When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Alberta filmmaker Aaron James had to make a decision: return to his home province or stay in Los Angeles, where he has been working for the past decade.
“My kids live in Alberta, so I had to stay on one side or the other. I decided to stay on this side of the line and didn’t have much to do,” James explained.
His friend from a small community in northern Alberta asked James to come work as a substitute teacher for a month.
“There was one kid in my Grade 7 social studies class who was always getting in trouble, but I could tell he had a good heart and a twinkle in his eye,” said James.
“He started lugging around a guitar back and forth to class. He asked me to give him guitar lessons during recess and during breaks – he had Googled me and saw I was a musician and filmmaker, and he wanted to learn to play guitar.”
James wrote a short story about that student, which eventually evolved into his latest film: Guitar Lessons.
The writer and director of the new film will host a Q&A session with movie-goers following a 7:10 p.m. screening at Galaxy Cinemas on Saturday.
“We’ll tell some stories about making it and answer people’s questions. Those sessions are usually a lot of fun. We’ve done 20 or 30 of these now and it’s been an overwhelmingly positive experience,” he said.
Guitar Lessons tells the story of a 15-year-old Métis boy, played by Alberta’s Kaden Noskiye, who inherits an old guitar from the father he never knew. That boy reaches out to a cantankerous oilman, played by country music star Corb Lund, and the two bond over lessons.
In many ways, the film, which was filmed in High Level, serves as a “love letter” to Alberta, said James.
“Years ago, I made a movie called Hank Williams First Nation … in 2005. I was playing it up in northeast Alberta. A Cree woman came up to me at the end, gave me a hug and said, ‘I’m 78 years old. That’s the first time in my life I’ve ever seen my language, my people, my land up on the big screen. That has stayed with me ever since,” said James.
“I’ve worked in L.A. on a bunch of stuff that didn’t matter in that kind of way and didn’t have those connections. It was nice to come home, feel poetic and inspired by my land, my people and my language.”
The film currently has a 9.0 rating on IMDB from 75 users. The response has been exciting to see, James said.
“I had a sense that this might be something special as we were filming it, but you never really know. Then in the editing room as it was coming together, I again had that sense that this might be something special,” he said.
“When we were finished the film, we didn’t really know what to do with it. But the people in High Level, who raised money for the film, donated (so much) to be part of the film wanted to see the darn thing.”
There isn’t a theatre in High Level, so the film was screened twice a night at the lounge in the Flamingo Inn. Nearby towns expressed interest in screening the film as well.
After a 10-week stint touring small town cinemas in Alberta, Guitar Lessons made its way to Calgary and Edmonton earlier this month. Its first Red Deer screening was Friday.