainly our first means of audial expression, which was well before language was invented. We sing in celebration, grief, warfare and love, to preserve our traditions and to bring ourselves closer to our gods.

It is this sweeping power of the art that compelled filmmakers Hermon Farahi and P.J. Marcellino to shoot the documentary When They Awake, now in the midst of a successful film festival run throughout North America.

The project began as a focus on a music education program in northwest Canada, but grew to chronicle the works of musicians from indigenous communities experiencing a cultural and political blossoming.

“We started realizing there is a huge movement of indigenous voices that is burgeoning right now,” Farahi said.

The filmmakers split duties on the three-year passion project, which Toronto-based Marcellino produced and co-directed with Las Vegas-based Farahi. Farahi also served as the director of photography, editor and sound engineer, as well as almost every other job required in the production of a documentary feature.

“The first time I screened it — at Montreal Film Festival — I remember I was so tired of looking at the film, having spent so long with it as an editor,” recalled Farahi. “But I was looking at the audience members and seeing how they were reacting to things that really touched me.

“To know that I was able to communicate, through this art form of film, emotion, and connect with people on a heart level … when I saw tears fall from peoples’ eyes, that reaffirmed all three years of that hard work.”

Bridge building

The film includes music from about 20 artists working in multiple genres, including guitarist and vocalist Don Amero; rhythm-and-blues and hip-hop fusion singer Iskwe; alternative rock band Digawolf; and Ivaluarjuk, who blends Celtic musical influences with traditional Inuk katajjaq, or throat singing. Another featured performer who utilizes experimental applications of katajjaq to create contemporary sounds is Juno Award-winner Tanya Tagaq.

Filmmaker Hermon Farahi (Courtesy of When They Awake)

Filmmaker Hermon Farahi (Courtesy of When They Awake)

“(Tagaq’s) music, her performances, they are very avant-garde,” said Farahi. “It stretches boundaries and comes from a place that blends tradition with modernity. She modernized (katajjaq) with improvisational music in a modern context with electronics and drum set in a way that had previously not been done.

“I think it is that bridge between past and present — between cultures — that she is creating. It is inviting people to cross that bridge and see what is on the other side of it.

“Her music is often heavily improvised so you’ll never hear the same thing twice,” Farahi explained. “And the sound itself seems otherworldly and connects you to a primal sense of humanity. You hear in her music the pain of 500 years of colonization, but you are also hearing the transformation of that pain into something joyous. Something to be celebrated.”

‘Acting as a conduit’

Neither Marcellino nor Farahi is of indigenous North American origins, a reality that created added responsibly in the telling of the story, as well as the opportunity to observe with the fresh eyes of an outsider.

“I was trained as a cultural anthropologist,” Farahi said. “Doing the work of anthropology, you have to be very sensitive. Especially when you are working with vulnerable populations, communities that have had historical trauma, which is the case with many indigenous people.

“As a filmmaker, I decided to not have any voiceover of my own voice, but to let the people speak for themselves. As a non-native person stepping into this role as a storyteller, I am acting as a conduit.

“I wanted to make sure I was doing everything possible to represent the stories and experiences of indigenous people in the film in a way that is respectful of their history and that is authentic as well. Also, in the way it opens the door for others to learn about and understand and share. And music is one of the greatest ways to share among people.”

After When They Awake was partially edited, Marcellino and Farahi screened it for community members who had participated in the filming.

“We got some incredible feedback,” said Farahi. “Elders telling us that we captured the spirit of what is happening today in the native community. We had youth coming up and saying, ‘I have never seen myself on-screen like this. This has changed my life, my sense of self. I am confident now.’”

Farahi said the team also received critical feedback about missing or underdeveloped elements of the film.

“That helps,” he said, “not only to craft the best story you can, but to make sure the community that you are representing also feels that they were represented in a way that is authentic to their experience, which is very important.”

‘The work of empathy’

“I think the media landscape is changing; the way in which we consume media is changing,” Farahi observed. “But I think at the end of the day, there is something about stories, something that connects us as human beings. It is universal and is timeless.

“When you tell a story that has universal themes, that transcends space and time, or any boundaries. If you can tell a story that resonates with people, you can hold them for a long time. So in this generation of the meme, when people’s attention span is limited to small increments, I think there is still value in long-form storytelling.

“It is still part of the human experience that we long for: to get into the shoes of another person, to understand the world from another person’s eyes and vantage point. To do that requires you to do the work of empathy, and it takes time. And often you cannot really do that in a two-minute viral video. I think people are still looking for those grand narratives.”

(Courtesy of When They Awake)

(Courtesy of When They Awake)

Awakenings

Farahi believes native communities worldwide are at a watershed moment.

“We are seeing people just fighting for survival on one end, which they have done for 500 years, but you are also seeing native peoples’ movements that are bringing non-natives into a role as well. We saw that at Standing Rock in North Dakota.

“You saw this movement happening where you have environmental groups and social justice groups together with native peoples, having solidarity in a way that we have not seen in a generation.

“That really sparked a new awareness around native issues. The same thing has been taking place in Canada as well.”

He says his desire to give voice to marginalized people has steered him toward politics, and he is mounting a campaign for Nevada’s third congressional seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, now held by Jacky Rosen.

“One of the reasons I decided to run for Congress is — as I’ve been involved in my social research as an anthropologist and my filmmaking — I’ve always been addressing social needs of our communities here in the U.S. and abroad,” explained Farahi.

“Being a first generation Korean-Iranian American, I understand the struggles that many people face. My family has lived those struggles. They lost their house in the foreclosure crisis in 2008. We experienced medical bankruptcy when my father fell ill. The struggles are things that so many Americans share.”

Seeking Transformation

According to Farahi, many Americans also seem to share an awareness of native peoples’ culture only as an element of our collective history rather than a contemporary, evolving force. Farahi hopes When They Awake will be a vehicle to help correct this perception.

(Courtesy of When They Awake)

(Courtesy of When They Awake)

“As a result of hundreds of years of rendering these communities invisible, you don’t often see native people presented in media,” he noted. “But native people are alive and well and thriving right now, and making themselves heard and making themselves visible.

“That is part of the process of reawakening. They are taking that historical trauma and transforming it into something joyous.

“That is one thing a lot of people can connect to, because we all have our experiences of pain or trouble or something that we can relate to. Everyone is trying to find ways to transform that struggle into something beautiful.”

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