The POV Interview: Nettie Wild, Part Two

In part two of a career-ranging conversation with POV’s editor, Nettie Wild talks about her filmmaking process and her documentaries.

48 mins read

In a world increasingly addicted to speed, slick packaging and mass production, the career of Nettie Wild evokes a different time. The Vancouver based filmmaker carefully chooses her projects and spends years getting to know the highly charged political and emotional situations she documents. Whether she’s working in the Philippines during a civil war (A Rustling of Leaves), in northern British Columbia examining a standoff between First Nations people and non-natives (Blockade), covering addicts and at risk individuals in Vancouver (FIX, Bevel Up) or looking at a uniquely poetic revolution in rural Mexico (A Place Called Chiapas), Wild brings an extraordinary level of concern for her subjects and an intense desire to tell a true story about what she has encountered to every film.


Wild brings her theatrical background to each documentary she creates. Interviewing her is dramatic as well because she’s a born raconteur, who tells wonderful tales about her filmmaking experiences. That’s why POV has run its interview with Nettie Wild in two issues. In issue #70, she discussed her family background and the making of her Vancouver films FIX: Story of an Addicted City and Bevel Up. In this, the final instalment, she talks about her filmmaking process and the documentaries A Rustling of Leaves, Blockade and A Place Called Chiapas.

NW: Nettie Wild
MG: Marc Glassman


MG: You’ve worked with Kirk Tougas as DOP (cinematographer) on all of your films, and Betsy Carson has been your producer for a long time. But you choose a different editor every time. Why?

NW: Scheduling. My edits are always five to eight months long and a successful editor is often booked on another production. I would love to work again with any one of the editors I have previously teamed up with. It’s such an intimate relationship. Choosing an editor and your DOP are the two big decisions you make as a filmmaker.

I find myself looking for who has really thrilled me with their work on the screen, whether it’s in drama or documentary. I’m not looking for Mr. or Ms. Politically Correct. I want somebody who’s not so much loyal to the issue, but to the story.

Take Michael Brockington whom I worked with on Bevel Up, for instance. I saw what he did with a really lovely film from Vancouver called On the Corner. It’s a beautiful edit, so abstract, and yet the scaffolding of the story is solid.

When I went looking for an editor for FIX: The Story of an Addicted City, I remembered Hard Core Logo, which had been cut beautifully by Reg Harkema. I went, “Wham. I want that.” Reg at that time had worked almost exclusively in drama. Here was this guy with a big reputation but he was really humble when he began FIX. He came into the edit suite and said, “This is like going back to school. I want to learn how to nail the structure of a documentary.” He was fantastic.

With A Place Called Chiapas, (editor) Manfred Becker couldn’t speak Spanish but he brought to the production an extraordinarily dramatic sense of film language, which I thought was more important.

My first really big film was A Rustling of Leaves. I’d been through this guerrilla war in the Philippines and emerged with 64,000 feet of exposed film. I had hired Peter Wintonick as my editor because Peter Katadotis, the head of the NFB at the time, had provided camera gear plus film stock and processing on a $5000 grant and then said, “If you hire Peter Wintonick, I’ll fly him out to Vancouver.”

I remember the first day of editing with Peter. He said, “Well, okay. What do you want the first scene to be?” And I didn’t have a clue. (laughs) Wintonick saw that blank look on my face and said, “Oh. Let’s go to the cards.” And we began the process of recording all of my footage and coming up with a paper edit. Then there was this wonderful moment when we actually moved into the edit suite. We had worked out that we would start with the sugar workers. I sat down beside Peter— and he didn’t do anything. He just kind of looked at me. I got up at one point and went to get something to drink. Once I was out of the room, I heard the Steenbeck fire up. But when I came back ten minutes later, Wintonick stopped. I looked at him and didn’t quite know what to do. So I left and I heard the sound of the Steenbeck again. I realized, “Oh, okay. When I’m out of the room, he works.” I came back at the end of the day after Peter had left to take a look at what he’d cut together and it took my breath away. I didn’t want to change a frame.

The way he cut it on that first day was almost exactly what ended up opening the film in the final cut. When I worked on Blockade, Jeff Warren came out from Toronto and we mapped out a paper edit. Then he sat down at the editing bench, still on a Steenbeck at this point, and I left the room and Jeff started to work away. Later, I came back in, gave him notes and left the room again. After a couple of days of this, Jeff finally looked up at me and said, “When are you going to come and sit next to me? Because I want you right here.” And he patted the seat next to his—and that’s where I sat for the edit of Blockade. I used to snooze with my head on the editing bench.

What I learned was: the whole trick to being a director is that you’re there to provide the overarching vision of a film, as difficult and at times murky as that might be. But on location it’s not my job to tell Kirk Tougas how to frame. And in the editing room, it’s not my job to tell an editor to cut here or cut there. What I do try to do is to create a kind of creative soup, which serves the needs of my crew, a creative environment where fabulous artists want to work with you and put their heart, soul and art into the production.


MG: How did you make the transition from theatre to your first full-length film, A Rustling of Leaves: Inside the Philippine Revolution?

NW: Headlines Theatre, the company I co-founded, produced a play, which looked at Canada and how we were tied into the military industrial complex. At that time Canada was selling nuclear reactors to [the dictator] Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines. Our play took place half in Canada and half in the Philippines. While we were performing Under the Gun on tour, Ninoy Aquino (the Filipino opposition leader) was assassinated. We were in Winnipeg at that time. Up to that point, nobody seemed to know where the Philippines was— but after Acquino’s death, the Philippines was in the news and we had full houses.

A lot of Filipinos encouraged me to go to the Philippines to work with popular theatre there. I got a Canada Council grant and while I was in the Philippines, word filtered out about me. A commander of the (insurrectionary) New People’s Army (NPA) asked me and a Filipina actress to go up to the mountains to create a play with NPA foot soldiers. The reason that Commander Raul invited us to come up into the mountains was that the majority of people in the countryside were illiterate. If the revolutionary army wanted to get any kind of point across, Raul thought that popular theatre might be a way to do it.

Our assigned topic was to do a play about “the fallen comrade” for the NPA’s upcoming 17th anniversary celebrations. So we started to work with the guerrilla army, which for the most part was made up of boys between 15 and 21. At that point, I was 34 years old, which made me the second oldest person in the entire army. The guerrillas used to call me “Oia,” a nickname that means grandmother. They could have been my kids but they were carrying M-16s.

One of the actors in this play we created was the radio operator, a wonderful guy by the name of Poloy. He was hilarious. He was the lead comic character, the evil landlord, and he loved being centre stage. So we were rehearsing and as often happens when word gets out that there is actually going to be a play, people started to show up for the performance—way more people than they had anticipated. Instead of a motley crowd of about 50, there were 500 people out in the mountains getting ready to watch our play.

The night before the anniversary, people were sleeping in hammocks in trees—guerrilla soldiers and local villagers. There were no buildings, apart from a few farmers’ houses that were being seconded for use, but that’s about it. We were all swinging around in our hammocks late at night when suddenly we heard bombs dropping and realized that they were really close. The decision was made, “We’re moving out.”

Next morning we had established a new camp on this beautiful grassy knoll with a lovely open space and Raul said, “This would be a great place to have a play.” And I’m going, “Are you sure you still want to stage a performance?” “Oh yeah, of course.” And so they set it up, all the while reassuring me, “No problem. If the enemy shows up, we’ve got rear guard action that can take care of them.” The anniversary celebrations commenced. We were just settling in, listening to the revolutionary priest explain about imperialism, feudalism and bureaucrat capitalism when we heard “Ba-ba-ba-ba BOOM BOOM BOOM.” Poloy went running past me, yelling, “Oia, forget the play! This is the real thing!” We were being attacked by howitzers.

We were on the run for four days—over 500 of us— guerilla soldiers, villagers and me. And let me tell you, Marc, for a girl from West Vancouver, it was like watching some kind of B-movie—except I was in it, you know? I witnessed what it meant for the local people to support a revolution. I actually saw the mountains open up, allow us to pass through, and close down behind us. At the end of it, we were in a very beautiful village that was completely vacated by its habitants to make room for us. Once again, we were hanging in our hammocks at night.

I had been recording the whole thing for CBC radio, including the firefight. My tape recorder was being passed from one hammock to the next as the Red Fighters replayed the sounds of the battle we had survived. It was this idyllic setting with a full moon. Commander Raul hung his hammock next to mine. He had once studied to be an agricultural engineer. In his final year at university he led students in demonstrations against clear-cut logging which earned him a spot on president Marcos’ black list. Raul fled underground. Now, surveying the sea of hammocks, he leaned over to me and said, “I bet your momma never prepared you for anything like this.” I looked at him and the other young soldiers and I realized —they were me. They were my opposite number. If I had been born here rather than New York City, if I lived here rather than West Vancouver, I would be one of them. And that’s the moment when I decided that this was a story that had been given to me to tell.

Raul and I wrote out a film proposal on onion skin paper. I said to him, “Here’s the deal. We need to tell the story with warts and all, because propaganda won’t fly. This isn’t a knitting circle. If I come back we’re going to have to be able to film a tactical offensive. We’re going to have to film a People’s Court as well as the educational and agrarian reform programs. And I have to film people’s personal stories.” So we made a deal. If I could go back to Canada, and based on absolutely no reputation whatsoever, raise money and get a crew to come back to the Philippines, and if Raul and the others were still alive, we would make a film together. We took that proposal and folded it up into a little square, put it in my shoe and I walked out of the mountains. And that was the beginning of A Rustling of Leaves.

MG: That’s quite the story. You obviously wanted to come back and do it, but there must have been a couple of moments in the B-movie where the girl from West Vancouver was going, “My god, I could be killed any second now.”

NW: There’s only been three times in my entire life where I’ve experienced that real fear. Where it actually has a taste. It’s the taste of metal in your mouth. And where adrenaline is pumping through your body so strongly that you are aware of every different blade of grass around you. It’s phenomenal. But those moments are very rare.

For the most part you’re just trying to meet impossible logistics. It’s kind of banal in its own way. We had to hide equipment in the jungle and remember where it was. Arrange for exposed stock to be smuggled out. Keep mountain mud out of the film gate. And no matter how tired we were, we had to keep filming the details of guerrilla life that would make this story make sense. If you don’t get properly exposed images on film, you don’t get key sequences. If it’s not in the can, it didn’t happen and you’re going to pay the piper in the editing room. So it becomes a killer kind of tunnel vision. And I’m sure anybody who is involved in any kind of huge project can relate to that. It’s very human. It starts to boil down into concrete little practical steps and it sounds weird but it completely subsumes the fear. Until you’re in an actual attack situation.

MG: Oh sure. But it is one thing to compartmentalize, and another thing altogether when there are real chances that something terrible could really happen. I see how you worked it out, but it is an interesting process anyway.

NW: But Marc, I am surrounded by people for whom the stakes are much higher. The people in front of the lens are risking their lives daily. For the most part I am scrambling to make sure I don’t get in their way—that the act of filming doesn’t put their lives in even more danger.

An important part of the process are those conversations about who will appear in front of the camera, whose face will be exposed and why. I’ve always said that I’ve had the most sophisticated conversations about media and the power of the image with barefoot people carrying guns in the mountains. And let me tell you, they discuss these points in a very knowing way. These conversations are extremely pragmatic and very sophisticated.

MG: Because they want to get their story out.

NW: Yes. Here’s an example. In the Philippines we asked the New People’s Army, “Do we want to be filmed with masks or without?” They decided, “We want to be filmed without masks because we want people to understand that we’re human beings. That we’re not bandits. And we will put plans in place to try to protect those faces.” But nothing is guaranteed. So why risk so much? This is what they explained to me: “Nobody outside of our village, let alone this country, knows enough to care if we live or die because they don’t know that we even exist in the first place.” So the stakes are very high. These people live very complicated political lives on the ground. Getting their story out is crucial.

MG: Your films are known for their complexity, for taking audiences to an unexpected aspect of character and politics. What do you look for?

NW: I get pulled into a story by people who are fighting to control their own lives and facing extraordinary challenges to try to gain that control. If there’s a throughline to all my films, that’s it. But I’m not pulled into making a film by or for a political movement. Inevitably however, there is some sticky point when the character you are following runs smack up against a contradiction in their life or political movement.

That’s when the stakes are the highest. If the enemy is shooting at you, that’s one thing. But if contradictions within your own family or within your own movement or revolution are really threatening you, that’s where life becomes very difficult. Those are the real challenges that people on the ground have to face. People may be happy to be on camera when they look heroic, but understandably they can balk when the going gets tough and they are more vulnerable. As a filmmaker, if you choose to film those inner conflicts, it can become a very lonely place.

There was a time during the shoot of A Rustling of Leaves when the Communist Party—but not the NPA— got very nervous about how deep I had penetrated their guerrilla army. While the NPA had confidence in me and our objective to film their revolution including its contradictions, their political bosses in the Communist Party did not. The party tried to stop me by pulling my access and refusing to allow me back into the mountains. I didn’t know whether there were people literally gunning for me or not, but I was very frightened and I was very alone. I called Canada and cancelled my crew until I could regroup and until my allies within the NPA could hopefully get me back into the mountains again. I was hiding in Manila under an assumed name in a safe house and waiting for my contact to call. I was so completely alone I came as close as I ever have been to going completely crazy. A month later, my call came and the NPA smuggled me back into the mountains.


MG: With Blockade you returned home to film in Northern British Columbia. Was it interesting to actually be back to your own turf?

NW: Yes, it was. I have always liked the pattern of alternating between shooting abroad and at home. It’s a real privilege.

After the Philippines, I returned to Canada in the early 90’s. There were a lot of blockades happening all over British Columbia, but there was a confusion at that time between environmentalists who were fighting logging and trying to establish parks and natives who were struggling to establish their own sovereignty. And then there were natives and non-natives on both sides of the logging debate. While I wasn’t very conversant with any of it, I recognized that I wanted to find a story that would take me into what I sensed was the real nut of the debate and ask, ‘whose land is this anyway?’

After traveling around from one blockade to another, I came upon the Gitsxan and Wet’suwet’en in northern BC. Their claim to over 22,000 square miles of land presented a phenomenal challenge on three fronts: in the courts, on the land (on blockades) and moving very strategically on the political front. At the heart of it, they were saying that their oral history is as legitimate as white written history. And that once the white courts accept that, then non-natives have to accept that the First Nations existed in the past with laws and a system of government that was in place at the point of contact. So it was very profound. And it took me deep into a mountain valley in northern British Columbia, which both First Nations and non-natives called home.

Don Ryan, the chief negotiator for the Gitsxan, was the person who, when the going got tough, not only said that I could continue filming, but dared me not to stop. We had just filmed an extraordinary sequence following the Frog clan as they evicted a white couple off their land. The Jonkmans were from Ontario and were pouring the foundations of their retirement home on riverfront property they had just purchased from a white real estate agent. Unbeknownst to them, the Jonkmans had bought one of the most hotly contested hereditary fishing sites in Gitsxan territory. Following the eviction, we subsequently filmed a Frog clan meeting, which was interrupted by members of the Killer Whale clan. Irate Killer Whales claimed that according to their history, the Jonkman’s property belonged not to the Frogs, but in fact, to the Killer Whales. At that point Don Ryan said to me, “You think what’s important—and a lot of your audiences are going to think what’s important—is the conflict between the white family and the Gitsxan. What’s important to us, however, is the conflict that’s been going on for hundreds of years between the Frogs and the Killer Whales. This is a lived example of what we’re fighting to prove has existed since time immemorial: our justice system, our government, our system of ownership and land use—the whole works.”

MG: You tend to not take sides in an easy way. Sometimes it’s obvious who the villains are, but often you seem to be able to uncover complexities.

NW: Objectivity is a goal to pursue with rigour, but you can never reach it. I explore both sides of the story—or the many sides of a story—in search of the complexity of the drama, not to prove my objectivity. How in the world can you show a conflict if you only have one side? I want to know the heart that is beating on the “other side.” If you don’t understand the complexities, then you’re just perpetrating conflicts. You’re saying that these guys are cool, but those guys were born mean. And it just doesn’t cut it when you’re in a village in Chiapas and it’s one brother fighting another. It doesn’t cut it when you’ve got the Killer Whales taking on the Frogs. When you put complexity in a film, you can feel the audience moving forward in their seats and asking themselves, “Shit, what would I do in this situation?”

MG: What was the reaction to Blockade? The press response was fine, naturally, but locally, how did people respond?

NW: We had our first screening in Hazelton. Pretty soon the audience started to argue with everybody on the screen. The room was just cooking throughout the entire film. We had a discussion afterwards and the whole debate started all over again, right there and then. It just kind of exploded. Peter Gzowski had sent somebody up for Morningside, his national CBC radio show, with a microphone to get everybody’s comments. And it was hilarious. There it was, 20 below at midnight on the usually sleepy, snowy streets and this reporter was running around recording the good citizens of Old Hazelton arguing at the top of their lungs.

As Blockade moved out throughout the province, particularly at the Vancouver screenings, people were shocked. In Blockade, while Wing Chief Art Loring fought to save his chief’s hereditary lands from logging crews, environmentalists were taken aback that Gitsxan Chris Skulsh not only allowed his land to be clear cut, but made money off of it. He drove a logging truck and was part of the whole deal. It didn’t fit the paradigm. It wasn’t just brown guys against white guys with the noble First Nations fitting conveniently on the environmentalists’ side. And the “evil” white guy who felled a million trees in his career was 48, grew up all his life in the valley he was clearcutting and just barely made a living. The politics up there were way more nuanced than had been translated and boiled down to fit the rhetoric in the urban settings.


MG: So then Chiapas. When did you decide to go down to Mexico to check out Subcomandante Marcos and the Zapatista uprising?

NW: I can tell you exactly. It was January 1, 1994. I’d covered a guerrilla war in the Philippines, then the First Nations’ struggle for land in Canada, and here was an armed, indigenous uprising in Mexico. And there was Marcos, this totally bizarre, charismatic guy smoking a pipe, wearing a mask and a radio headset, quoting poetry, and in cahoots with an indigenous army that had managed to take over five towns and 500 ranches.

Some time after the uprising, some cultural attaché in Mexico City was putting together a celebration of Canada and Mexico’s cultural ties. It was all part of the Free Trade hoo-ha. And they programmed Blockade. It was terribly promoted and nobody showed up to any of the movies but Wing Chief Art Loring and I jumped on a plane, went to Chiapas and brought along Blockade. We talked our way into Zapatista territory, got a TV set and a long extension cord, ran it out from a generator and sat in a basketball court surrounded by barefoot indigenous people with a translator and showed the film. Even though they didn’t speak English and Art and the other Gitsxan looked a lot wealthier than they did, when the Zapatistas saw the Gitsxan fishing, they got it. They understood that there were Indians in Canada and they were fighting for their land just like the Indigenous people were in Mexico.

At that time, the Zapatistas were tying white ribbons around their guns because, according to Marcos, “This signifies the ultimate paradox: Guns that seek to be silent.” Marcos and the Zapatistas were fighting for control over their lives with ideas and extraordinary political theatre. To me, it was a high stakes drama driven by unforgettable characters.

To ask for permission to film, I met with the indigenous leadership of the Zapatistas during ceasefire negotia- tions. The Zapatistas spoke five different indigenous languages. They had to learn Spanish to come to the negotiating table. These teeny Zapatista comandantes with their masks and traditional clothing would meet with guys in suits and briefcases from Mexico City. The extraordinary, mind-bending negotiations would last all day. After their evening meal, the Zapatistas would meet people who had come from all over Mexico and the world to see them—including me.

I explained to them that I needed to film their communities, but I also needed to film the ranchers and the military. Comandante Tacho stood up and said “Why do you need to film the other side? The mainstream media is covering their story all the time. We can barely get our voice out. We’ve got enough to do. We don’t need to deal with this.” And then this wonderful guy, Comandante Daniel, who appears very briefly in the film, stood up and asked, “If she doesn’t film the ranchers and the military, how in the world are people going to understand why we had the uprising in the first place?” To myself, I went “Mmmwah! Thank you, whoever you are behind that mask.” And Daniel kept me in the territory for the rest of the project. He got it. He got storytelling. He got conflict. Then we were off and running.

MG: Did Marcos disappoint you? He seems to be a paradoxical figure—very difficult to know.

NW: Yes I was disappointed. I found myself in that lonely place again.

In 1996, we began shooting within the official conflict zone during this very uneasy ceasefire. The Mexican military had completely surrounded the jungle villages controlled by the Zapatistas. I asked Marcos for an interview. I came with a very extensive proposal to see if he would like to actually be a part of the making of the film. He kept putting me off for months and his handlers kept on saying, “While you wait, you should really go film outside of the conflict zone. You should film up in the mountains because that’s where the real difficulties are.” And I kept thinking to myself “No, that’s another movie. I’m having a hard enough time wrapping my Canadian brain around the conflict zone and the ceasefire with the Zapatistas on one side, and Mexican military and ranchers on the other.”

Then one day I went to pay a courtesy visit to the Bishop of San Cristobal who was a very progressive guy. I just went to say “Hello, at some point we’d like to film you.” He took one look at me and said, “You’re coming with me tomorrow.” I said, “I am?” He said, “Yes, bring your camera. We’re going to the north—outside of the conflict zone.” And he said it in a way that a Bishop can say it and you know you can’t say no. I didn’t have a camera operator but I had a camera and two fixed lenses. I managed to get a soundman overnight down from Mexico City, and with my good friend and camera assistant Robin Bain, we took off after the Bishop.

He took us into a complicated story of incredible depth. The Zapatistas and the Bishop wanted me to film civil rights abuses and document killings that were happening in far flung Zapatista civilian villages out of sight of the media. And all of this was during the time of a supposed ceasefire. Traveling with the Bishop, we ran into refugees fleeing from their own villages having been kicked out by right wing paramilitary forces. In filming the refugees, we ran into the big Catch-22 facing the Zapatistas: what happens when civilians follow the Zapatista vision, but the Zapatista army cannot protect their supporters from retaliation?

I had to take that question back to Marcos—because it became the key dramatic question which the refugees, and eventually the film, was asking. It was a difficult question to ask—it exposed the contradiction the communities were living on the ground. So I wrote Marcos a long letter and said, “Okay, this is where we’re at. I’m prepared to have a complicated conversation with you, some of it on camera, some of it not.” And he wouldn’t go there. Nothing. Until finally we asked the question at a press conference. And man, it was tense. His reaction was like “You don’t do that. You have shown your colours. You are on the other side.” And that’s when he sent me the note saying, “Your interview and your project is not possible and you know why.” That was a huge disappointment.

That’s when I realized that while Marcos was encour- aging others to confront their contradictions, it sure didn’t look like he was going to dance with his own. Eventually he gave us the interview, perhaps because he realized that we weren’t going away.

At first, the majority of his responses on camera were very flat and I knew they were going to fall to the cutting room floor and stay there. Until I asked him about his personal experience and then he changed gears and all of a sudden, we got something extraordinary. He said, “For Zapatistas, death is like an old acquaintance at the table.” And he went through what it was like for him as an outsider to leave the city and join the indigenous movement in the mountains. He spoke about how he felt like somebody from the moon arriving in the indigenous villages and he spoke of the loneliness of that time. He went to a deep, philosophical place, which is where his poetry lies. And then he rode off into the night.

In my heart of hearts, I knew the point of the movie shouldn’t be the argument between myself and Marcos. In fact, I’ll tell you, Manfred Becker was not just a superb editor, but he was very kind to me. Basically, he indulged me by cutting a vitriolic version, just to get it out of my system. It was very clear this cut was not of any interest to anybody, not even me. It had no import. What was much more important was the story of the Zapatistas, not Nettie being miffed. In the final version, one thread of the dramatic scaffolding for the film is built around, “Will Nettie be able to get the interview with Marcos?” But it’s a very thin premise that simply serves to introduce the audience to the more important story and question facing the Zapatistas and the refugees: How does a democratic movement emerge out of an armed uprising and how do you protect those who support you from deadly reprisals? These are questions, which challenge every darn democratic movement on the planet.a lesson learned

MG: It’s silly to boil things down to one dictum, but is there a central lesson you’ve learned while making your films?

NW: I figure I may not be able to portray 100 percent of a complicated situation, but the 60 percent that I can document—or even the 10 percent—hopefully represents a great deal more than what the audience has been able to see and understand before they walked into the cinema. And as long as there is a compassion and complexity in my storytelling, which hints at the extraordinary lives of our real life characters, I can live with that.

Marc Glassman is the editor of POV Magazine and contributes film reviews to Classical FM. He is an adjunct professor at Toronto Metropolitan University and is the treasurer of the Toronto Film Critics Association.

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