Stan Douglas


Klatsassin readapts two stories that are at least vaguely familiar to anybody living in a colonised country and/or to cinephiles. Set in the forests of Canada’s Cariboo Mountains, the work focuses on the hostility between the Tsilhqot’in (Chilcotin, Athapascan-speaking Indigenous people of British Columbia) and encroaching settlers. Klatsassin takes its title from a Tsilhqot’in chief whose name literally translated means ‘we do not know his name’. In 1864, Klatsassin led an insurgency that killed fourteen people in one day. Initially, he evaded capture but was eventually lured by the Governor with tobacco which he interpreted as a peace offering. When Klatsassin appeared to negotiate a treaty to end what he considered a war, he was taken prisoner, tried for murder, and hanged. The branching narrative commences immediately after this historical moment.

Klatsassin also directly references Akira Kurosawa’s seminal film Rashomon (1950); renowned for its exploration of the subjective nature of truth, the film presents multiple, contradicting accounts of a murder. In both films, two men trying to find shelter from bad weather discuss the details of a recent incident. We gradually piece together more details, or edits, about the events. Another man asks to hear the story. There is a trial in which various witnesses recount their version of the same event. The characters try to piece together a sequence of events and determine the truth, but there is no established truth.

Many of Kurosawa’s films have been re-made into Westerns: Seven Samurai (1954), a tribute to the widescreen Westerns of John Ford, was the inspiration for The Magnificent Seven (John Sturges, 1960); Yojimbo, starring Toshiro Mifune (1961) was re-made into the spaghetti western A Fistful of Dollars (Sergio Leone, 1964, starring Clint Eastwood who would cite the film as influential); and Hidden Fortress (1958), motivated George Lucas to make the Star Wars trilogy, the ultimate space-Western. Klatsassin also incorporates all the expected elements of a western: it is set in an isolated landscape replete with cowboys and Indian, a ramshackle saloon, a poker game, threats and violence. However, Douglas’s film is also a clear diversion from the average western. It conveys recognisable stories, depicted within an unconventional landscape not synonymous with westerns, and further confounds them through its structure.

The recombinant arrangement quickly becomes apparent. Douglas constructs non-linear narratives and alternative modalities of time, changes in perspective, which can never be fully grasped. Through a labyrinth of 840 splice permutations that insert and layer scenes randomly, with long intervals, it reportedly only starts to repeat after three days; it is impossible to determine what has actually happened. The story and its versions are further complicated by its performers. No two characters share the same nationality or language: a German miner, a thief, a Scottish Constable, an English innkeeper, the Tsilhqot’in prisoner, a prospector and partner. Each of them corresponds with a stereotype, whether Indian or Constable, hero or anti-hero and all of them are equally suspicious culprits.

The work’s tensions are reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock’s experience of establishing suspense. Hitchcock described making an early work that failed at suspense by releasing the viewers’ tension, and thereby emotional investment, too early. In later experiments, he stretches tension. For example, depicting someone setting a bomb for 7.00 and placing the bomb in a suitcase, the person boards a populated train; the viewer sees the suitcase and the clock. The suspense is developed through a succession of rapidly repeating edits. It is quickly becoming 7.00, what is going to happen? And just as the bomb is due to detonate… the film ends, the screen is black and the viewer is left wondering without any release. The narrative never comes to fruition.

The viewer invests time, anticipates and waits for key information that will provide and potentially give the forthcoming resolution away, but it is never delivered. Unfortunately, no character or viewer has the capacity to draw an informed conclusion. The evidence and thereby truth, is continually out of reach and as viewers we also live this experience. We are forced to submit to a social unconsciousness.

Klatsassin demonstrates, by appealing to the viewer’s fundamental understanding, the constructed and fragmentary nature of all experience and identity. We make informed, objective choices individually everyday, with ease. How do we rationalise subjective decisions, particularly social and political determinations made by others? How do we as individuals negotiate this dichotomy and polarity? Defying multiple-codes, the recombinant structure explicitly brings these issues to the surface.

So the story repeats itself. The polarity between what we knew then compared with what we know now still exists. Like the lyrics of a song, we have heard it all before. The recombinant variations of interlaced plots develop like arranged music, the reason Douglas refers to the work as a Dub-Western. However, the cowboys in this western offer no exquisite clarity: they never restore order or ride off into the sunset. It frustrates the viewers’ hope for a resoluble, almost Hollywood-type, ending and further illustrates the intangibility of objectivity.