Mad Max of the Arctic? Northern filmmaker's Polaris leads Fantasia film fest in Montreal

·3 min read
Kirsten Carthew's second feature film, Polaris, screens at the Fantasia International Film Festival on Thursday. (Source: Polaris - image credit)
Kirsten Carthew's second feature film, Polaris, screens at the Fantasia International Film Festival on Thursday. (Source: Polaris - image credit)

Kirsten Carthew's latest film Polaris is action-packed, apocalyptic and full of women kicking butt — and it's premiering this week on the first night of the Fantasia International Film Festival.

The festival, held in Montreal, is the largest genre film festival in North America. It kicks off Thursday.

Carthew's Polaris, her second feature film to date, is the opening act. The Northern filmmaker grew up in Yellowknife and says the film was inspired by a short film she created for the Dead North Film Festival in 2015, Fish Out Of Water.

"It's been a journey, and it's such an amazing full-circle experience to now actually have a finished film that we can show people," she said.

Polaris revolves around 10-year-old Sumi — named after a young Yellowknifer — and her polar bear mother, who live in a snow-laden, post-apocalyptic world. No one knows what lies beneath the snow; it could easily be New Brunswick or New York.

Sumi and Mama Polar Bear are on a mission to follow the North Star — Polaris. As they travel, Sumi is captured and must escape and reunite with Mama Polar Bear by following the star.

Source: Polaris
Source: Polaris

It's a story about our relationship with humans and nature, Carthew noted, cast through a female lens.

"It's an all-female survivalist fantasy thriller," she explained — even the bear and the dogs who appear in the film were, by happy chance, all female.

"First of all, I just say, why not? The job of a film is to be entertaining, and seeing women kicking butt, and there's stunts, and there's some gore and some action scenes. We tried to, in terms of the story world, create it like Mad Max — we call it 'Mad Max of the Arctic,'" she said.

Submitted by Little Dipper Productions Ltd.
Submitted by Little Dipper Productions Ltd.

It might not be Mad Max-esque in terms of budget or scale, but the aesthetic is reminiscent. "Anyone in the North, you can think of finding snowmobiles from the '70s, and the '80s and all the sort of older machinery used for mining and tracking in the snow," Carthew said.

"We were able to kind of upcycle those machines and add elements to them to really create this sort of dystopian future world."

The film, like so many others shot during COVID-19, ran up against increased production costs and delays. It was also a difficult one to shoot, since most of it was shot outdoors in the Yukon.

"All films really are a slog — you know, they take a long time to get made," Carthew explained. "In the North, because of the weather and because of the remoteness, it's a little bit more challenging. You can't negotiate with the weather, so you really have to lean into it and embrace it."

As for the polar bear mother, that role is played by a real bear: Agee, a Canadian bear whose retirement was just announced.

Polaris is one of her final films.

In advance of Thursday's screening, Carthew said she's excited for her cast and crew to see it — many of them haven't seen anything since filming wrapped up — but she's feeling some nerves given the size of the audience that will be watching.

"The audience is like 800 people. Let's hope they like it," she said with a laugh. "I mean, you never know."

Carthew isn't sure when Northerners will get a chance to see the film, but is hoping it will be available in the fall.

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