Published on March 1st, 2012 | by Biz Books
The Biz Interview: Joel Heath – Director of “People of a Feather”
Noted Canadian ecologist Joel Heath spent five years developing his new documentary, People of a Feather. The winner for Best Environmental Film at the Vancouver International Film Festival and Best BC Film from the Vancouver Film Critics Circle, People of a Feather opens on March 2nd in Vancouver. Joel spoke to us about the film’s road to completion and what he learned from the Inuit people during the making of the documentary.
Can you walk us through your creative process for the production from the early stages all the way to the theatrical release?
It was definitely an evolving creative process, but the key was to make something that wasn’t talking heads, that was something that people who don’t normally watch documentaries would want to watch so we weren’t ‘preaching to the choir’. I had worked on Planet Earth, which is a great series, but I knew I wanted to avoid that style and let the images speak more for themselves. I was particularly interested in the traditional recreations given that Flaherty, the grandfather of documentary had got his start on the same islands as a geologist and explorer 100 years earlier. His footage from the islands was destroyed, and he ended up making Nanook of the North somewhere else.
People are still hunting eiders for food throughout the year, but there weren’t really many people left in town that knew how to make traditional eider skin clothing and we wanted to try and capture that part of their oral history while we still could! I also wanted to tell the story of the eider, show them diving under the sea ice, where this all started, and use the story of the eider to connect the past and present.
For the modern sequences, I had always had a camera before we every planned to make a film, so people were very comfortable and I just wanted to try and capture things as they happen in a way that wasn’t impeded by a big film crew. Let the scenes create themselves, adapt when circumstances change and focus on capturing the genuine moments. And try and capture the connection between different types of Inuit ingenuity – be it interacting with the environment, building a qamotiq (sled) monster garage style, or making a hip-hop video!
Simeonie, the lead character was talking his son Daniel winter hunting for the first time, and so that provided the core of the modern storyline, and takes us back out of life in town and onto the sea ice.
Of course many other creative processes began with editing, music and the rest of post-production!
What was the most important discovery that you made about the Inuit people during the making of the film?
Learning about how hydroelectric dams can influence sea ice ecosystems was pretty important! More generally is is about learning another way of knowing and experiencing the world. I had received my PhD, but as they often reminded me, I was still kindergarten in Inuit knowledge. Using a harpoon, understanding sea ice, fixing a skidoo, and a more holistic way of thinking about the environment. I think I’m maybe grade 5 now someone told me! Still a long ways to go, but not bad for a white guy.
What advice would you give to aspiring documentary filmmakers?
If you believe in the project enough to make it happen, it’s worth making. Meeting other filmmakers has been great. Of course no one making documentary is in it for the money, just really great passionate people and anyone can do it!
Are there any books or specific authors that have been influential to you during your journey as a filmmaker?
Quite a while ago, I hadn’t been reading much fiction, but after seeing the movie Contact, I ready the amazing book by Carl Sagan on a recommendation from a friend. It was the only piece of fiction he wrote, a scientist writing science fiction. Then I read a bunch of his stuff. He was a major inspiration for me philosphically as well as for finding simple ways to communicate complex ideas.
Are there any upcoming projects that you’re working on that you’d like to mention?
We have some other film projects in the works too. I’m particularly interested in producing an animated short about our hydrological cycle and energy solutions that can work with the seasons instead of against them. We created a charitable society to use proceeds from the film to try and address the issues. We are accomplishing this, for example, through providing meaningful employment to Inuit communities using their traditional skills to monitor sea ice ecosystems and understand the problem better. You can find out more about the activities of the society and how you can get involved at arcticeider.com
People of a Feather opens in select theatres on March 2nd, 2012. Please visit peopleofafeather.com for more information on the film and screening locations.