Dryden Observer – Culture & Events — 24 January 2012
It’s been an important year for Eagle Lake export Michelle Derosier, one half of award-winning Thunder Bay-based filmmakers, Thunderstone Pictures.
A career social worker turned filmmaker, Derosier has recently found herself on the leading edge of bringing national exposure to compelling stories and important issues facing Ontario’s Far North.
A 34 minute documentary released in 2011, titled ‘The Life You Want: A Young Woman’s Struggle Through Addiction’, is an intimate look at the life of oxycontin-addicted Fort Hope resident Doris Skipperjack, and has brought national attention to the prescription drug epidemic in the region. The documentary spurred CBC national radio program The Current, as well as high profile newspapers The Ottawa Citizen, The Vancouver Sun and Montreal Gazette to examine the issue in depth.
Derosier’s most recent work, ‘Return To Manomin’, hits closer to home. Three years in the making, Derosier documents her effort to re-introduce multiple generations of her own family living at nearby Eagle Lake and Wabigoon Lake First Nations to the traditional practice of harvesting manomin (wild rice) and in doing so regaining a deeper connection to their past and the land. The 72-minute film was an official selection at both the Biindigaate Film Festival and San Francisco’s American Indian Film Festival.
Michelle Derosier spoke to Observer Editor Chris Marchand via telephone, Jan. 12.
Dryden Observer: Describe your transition from social work to filmmaking. Did you get into film with a conscious intent to shine a light on social issues in northwestern Ontario?
Michelle Derosier: At the time I was working in Sioux Lookout and basically I was burnt out by a lot of the work I was doing and I wanted to do something different — something creative. I really felt like I need to take a different path. I still felt the need to do something useful and I wanted to do something with storytelling and images, but at the time I didn’t know what that was. I moved back to Thunder Bay and I met up with Dave Clement (Thunderstone partner) and we had a similar vision with what we wanted to see happen in terms of social change and dealing with issues.”
DO: ‘The Life You Want’ has been instrumental in gaining national exposure for an issue that is very important in the region. Can you talk about how that project came about?
MD: Jim Morris, who is the executive director of the Sioux Lookout First Nation Health Authority, had tried for a few years to get people’s attention about the issue of oxycontin — they were basically being ignored. They approached us. He wanted to create awareness and change around an issue that’s had a profound negative impact on the communities.
Sometimes film can be a really powerful tool to create social change. When the reports aren’t working anymore and nobody seemed to be listening, it can be a good way to get your message out, especially with social media being such a big part of our lives. You put something up on the web and you never know whether it’s going to go viral. If that happens you have access to a global audience.
DO: Can you describe the importance of having someone as brave and forthcoming as Doris Skipperjack involved in a project like this?
MD: Having Doris be so open, honest and courageous — we were really fortunate to have somebody like her come forward. And she’s done great. She’s really busy. She’s been speaking at different First Nations communities, she was on CBC’s The Current — a national radio program, and in the Ottawa Citizen recently. Her story is getting out there and it’s having a positive impact. I hear that in a lot of the feedback I get about the film.
DO: From your perspective as a First Nations person and a filmmaker, what are your observations of the First Nations relationship with the mainstream media? Is there a reluctance to participate?
MD: I just finished working with CBC’s Fifth Estate over the summer and we did a story called Stories From The Rivers Edge. There’s definitely some apprehension. People aren’t really quite sure about whether or not, or how much they should engage with mainstream media. And rightfully so too — if you fly up to a community and fly out the same day, which typically happens, how much do you know about those people? How much do you know about that community, their lives and the way that they see the world? You can miss the beauty in these places. Our first impression can often be, ‘Oh my gosh! This is terrible’. If you enter a community that is not reflective of your own worldview, then there is the chance that there might be misconceptions, or stereotypes. The stories are complicated, and complex — especially when you’re talking about First Nations and the reserve communities. It’s not as simple as people think because of the relationship with the federal government.
DO: Does the mainstream media have to change the way it approaches covering First Nations issues. Do you feel you are doing things any differently?
MD: “I’ve made myself, over the years, well aware of the history of the relationship between first peoples and the history of Canada. That’s been part of my own personal process and part of my education that’s been very important. I’m talking about treaties, The Indian Act and the reserve system itself. If you have some awareness about what these things mean and how they impact us as Canadians, then I think your story might be a little bit different. Especially in today’s age, I feel it’s a responsibility of mainstream media. People often say ‘that’s history, we need to move on,’ but it’s not history. It has an impact on daily lives, especially if you’re living on a First Nation today.”
DO: Your most recent film brings you back to the Dryden area in hopes of recapturing a part of your family’s heritage. What did you gain from that journey?
MD: I got the idea that I wanted to take four generations of my family back after a 30 year absence of harvesting manomin (wild rice) to a rice lake up the Sioux Lookout Highway. It’s kind of a personal journey and I did succeed in relearning to harvest wild rice, which I hadn’t done since I was 10 or 12 years old, and taught my children and grandchildren. There was an absolute spiritual connection to that place, that one little lake where my grandparents and great grandparents used to be, working the land. I believe we’re connected to that land and that there are spirits who live there.”
DO: The past few years seem to be a very exciting time for the arts in Thunder Bay, filmmaking in particular. Can you describe what’s happening in the creative scene?
MD: Often times what happens, in the arts community and especially in film, is that people have to leave Thunder Bay, go elsewhere to Toronto, Vancouver or Winnipeg. But here, in the last five years, people are making the decision that they aren’t going to leave and to start a real movement here. It makes absolute sense because there’s a lot happening. There are a lot of stories to tell.