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ICYMI: Okotoks Cinemas screening Alberta flick starting Sunday

Cree speakers and community members feature prominently in 'Guitar Lessons,' filmed around High Level, Alta.
'Guitar Lessons' tells the story of a friendship that grows between Métis teen, Leland Parenteau (played by Kaden Noskiye) and grizzled oil and gas worker Ray Mitchell (Corb Lund).

An Alberta film showcasing Indigenous talent and a heartwarming story is coming to Okotoks’ silver screen. 

Opening with a special event at Okotoks Cinemas at 6 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 13, Guitar Lessons tells the story of a friendship that grows between Métis teen, Leland Parenteau, played by Kaden Noskiye and grizzled oil and gas worker Ray Mitchell, played by Juno Award-winning country musician Corb Lund

Filmed in and around High Level, Alta., the film was written and directed by Aaron James, with community members and Cree-speakers featuring prominently in the film. 

“It’s wonderful in so many ways, because we’re very fortunate, where in the north we still have significant blocks in the province where Cree and Dene are still significant parts of the language,” said James, and with community members playing such a prominent role in the film, it was a natural fit to showcase that language. 

“It’s community made and much of the community acted in the film having never acted before. 

“The Cree have a particular sense of humour that I love, and there’s no way to translate that unless they speak in Cree.” 

Drawing on personal experience, James originally wrote the role of Mitchell with himself in mind. 

While he was looking to keep busy closer to home during the pandemic, he had a similar experience with a troubled youth. 

“A friend of mine who’s a school teacher asked me to go do some substitute teaching,” James said. 

“While I did that I had a kid in Grade 9 Social Studies who started snooping around about who I was and what I did, then he started bringing a guitar back and forth to class and asking me for guitar lessons in between classes and during recess.” 

Initially put off by the uncouth student, James started to warm to him. 

“He was always a rotten kid, administration didn’t like him, but he had a twinkle in his eye and I kind of liked him,” James said. “I started giving him lessons eventually and I wrote a short story inspired by this. 

“That wrapped up and was over with, then someone from the town of High Level who knew me and my previous work, the mayor up there got the idea that they would like to make a movie in their little town.” 

While he had his eye on the lead role, Lund turned out to be a perfect fit. 

“Corb and I have been friends for years – I was a musician before I became a filmmaker,” James said.  “He's played small parts in films I had done before.

“Although I wrote this part for myself, once I was done, I ran it passed him and encouraged him to take it. 

“It took some talking and he liked the script and responded to the material and decided he’d take a chance to do it. 

“He stuck his neck out and I really appreciate Corb – it was a vulnerable move for him.” 

Also playing prominently into Guitar Lessons is actor and comedian Conway Kootenay, from the Alexander First Nation, northwest of Edmonton. 

Kootenay’s other credits include Oscar award-winning The Revenant, Georgina Lightning’s Grandmother’s Medicine, and season 4 of the hit television series Outlander

The film will be screened at theatres around the country into the new year, James said, before becoming available for online streaming some time in spring or summer 2023. 

"Our theatre run is going really well and we’re adding more and more,” he said. “I’m really proud of the film and all of us. 

He credited Okotoks Cinemas general manager Amber Wigg for taking the initiative and seeking his film out. 

“Amber just sought us out – we’re grateful little theatres like Okotoks reaching out to us to come play it,” James said. 

The special showing will feature a Q&A with James at 6 p.m. on Nov. 13 at Okotoks Cinemas, and the film will run Nov. 14-17 at 1:30 and 7:30 p.m. 

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Brent Calver

About the Author: Brent Calver

Award-winning photojournalist for the Western Wheel newspaper covering Okotoks and the Foothills region.
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