Dan Sokolowski Can’t Stay Away from the Dempster

Dan Sokolowski doesn’t disguise his fascination with the Dempster Highway area. “There’s something in the air that makes you feel the people that have been before you, or the caribou that have been through there, but you can’t see,” he says.“I think there’s lots of good old ghosts and spectres that are somehow affecting everybody who goes up there, because almost everybody has that same feeling.”That fascination was displayed in two films by the Dawson City filmmaker and producer of the Dawson City International Short Film Festival (DCISFF), including his 2012 feature, Degrees North.“Most of my films have been short, so I endeavoured what I didn’t realize was a 14-year excursion – to create a feature-length film, which is a completely different animal.”Even for someone who jokes that his films “have no plot, there’s no people, and nothing happens,” Degrees North involved a degree of risk.“It’s a niche kind of film because, again, it’s landscapes. There’s no people, there’s no words. You have to sit there and kind of let it wash over you, so it’s a different kind of film experience.”Indeed, most of the 20-some short films and videos he has created since 1981 fall into the categories of animation, experimental, or documentary.Sokolowski first began experimenting with film thanks to some Single-8mm cameras his father owned.“When you’re pretty young, you don’t worry about the content too much. You just see what this button can do, and you try them all out and see what they do.”His first film?“Probably my sister kicking me off a bicycle, in Charlie Chaplin fashion,” he recalls with a chuckle. Sokolowski didn’t intend to make his living from film, or from his other main occupation, graphic design. In fact, he studied architecture for two years before abandoning it.“Spring break would come around and I would be making a movie. So I thought if that’s what I’m doing with all my spare time rather than going to the architecture museums, maybe I should do that.” He switched to a fine arts program at the University of Ottawa, making small films on the side. “It was a studio arts program, so it actually didn’t have any film there.”For someone doing animation, however, studying drawing and sculpture provided “a good way to sort of come at film from the back door.”Working as a graphic artist after graduation “essentially paid for my film career most of the time,” he says.Some of his early films got accepted into festivals, and he secured grants for a few projects.“When you have a bit of early success, that makes you kind of think, well other people are taking notice, so maybe I’ll pursue it a little more.” In 2000, the Klondike Institute of Art and Culture (KIAC) accepted one of Sokolowski’s films for screening at its inaugural festival of short films.He and his partner, Laurie, figured a trip to Dawson would provide an opportunity to do some shooting on what would become Degrees North, then in its early stages.“We came up here and fell in love with the place, and I kept coming back for various reasons,” he says. In 2004, he did an artist’s residency at KIAC, then a couple of nine-week stints teaching drawing and painting before accepting the DCISFF producer’s position in 2007.“That’s about an eight months out of the year job. On the off-hours, I do some graphic design to sort of fill the coffers, so I can make my next film.” Wearing more than one hat is not unusual in his adopted town, Sokolowski notes.“Nobody in Dawson has just one job; everybody has like two or three jobs they do,” he remarks.“Maybe one of them is something they’re passionate about, and the other jobs just pay the bills, but the attitude of people is they work hard and they enjoy working hard. They have fun doing it.”Next month, calls will go out for submissions to next year’s festival, followed by several months of twice-weekly screenings for Dawsonsites to help choose the DCISFF lineup.As for Sokolowski the filmmaker, a return to the Dempster Highway is in the cards.“I’m doing different kinds of shooting up there and trying to wade through that in terms of how I want to present things about the Dempster,” he says.“There’s something mysterious about it in a way, and I’m trying to put my finger on that.”

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