Skip to Content
Haida Modern: The Art & Activism of Robert Davidson  cover image

Haida Modern: The Art & Activism of Robert Davidson 2019

Highly Recommended

Distributed by Bullfrog Films, PO Box 149, Oley, PA 19547; 800-543-FROG (3764)
Produced by Tina Schliessler, Kevin Eastwood, and Murray Battle
Directed by Charles Wilkinson
Streaming, 80 mins

High School - General Adult
Activism; Art; Documentaries; Native Peoples

Date Entered: 12/09/2020

Reviewed by Jodi Hoover, Digital Resources Manager, Enoch Pratt Free Library, Baltimore, MD

Films about artists can be tedious rehashes of the work or technique. Not so with Haida Modern: The Art & Activism of Robert Davidson. This film not only gives Robert Davidson his due as a contemporary artist but also manages to portray Davison as a whole person with constraints, influences and a brilliant artistic career that continues to evolve.

Davidson, a sculptor, painter and printmaker, describes himself as a person with a “foot in two cultures” a sentiment that is evident in his work which fuses traditional Haida motifs with a contemporary sensibility. Davidson is of Haida and Tlinglit descent and grew up in a remote village on an island off the coast of mainland British Columbia. Davidson’s father and grandfather were both traditional Haida carvers and so he began learning the technique at a young age. As there was no secondary school on the island Davidson was forced to leave home to continue his education in Vancouver. In the film, he describes the disorienting nature of being in the city but how he gained wider exposure to Haidi artwork through frequent visits to museums. Upon his return home, Davidson describes going door-to-door in an attempt to find examples of traditional artwork in his local community and when he realized none existed, he decided to carve and raise a totem pole, the first raised on the island in 90 years. Realizing the power of that moment, Davidson has dedicated his career to reviving the artistic culture of his people.

Director Charles Wilkinson showcases his skill as a filmmaker as he documents Robert Davidson’s evolving career through intimate interviews with the artist, his family, friends and artists who have been influenced by his works. The sense of trust Wilkinson developed with his subjects is apparent as Davidson speaks about painful topics such as failed marriages, struggles with alcohol and the sometimes-strained relationships with his children. The amount of time spent on the careers of his children, one an artist and one an educator, is perhaps unusual but also adds an interesting depth to Davidson’s personal story which is so integral to his work.

A strength and perhaps a weakness of the film is the breadth of topics it covers. The film is broken into segments such as “The Work”, “The Family”, “The Influence” which give the film structure. In a classroom setting this could serve as an especially useful feature to navigate easily to relevant segments. There were a few times where the approach created snippets, such as the segment on deforestation, that seemed too brief to warrant inclusion or left the viewer wanting more context. More frequently it worked well and created powerful moments, such as the moving interview about the history of the Residential Schools and the lasting damage they caused. Particularly jaw-dropping for this reviewer was an almost passing description of the difference between knife finished carving and a sanded finish. Davidson’s work, of course, is knife finished so there is no sanding only increasingly fine carving to get the smooth final surface.

This film is suitable for public or academic collections. While it would be a shame not to screen the whole film, the way is it presented makes it extremely versatile for classroom use. The film provides an overview of contemporary and historical issues in indigenous culture that provide starting points for further research while giving a full picture of the artist and his work. However, perhaps the most important take away from the film comes straight from the title. Indigenous culture is not a museum culture. It is thriving, evolving and an impactful part of the contemporary world. This film is highly recommended for most collections.


Available Light Film Festival 2020- Winner "Audience Choice;" Directors Guild of Canada 2020- Nominated for "Excellence in Documentary;" Festival International du Film sur l'Art - Artfifa (Le FIFA) 2020- Winner "Best Canadian Work;" Vancouver International Film Festival 2019- Winner "VIFF Most Popular Canadian Documentary"

Published and licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license. Anyone can use these reviews, so long as they comply with the terms of the license.