Wilfred Buck Review | Ad Astra Per Aspera

by Andrew Parker

An inspirational and contemplative documentary about one person’s lengthy journey to make others recognize the space where ancestral knowledge, personal hardship. and science intersect, Wilfred Buck is the sort of personal profile that’s increasingly rare to see these days. Director Lisa Jackson has found a perfect subject to profile in writer, astronomer, addictions consultant, and indigenous knowledge keeper Wilfred Buck, and his story is more than worthy of a feature length platform. Buck’s life and work speaks to a lot of issues at once, and Jackson and her subject have an astute clarity of vision with regard to how to make all of it come across at once, while making the viewer intrigued enough to go out and learn more on their own. It’s a quiet, but very special documentary.

Buck’s story begins before he was even born, when his Cree ancestors were forced off their lands in Northern Manitoba to make way for a hydroelectric dam. Raised in a marginalized culture full of pain and suffering, Buck would lose family members due to residential schooling, prison, addiction, and all around general poverty, including his own mother, who would die on the streets of Winnipeg. At an early age, Wilfred Buck turned to crime and survival tactics like hunting and sleeping in vehicles on used car lots to survive. On top of doing anything necessary to get by, Buck would develop a drug problem that turned him into his own worst enemy. He would go into treatment programs at least twenty times before anything stuck, and what ended up pulling him back from the brink of total destruction was connecting to his ancestral heritage. This would lead to a return to school for the first time since dropping out in seventh grade and a study of astronomy, specifically the constellations used by indigenous peoples for navigation and spiritual reasons, which often differed between tribes and had little in common with the ones used by colonizers (a.k.a. the most prevalent ones being taught today).

Jackson’s film is one of two parts: the past and the present. Jackson spends time with Wilfred Buck as he travels the world, giving presentations about his work to various indigenous tribes and academics around the world. It’s easy to see why Buck is such an in-demand speaker. He talks eloquently and authoritatively about a subject few others can speak to with such a depth of knowledge. He’s more than capable of showing why his work is so deeply personal, but also making the listener care about what he’s trying to teach and why it matters both scientifically and historically. Wilfred Buck (both the person and Jackson’s film) is working to bridge a massive gap in knowledge and understanding, and has proven himself to be indispensable.

To create this link between the personal and the professional, Jackson stages gorgeous re-creations (shot on film) of Buck’s life that are adapted from his poetic memoir, I Have Lived Four Lives. Narrated by Brandon Alexis – who plays older Buck, while Raymond Chartrand plays the younger incarnation – these dramatic stagings are visually captivating approximations of the author’s words. The enormity of Buck’s situation and what he has been through comes through with great clarity and no sense of dramatic manipulation. These sequences pair nicely with the fact that Buck speaks openly and honestly about how he still struggles with the weight of his newfound responsibility as a knowledge keeper to his people and a member scientific community. By using Buck’s own point of view throughout her film, Jackson has crafted an elegy for all that was lost and a testament to her subject’s desire to ensure nothing falls through the cracks again.

Buck’s written works speak of pain and struggle, and his presentations are studious and enthusiastic. The combination of the two makes him uniquely connect to his audience, no matter the occasion. The story of Wilfred Buck is filled with tragedy and emotion, but also education and an invitation to contemplation about our own place in the universe. Wilfred Buck is effortlessly inspirational, but also a film about sharing knowledge and having deep love for one’s community. Buck has found his place in the world after a lifetime of searching, and his story is enough to make anyone else believe that they might be able to find their same niche, too.

Wilfred Buck opens in Toronto at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema on Friday, May 24, 2024. It originally screened as part of the 2024 Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival.

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