The Reel Vancouver Vol. 15 – Joel Heath

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Hometown: St. John’s, Newfoundland
Age: 35
Favorite Documentary: Koyaanisquatsi, Lost in La Mancha
Dream Collaboration: Carl Sagan

Usually you’d have to wait another week for the next installment of The Reel Vancouver but when I learned of this next director (and his film’s impending Vancouver debut) I couldn’t wait to share his story with my favorite fan-couverites. So, coming to you a whole week early is my interview with the fascinating Joel Heath and review of his film People of a Feather.

But first, a little history…
The Belcher Islands (in South East Hudson’s Bay) were considered largely undiscovered by the modern world until Robert Flaherty began prospecting what would later become Flaherty Island and what had long been home to the Sanikiluaq community of Inuit people. Flaherty had taken with him a hand-cranked motion picture camera, and after observing the Inuit people and their traditions he decided to film them, hoping to share their stories with the rest of the world. (For those of you who already know the story of Nanook of the North this next bit will just be a refresher.)

Flaherty returned to Toronto with copious amounts of footage – 70 000 feet of film to be exact – and sat down to begin the tedious act of manually editing when the nitrate from the film combined with an ill-placed cigarette caused the entire stockpile to literally go up in smoke.

Devastated, he decided to return to Hudson’s Bay prepared, and in 1920 did just that. Only this time, he cast a “typical” Inuit family and had them reenact scenes he knew he had lost in the original footage. This would bring criticism from the community for years to come (an argument still rages on on whether or not Flaherty, a man known as the Grandfather of Documentary Film, deserves the title, and whether or not Nanook of the North should be considered a true documentary), but Flaherty achieved what he had set out to do: bring the stories and traditions of the Inuit people to the new world of 1920’s Canada.

Nearly 100 years later another young man was sent to the Belcher Islands with film equipment, this time in the hopes of gaining a better understanding of how the changing sea ice effected the Eider birds’ ability to survive the winter months. The outcome, however, is the same: Joel’s film People of a Feather is a breathtaking look at Inuit life today and 100 years ago, sharing a story of struggling to adapt to a quickly changing world, and a startling message to the rest of us that turning our backs on issues as seemingly “trivial” as the Eider bird population is going to come back to haunt us sooner (and louder) than we think.

I had the great privilege to sit down with Joel and talk about his film, working alongside the traditional community of Inuit people, and how we can turn despair into hope for the future.

You weren’t a filmmaker before this project so what is your background? And how did you end up deciding to make a film from a research project?
My background is actually in Biology. I started on the Belcher Islands as a research student and I was working with the community to understand the massive die offs of the Eider bird. But I think that ended up being a major strength of the film, you know, that I didn’t head up there with the intention of making a film. It was something that came naturally out of the research and my close work with the community, and we eventually decided to do it together. I was already filming to observe the ducks, and using the time lapse equipment to study the ice formations and so it was just the next step in what we were already doing.

At first we were just really excited to have a bunch of great underwater footage of the birds diving beneath the ice to feed, which is something the people in the community have never seen, so we decided to put something together to show them what we were watching all day. That ended up going so much better than we thought, so we knew from there that this was something we wanted to show more people and teach the rest of Canada and the World what was happening in the Arctic. From there we just kept thinking bigger and bigger and bigger…

There’s obviously a lot of Robert Flaherty to be seen in the film, did you have that in mind once you had decided to make the film, and did you study documentaries to prepare?
I definitely did a lot of research, especially on Flaherty because of the similarities between our stories. I tried to learn more about him and his films, and he was certainly a big part of the motivation for doing the flashbacks. But like I said, I always thought one of my greatest strengths during this process was my lack of influences from other documentaries. I just knew that I wanted to show the juxtaposition of the past and present and let the Eider serve as the through line that connected it all. I wanted to show that by learning how we’ve changed, we can better adapt to an uncertain future.


How did you find the crossover from science-minded research to artistic-minded filmmaking?
I’d done 35mm still photography before so I’d always been interested in that, I hadn’t done a lot of video, I’d made some travel logs while living in Africa for a while but I really started using video because we needed to film the birds study them underneath the ice. I’ve always been interested in storytelling, I was involved in theater a little bit when I was younger but never pursued anything beyond that. So I think the interest was always there, and this was just the opportunity that helped develop it. I’m sure I came at it differently than if I had been to film school, but I think that turned out to be a strength, that I was able to bridge the gap between the quantitative and qualitative, the natural and the social science of it, and the Inuit had a totally different way of doing it, so between the two of us there was definitely a learning curve.

Can you speak to how important your relationship with the community was?
Definitely, this wouldn’t have happened if the community wasn’t on board, and at the end of the day every single family was involved in some way or another. Whether it was making the clothing, or telling us about their history, helping us out on the land, I think the relationship was built as I returned each year, and the people saw that I wasn’t there to make a film and cut and run. Elijah and Simeonie, who became the main characters of the film, quickly became my best friends up there, and we spent everyday hanging out, working on the ice.

I wanted to prove that I was invested in this community for the long term, because these issues have been around a lot longer than I’ve been spending winters on the islands; hydroelectric projects have been effecting Belcher winters for over twenty years and the community’s concerns have since gone unheard, so they were excited to learn they could have a platform to reach a wider audience with their message.

What was the greatest challenge you faced?
There were lots of different challenges along the way but creating the clothing was probably the biggest. To cover an entire family in traditional clothing was consuming, and it took over a year and a half just to get that done. It’s so worth it in the end to see, though, eh?

We got people to donate the skins when they hunted in the fall, and then as a part of the culture program we brought in and hired elders to teach the kids in the school how each piece was made and together they finished the outfits. So, it was both practical for the film as well as an educational aspect for the community.

What’s been the greatest reward?
The most rewarding thing was at first showing it to the community, feeling their response. At first we weren’t too sure how it would go over, even Simeonie and Elijah were nervous to see how people would take it. Ultimately, we had an amazing response, much better than we thought we’d get. We knew that was a momentum we could take to the rest of the world.

Then we showed it in Toronto and Vancouver for the film festivals (Hot Docs and VIFF) and brought some of the Inuit involved to see the people’s reaction to it. My worlds started to overlap, too, my arctic friends met my city friends and my city friends met my arctic friends and that was really great, just to bring those two aspects of my life together for the first time.

Finally to hear people discussing the issues after the film, to know that we’ve started to open a dialogue on these issues is great. People always worry about rivers flooding the land but they rarely think about the impact those changes are going to have on the marine environment and now they’re talking, so to keep this momentum up is amazing.

What is it really like living in that box?
It’s definitely cold. The first couple of years it wasn’t too bad, I wasn’t doing too much photography through the window of the box, it was all underwater, so you could keep the window up and heat the box. But once we started to shoot through the window we couldn’t heat the box because of the temperature difference from inside to outside, the lens on the camera would fog up. So cold was a big part of it, I mean, chipping ice off the camera, cold.

The nice thing was once we started making the film and using the time lapse equipment, and doing more oceanography, I was able to get out of the box for a little while. I got to explore and learn more about what Inuits do. The first year I went up there to make the film, most of that year I spent just learning Inuit skills, I may have had my PhD but I was still a Kindergardener to them, and I’m still learning, I’m no where near an expert on the skills and culture. It was great, though, I learned to look at weather differently, test the ice with a harpoon, drive and navigate in arctic conditions, I definitely learned a lot more than while I was living in the box.

There’s a lot of heartbreaking images of the birds struggling, how do you keep your hope during those times, or do you?
I’m not a doom and gloom guy, that’s not my style. There’s definitely serious issues, I agree with the Inuit that hydroelectric projects are having a huge effect on sea ice and arctic marine ecosystems, the Eider bird is just the canary in the coal mine, though, because thinning ice means the people in the community can’t get around as safely to hunt for food and clothing. But on the flip side, with a little proactivity from the hydro companies, we could be moving toward a less oil-dependent society. We need to work on storing the energy more effectively so that we’re not effecting the current and reversing the hydrological seasons. So, I am optimistic, and that’s what keeps us going with the film, the hope that with an open (or opening) dialogue surrounding the issues, we can get more people on our side and we can get the ball rolling on more sustainable energy solutions.

What is the most important message you want people walking out of your film with?
I think there’s two; first and foremost, it’s a cultural film to help the public understand a little bit more about what life is like in the arctic, the relationship between the people and the land, and how connected people can be to their food, people now are so disconnected from their food and land. So definitely a big part of it is just to show the arctic and let people get to know the landscape and the ice, so everyone can have the chance to see what it’s like.

The second part of that is to open a dialogue about how hydroelectric projects effect the oceans and to think about generating new programs to study the effect of hydroelectric projects all over the world. We’re reversing the seasons of our hydrological cycle and it’s important that people start thinking about that and start gaining momentum on important changes.

People of a Feather begins a Vancouver tour on Friday starting at the Vancity Theater March 2nd-5th, then at Denman Cinemas March 6th-9th, and then finally at the Rio Theater March 10th and 11th. And Joel will be in attendance for the March 2nd screening at Vancity.

This film was produced on a not-for-profit basis and involved extensive out of pocket costs, and Joel and his team are still looking for distribution funds and financial support for their film, if you are interested in donating and earning a credit (or a chance to win an Arctic Expedition!) visit the film’s website at www.peopleofafeather.com – or, if you’d like to donate to help preserve the habitat of the Eider Bird you can visit the Arctic Eider Society’s website at http://www.arcticeider.com/