Written by A.C. Onoff
In 1997, on a cold midwinter’s night, an ex-forest engineer swam across the Haida Gwaii islands’ biggest river (off British Columbia’s coast) with a chainsaw and felled the Golden Spruce. It was a one of a kind, 400 year old sitka tree that bared golden, luminous needles. Not only was the tree venerated by the local natives as part of their ancestral culture, it was also a true wonder of nature that died with all its secrets.
Shortly after, the culprit, Grant Hadwin, was arrested upon his own confession and was due to appear in court for the crime he committed. Knowing that he was now the number one enemy of both whites and native inhabitants of the region, he decided to travel to the courtroom by himself, kayaking through the deadly waters of the Hecate Strait. He left dry land and was never to be seen again.
In 2015, when I first heard about this story, I was immediately captivated by the subject. I bought Vaillant’s The Golden Spruce, published in 2005, and devoured it. The book offered us not only a comprehensive and complete report on Hadwin, the forestry industry, and the Haida people, but it also managed to give us a different perspective on good and evil, of culture and myth, obsession and passion. Needless to say, I was thrilled to find out that the NFB had produced a feature documentary based on Vaillant’s work that was coincidently reaching the big screen the exact year I read the book, 10 years after the publishing, and 18 after the tree’s fall…
Sasha Snow’s documentary Hadwin’s Judgement predominantly focuses on Hadwin and the period of his life during which he became increasingly aware of nature’s vulnerability and eventually committed his crime. Interlaced with interviews from old friends, employers, and Haida artists are some poetic reenactments of the engineer’s situation, played by actor/stuntman Douglas Chapman.
If I was secretly hoping to use this film to draw friends and relatives into the mesmerizing realm of the Golden Spruce, I now have to face the fact that it will not work. While it is obvious that the writer/director could not cover in a single documentary nearly as much ground as the book did, the portion he is surveying is more than incomplete; it is borderline difficult to follow and bears a lack of crucial, vital information. Even more, the info the film does share with the viewers is unclear and shrouded in a mist that could lead people who haven’t read the book down some misguiding paths. That also goes for the title. Clearly fascinated by Hadwin (which I can easily understand), Snow failed to expose a fascinating event engendered by fascinating people in an interesting way.
But while the writing is truly unsatisfying, the direction, on the other hand, is a true master work. From the cinematography, the editing, and the music to the interviews and reenactments, everything offered to your senses is so perfectly crafted it should keep the spectators glue to their seats. The camera work is simply magnificent and gives a true majestic glow to everything it captured. The forest shots, the shore, the interviews… it is all perfectly mixed with a subtle but haunting score, imprinting us with an amazing rendition of British Columbia’s islands’ natural beauty.
With Hadwin’s Judgement, Sasha Snow appears to me as a skillful poet. And while I fear the subject shared in his film will fail to captivate due to a lack of information and clarity, its powerful poetry is not to be missed. A beautiful poem, where nature shines like a golden sitka spruce.