Interviews

The POV Interview: A NCFD 150 Convo with ‘After the Last River’s Vicki Lean

Doc screens at special National Canadian Film Day event presented by DOXA and the David Suzuki Foundation

Wednesday, April 19 is a special Canada 150 edition of National Canadian Film Day (NCFD 150). The event marks the largest film festival in the world with over 1700 screenings of Canadian films across the globe. (Read more about NCFD 150 in this POV interview with REEL Canada’s Jack Blum and Sharon Corder.)

NCFD 150 marks a great opportunity for Canadians to take stock of the nation at its milestone anniversary. One of the films that plays an essential part in this conversation is Vicki Lean’s After the Last River, a moving and inspiring portrait of the people of Attawapiskat and their fight to protect their community when a new site for resource extraction leads to devastating consequences for the natural and social environments of the area. Lean previously spoke with POV upon the release of After the Last River for the feature The Class of ’15 and the sesquicentennial screening of the doc is a great opportunity to see how far the film has reached since its release and continue the conversation the film inspires. After the Last River screens in Vancouver in a special event presented by DOXA, which premiered the doc, and the David Suzuki Foundation, which hopes to use the film to stimulate discussion about Indigenous land rights and the effects of resource extraction on the environment, among other topics. (Get event details here.) POV recently had a NCFD 150 convo with Vicki Lean to discuss After the Last River, her journey with the film so far, and where audiences can go from here.

After the Last River director Victoria Lean shooting in Polar Bear Provincial Park.
Photo courtesy of Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society – Wildlands League


POV: Pat Mullen
VL: Vicki Lean
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

POV: You had the rare chance of having a camera in Attawapiskat before it gained media attention with the Idle No More movement. How fairly do you think the press portrayed the movement, Chief Theresa Spence and the community?

VL: I started this project as a film about a community struggling to show Canada that it existed and then mid-way through filming, the housing crisis happened. That was when most Canadians first heard about Attawapiskat. There was a lot of concern, but the conversation changed very quickly when Stephen Harper effectively blamed the community for mishandling funds. That triggered a lot of stereotyping and hateful speech, revealing that people had a great deal of misinformation and bias. A year later, Idle No More happened and Theresa Spence’s hunger strike was heavily covered as part of that, but the portrayal of Idle No More and the Attawapiskat community are separate. I think the mainstream media had a hard time understanding and capturing all the issues that were at the heart of Idle No More.

POV: The film does a good job of showing how the Harper government changed the conversation and not for the better.

VL: I was saddened, actually. Like many community members in the film, I, too, believed that if only Canadians knew, things would be different. The coverage shifted to questions of whether the community mishandled money and away from the deep and complex issues. It’s hard to cover a community as complex as Attawapiskat in under 90 seconds. The media coverage isn’t able to look at the broader historical context. When it comes to First Nations issues, there’s such a lack of information and independent data. We rely so much on the government and there’s often a vested interest in not relaying the real facts. In the last few years, I have seen some progress in terms of how Attawapiskat is reported on by the media. With the suicide crisis, there was an outpouring of support and concern.

POV: Do you think we’ve made progress in support for Indigenous communities since the Trudeau government took power, or is it too early to tell?

VL: I think the main thing is that the tone of the conversation has shifted. It’s not as antagonistic. There’s more of an effort in terms of optics— when I made the film, the department was called Aboriginal Affairs and the fact that they changed it to Indigenous Affairs is something. In terms of what’s actually happening on the ground, though, people in Attawapiskat still do not have proper drinking water in their taps and Minister Bennett promised a youth centre after the suicide crisis last year. As far as I know, no real progress has been made, but there’s hope that something will push through soon. It’s been a year and there’s still no concrete announcement about the youth the centre. With the Trudeau government and the drinking water issue across Canada, they are also not on track to meet their promise. They said they would ensure clean drinking water on reserves before the four-year term was up, but the David Suzuki Foundation released a report that indicated they would not meet that target given the current rate of progress.


POV: The David Suzuki Foundation is presenting After the Last River on National Canadian Film Day. Can you talk about some of the outreach that’s been done with the film so far?

VL: The film has done everything from high school screenings to universities and campus screenings across Canada, and especially in Ontario. It’s been integrated into university course programs that cross-list Canadian studies with environment studies. I’ve also been pleased with how it’s doing with church groups. I never realised how important churches are in advocating for issues, especially in small communities where they might not have access to NGOs or social justice organizations. I’ve also done a few screenings with NGOs — Wildlands League, which is in the film, has presented the film in a few remote First Nations regions that are being affected by resource extraction. I’m very pleased with how the film is being used as a tool for discussions about how development should be approached on Indigenous territories and with respect to principles like full free and informed prior consent. First Nations communities have the right to decide what happens with their traditional lands and what’s vital to that process, is having the ability to make informed decisions, with accurate information and to not feel bullied or pressured into saying yes or no.

POV: What are some of the challenges with this aspect of the film?

VL: One challenge is that film doesn’t limit itself to one issue. It’s about how these issues are interconnected and how they relate to one another. In that regard, though, the film has also been cross-disciplinary. I’ve had screenings for business schools, environmental scientists, social workers, architects, —

POV: Oh, really? That’s unexpected.

VL: One screening was at Harvard with its School of Design and another was with a private firm of architects that works on resettlement and does many social impact studies. The architects raise questions of how you look at space, the politics of space, and geography. I didn’t expect that.

POV: That’s interesting how new audiences open new angles.

VL: When you think about Attawapiskat, a lot of the issues come down to bad design. They were poorly sited. The houses were poorly built; the school was poorly built. Those planning decisions effect everyday life. The contamination at the school has been devastating from a health perspective, a social perspective, and a psychological perspective. There are so many ways that this community was impacted by having a school that wasn’t going to withstand permafrost and diesel heating.

POV: You’ve been engaged with the film for so many years now. At what point do you move on? Can you?

VL: The film has been formative in so many ways. I’ve built relationships with people in the community that I hope to be lifelong. There’s so much more work to be done and I would love the film to live on in more established curriculums and with NGOs and schools. I’d love to go back in 20 years and make another film to see how things have changed. That’s a theme in the film itself—I used a lot of archive footage, coverage about Indigenous issues, conversations about Indigenous issues, and compared them to present day. The conditions have changed very little and we’ve been talking about them for decades.

I’m still very committed to the community, my relationships there, and the issues. I think part of being an ally and part of reconciliation is that it is a lifelong process. And that process doesn’t necessarily need to be tied to one film.


POV: The film came out with a number of strong docs sharing Indigenous perspectives on inequality and social issues in Canada, particularly Alanis Obomsawin’s Hi Ho Mistahey! [2013] and Trick or Treaty? [2014]. We Can’t Make the Same Mistake Twice [2016] isn’t about that community in particular, but it’s also about the failure to learn from the past and how problems are repeating themselves. What was it like to be a part of such a movement where a number of filmmakers were bringing these stories and voices into the spotlight?

VL: When Alanis started her film [ The People of the Kattawapiskak River ], I had already been filming for one summer. So its around the same timeframe and there’s some overlap in terms who appears in the films, but overall I feel that those are all important films within her legacy of work. I didn’t sense it as a movement per say. I’m actually surprised there weren’t more films about Idle No More. There’s so much more room for stories about other communities that are just like Attawapiskat, but because of a few factors, it’s among the First Nations communities that are better known. Journalists for Human Rights did a study on Indigenous reporting and the most discussed news stories within the past five years were the Attawapiskat housing crisis and Chief Spence’s hunger strike and the Idle No More. It’s a community that people [journalists] have latched onto and seem to think they understand how to cover, but I hope we see more films and stories about other communities that have both similar and different situations. I also hope that more filmmakers and journalists who are actually from those communities are telling the stories too.

POV: In terms of getting more stories out there, you were involved with video workshops with the kids in the area. Can you talk about what inspired that ?

VL: That came from an understanding that a lot of outsiders come in, collect stories, and then leave without returning much to the community. I wanted to do those video workshops as a way to give back and share skills and training I’ve had the privilege of accessing, and in some small way, help local community members in telling their own stories directly. The first summer, I was supporting another group of filmmakers. I approached the film very slowly and, in a way, passively. I didn’t shove the camera in people’s faces—I waited and built relationships. When I wasn’t officially filming for the project and just hanging out, sometimes I’d pull out my other camera and give it to the kids to shoot, play with and let them practice with it. I had free time and the moments happened organically. The footage at the end of the film comes from a community bonfire. I never consciously gave the camera thinking that would be the end of the film. I just thought they should have fun with it.

It turned out that was the best way to end the film: to hear from the youth what they love about their community. That had been lost in all the media coverage. You don’t hear enough stories of why people live in Attawapiskat. I was shocked when people kept asking why they don’t just leave. For me, that was never a question when I was there meeting people. I learned so much about community and the attachment to the land, so I never had that experience or question when I was there.


POV: I think it’s important to encourage people to look at the community in the same light that the residents do. Canada 150, and especially National Canadian Film Day, is making a significant effort to spotlight Indigenous stories. What sort of conversation do you hope the film provokes in terms of how we use the 150th to look at diverse communities and re-evaluate our relationships Indigenous communities?

VL: One of the things that MP Charlie Angus says in the film that really strikes me is, “We’re never going to be the country that we’re supposed to be until we find a way to make this relationship work.” That line for me is all what the film is about. After the Last River isn’t so much about one community, but more about how Canada and Canadians have treated that community and communities like it for decades, and the lasting impacts of both past and current policies. It’s important that stories like this one screen on a day that Canadian films are shown because Canada has so much further to go towards being the just and sustainable country that it pretends to be.

I hope the conversation for this screening in particular addresses the role of non-Indigenous Canadians in reconciliation. I’ve struggled with my role as a non-Indigenous filmmaker coming into the community and telling this story. Whenever filmmakers go into a community that is not their own, it requires so much empathy, listening, and self-reflection. Now, in an era of reconciliation, it’s all about having a conversation and listening. Part of taking responsibility for shared history is having the ability to respond. Something I’m hearing from some Indigenous activists and academics these days is, ‘Where are all the non-Indigenous people talking about reconciliation?’ What I hope comes out of the conversation is a question of how do we as non-Indigenous Canadians be allies to First nations neighbours and remote communities. How do we listen to and approach supporting communities, especially considering that the meaningful solutions are going to come from communities and not from Ottawa. On an individual level, I think there’s a lot of work for people to do to understand how to be allies and support Indigenous rights, movements, activists, and leaders.

After the Last River screens on National Canadian Film Day 150 in a special presentation by DOXA and the David Suzuki Foundation on April 19.
Get more details and tickets here.

It also screens April 22 in Toronto in a special presentation with Planet in Focus.