Being Wild

Veteran director Nettie Wild’s KonelĪne evokes the colourful characters and gorgeous landscape of northern BC

17 mins read

“It’s just wild over here!” I hear a voice exclaim from the other end of the telephone line. “I’m up to my eyeballs in equipment.”

I was surprised that someone whose last name is Wild would use a descriptive like that so liberally. But I don’t think I knew what to expect from a director who had nearly been gunned down by howitzers on her first documentary.

It’s her second day in Whitehorse and Nettie Wild is sitting alone in a room piled high with speaker cables, projector equipment and an awkwardly large screen that folds together like a piece of Meccano. Misfortune seems to be trailing her. Two technicians she hired wound up in the hospital within days of each other. And the back hatch on her rental truck where she stores her gear is frozen shut.

Wild is preparing to drive into northern British Columbia to premiere the first feature-length documentary she has made since Fix in 2002. Clad in her Swedish wool army pants, faded leather jacket and reading glasses adorned with tiny pumpkins, she laughs amidst the chaos.

She’s elated to be back north and tells stories of her time in the wilderness: the day she got stranded on a mountain after a helicopter picked up the rest of her group and left her alone in the woods overnight; getting shuttled through the bush by dogsled and by horseback; and the dozens of unique northerners she’s met in various remote outposts.

It’s this last part that has most fascinated her. Wild’s latest film, KONELĪNE: our land beautiful, is a stunning portrait of those who live and work in northern British Columbia. “The people who move across this land live a really intriguing lifestyle,” she says. In the North, there are the First Nations who’ve been there for thousands of years who live a mixture of contemporary and traditional ways of life. And then there are the non-native “wackos,” as Wild lovingly calls them, who have wound up in the North for a variety of reasons. “It takes a real kind of personality to choose to battle the wilderness and turn it into a way of living.”

Beyond this cast of characters is a lush wilderness that holds massive deposits of copper and gold. In this case, a ‘golden triangle’ of mineral deposits near the Tahltan First Nation communities of Telegraph Creek, Iskut and Dease Lake. “You’ve got this chunk of land where the seeds of conflict have been sown millions of years ago,” says Wild. These towns are fighting an onslaught of mineral exploration that threatens traditional ways of living while also offering jobs in an economically starved area.

Wild wanted to dig deep into this debate over land but to do it in a way that was different from her earlier films. In the ’90s the director spent time in a Gitxsan community near Hazelton, British Columbia documenting a First Nations logging blockade. “I’m proud of Blockade, but this time, I didn’t want to make another finger-waving movie like so many out there today, that tells people what to think and has smart people expounding all this doom and gloom.”

KONELĪNE is a poetic and moving take on a universal struggle. Gone are the experts and the classical story arc. Instead, Wild widens the focus to include less typical story plots and characters: the men who erect the transmission lines for the mining industry; the hunting outfitter who relies upon untouched wilderness for her livelihood; and the community members relocation of fish affected by a natural rock slide. The land is the main thread that connects these smaller stories together with most of the characters appearing only once in the documentary.

It was a big risk for the director. “If you’re not going to hang it around a classic storyline, which I’ve spent all my life doing, then what the heck are you going to do in terms of holding the thing together and creating a piece that resonates and holds audiences?” says Wild. “Out of fear I wanted to fall back on the political story and follow the blockades but my editor and DP were saying, ‘No, no, no.’ Because for them, going for the art and going for the abstract was where the juice was.”

While researching the film in 2012, Wild tried winning over mining executives and protesters with the hope of including them in her story. But after negotiations with Imperial Metals stalled and she refused to join the First Nation blockade line as a protester, Wild was shut out from both sides of the conflict. “That was hard to take personally, but I think it saved the film in the end. It pushed it in a new direction.”

Oscar Dennis is one of the few protesters we see in KONELĪNE. A linguist recording some of the last Tahltan-speaking elders in the area, Dennis is a passionate voice in the film. “We’re done. The monster is here. This is no longer a peaceful haven,” he says. But like many Tahltan in the area, he realizes the situation is complicated. “We also need the mine; that’s the reality.”

Earlier in the film we meet a First Nations diamond driller who has lovingly named his drill bit ‘Black Betty.’ He’s aware of the mining controversy but is unapologetic about his role in the situation. “Personally it’s putting food on my kids’ table,” he says. It’s tough though. Our elders fought for this land. What my grandparents are against, I’m doing.”

Wild deftly plays with these dualities throughout the film. In another scene of KONELĪNE, the camera follows a helicopter as it precariously transports a 16,000 pound transmission tower through the sky. Symbolic of the resource development industry, the tower is also unexpectedly beautiful, appearing like a flying cross high above the mountains. The film succeeds in creating tension not only through these small character portraits but through imagery as well. With its impressive cinematography from Montreal’s Van Royko, KONELĪNE is reminiscent of Manufactured Landscapes and Baraka, the latter of which inspired Wild while filming. “If what we were shooting looked like a picture postcard, we cut, and if it looked like an abstract oil painting, we rolled.”

It’s February 7th, opening night of the Available Light Film Festival and there’s a lineup for KONELĪNE. The 420-seat theatre at the Yukon Arts Centre is sold out. 20 members of the Tahltan First Nation have driven 10 hours to Whitehorse to see the film on a big screen and they’re mugging for photos on the festival’s makeshift red carpet. The documentary is billed as the ‘world premiere,’ but in truth the film has already played to audiences in Telegraph Creek, Dease Lake and Iskut.

Acting as producer, director and a/v technician, Wild drove down the Alaska highway with local journalist Meagan Deuling in tow. “We transformed the gymnasiums in those communities into little cinemas. We shot the film in Cinemascope, we put in a surround sound mix and it was really important to bring all of that to the Tahltan,” says Wild. “As soon as they walked in the door you could just see the magic of show biz happening.”

Wild didn’t know how people in these communities would respond. At her first screening in Telegraph Creek, a community nestled deep in the Stikine River canyon, Wild cautiously set out 40 chairs. By the time the screening began nearly half of the town’s 200 residents had turned out. “When they started to watch it, and then laugh, I knew we had hit a home run,” she says.

“It was a whole different kind of film distribution.” Wild nearly had to cancel her screening in Iskut after an elder in Telegraph Creek, a three hour drive away, died. She consulted with the elders to see if she could go ahead with the screening. It was agreed there would be no dancing or drumming before the film. Her commitment to the Tahltan paid off. First Nation elders in all three communities approached Wild to give thanks for the film.

She was also well received in Whitehorse. “As a proud Tahltan woman, I want to compliment you because you did well representing our people and our culture,” said one audience member who had brought her two young grandsons to the documentary. “I thought the part in the film where the community was saving the fish was just the most beautiful moment.” Wild won the audience choice award at the Available Light Film Festival.

“When you go into a community, any community, with a camera to make a documentary, really deep down they have no idea what you’re doing,” says Wild. “With the Tahltan in northwestern BC, there’s been a fair amount of anthropologists and documentary crews coming into their area and apparently they don’t show them their work afterwards…I wanted to make darn sure these stories got back to them and got back to them first.”

It’s all part of a shift Wild is undergoing in her own creative process. At 63, Wild isn’t chasing down stories the same way she did with her earlier films. “I’m in the middle of really changing the wayI make movies. I’m hungry as an artist to blow the doors off my art and push myself into making something new,” she says.

“There’s a kind of weariness about putting myself in the position of pushing people to be vulnerable, because they push back. And until people see the final film they don’t know what the heck you’re doing. That’s an intensely lonely place as a filmmaker. And there’s a part of me that just doesn’t want to go to that place anymore.”

It’s an unseasonably warm February morning in the Yukon and I’m zipping down the Klondike Highway with Wild to the tiny community of Carcross. Wild is effervescent, animatedly telling stories of how she got into filmmaking. In her early 30s, Wild wound up teaching street theatre to communist guerrilla fighters in the Philippines, where she and her group were bombed by government forces for four days straight. She decided to make her first documentary about the fighters’ struggle and it resulted in the award-winning film, A Rustling of Leaves. Since then, she’s made four more feature length documentaries, story-edited several films, worked as a professor and created content for non-profits and for the web.

Standing on an old train bridge in Carcross, Wild leans over the railing and, using her iPhone, intensely documents the patterns of ice that have formed on the shore. She doesn’t move until she’s gotten the picture just right. “Isn’t it beautiful,” she says.

A few years ago, while filming KONELĪNE, Wild started tracking the movements of salmon spawning up the Adams River in British Columbia. It was the largest salmon run that had ever been recorded in that area. “I was just completely knocked out by what I saw,” says Wild. “When I looked into the pools of the river, it was like looking at huge, swirling patterns of fish, like colossal, moving abstract art.” Unable to shake the image of these fish from her mind, Wild sought out funding from the National Film Board to create a short film. Again, she wanted to stay away from political rhetoric and hit her audiences viscerally rather than intellectually.

“You can’t recreate a river but you can give yourself permission to interpret it,” says Wild. That’s when Wild along with editor Michael Brockington and producer Betsy Carson (both of whom worked on KONELINE) came up with the idea of projecting images onto a vast outdoor public space in the centre of Vancouver. For three years her team captured footage of the fish underwater with a Phantom camera which shoots 800 frames per second. The footage was then shaped into an immersive 20-minute film that Wild plans to project every night during the summer of 2017.

“I’m finding a real thrill in going into an environment and trying to see if I can come up with extraordinary and compelling, abstract images through cinematic language,” she says. “It doesn’t rely on somebody peeling like an emotional banana. Rather, it falls back on me to see if I can see their world in a different way.”

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