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Highway of Tears Documentary Hits the Roads

Those who remember the lineups for the Vancouver screenings of the documentary Highway of Tears in March won't be surprised the film is attracting crowds in other cities and towns, as well.

The tireless actor-activist and Highway-director Matt Smiley reports from his travels in a conversation with Reel West:

RW: The film's Facebook page is filled with film screening events. Any idea how many kilometres you've traveled so far?

Matt Smiley: We've had a little over 60 screenings since December, which is pretty impressive, since I really didn't think the film was getting much traction near the end of 2014. I was a bit down on my spirits, as I felt that maybe people weren't really interested in the topic. It took all of three festivals to light a fire for us (Zonta Film Festival, Malibu Film Festival and Women in Film & Television Vancouver) that has carried the film till this moment. We certainly didn't expect to win any of the festivals, so that definitely gave us a bit of credibility and exposure.

The bulk of my traveling started in March when we screened in Vancouver for the Women in Film & Television festival (#VIWIFF2015). I was planning being gone from home for a week and a half. That ended up getting stretched through till the end of May, traveling from one coast of the country to the other. Without even blinking, we probably did a good 5,000-6,000 km in BC alone. One of our interviewees and fellow activist, Doug Leslie and I did a lot of the BC journey together. We got to know each other really well and it seemed to be a great learning experience for the both of us. I then traveled across the country several times with special screenings in Montreal, Halifax, Ottawa and a life-changing experience in Whitehorse when we screened the film along with the Walking With Our Sisters Installation. That is a memory I'll never forget.

It was also great to finally meet Delilah Saunders and her family in Halifax. We screened the film to help raise funds for her sister's scholarship, which was a really positive experience. Delilah and her family wanted to do something positive on the first day of the trial and I think we achieved that. It was also amazing that private companies, like Dadavan stepped up and donated large sums of money to support the foundation.

The pinnacle of screenings, even though it was a small attendance, was in Ottawa. I was happy to share the screening with Delilah and a surprise guest, Barb Ward-Burkitt from the Native Friendship Centre in Prince George. Barb was one of the first people I interviewed on the documentary and now a great friend. MP Niki Ashton had run into her at a meeting on Parliament Hill and secretly invited her to a screening MP Marc Garneau had set up. It was nice to see some familiar faces like Nathan Cullen (who came to our Terrace screening) and people coming together to try and find solutions on how to prevent crimes and violence. I'm still upset the Conservatives didn't support Niki's motion-444 that would've put an action plan into place to help protect ALL women. Hopefully we're getting closer to our government being pressured to take action. It is needed!

Overall, I think I personally travelled a good 20,000-25,000 km in planes and just under 10,000 km by car. I even got to ride from Toronto to Waterloo with my dear friend, Gladys Radek (see picture). Her War Pony broke down this past year, but a friend of hers lent her a truck to travel. I'm in awe of the energy and love she has for the missing men & women across North America. What I've travelled is a small fraction to the road she has walked in honour of the missing & murdered.

RW: You've showcased the film in communities large and small. How was the reception of the film?

MS: Surprisingly, the response in Ontario has been very strong. We've screened there several times and the community dialogues that ensue are always very intense. Emotions run deep and there are many cries for action. I've always said it, the Highway of Tears runs straight across the country. It's not just one stretch of road in northern BC. I'm learning that everyday as the letters pour in from survivors and families of victims. I feel we've only scratched the surface of the issues we need to deal with in order to make our communities safer for women (& men) across the country.

Our weakest screenings (attendance) were in Calgary and Winnipeg. For the small amount of people that went, the feedback was positive, but for the most part, people avoided the film. I guess some communities aren't ready to face the reality of what is happening to aboriginal men & women.

RW: What were the more surprising reactions of the audience?

MS: In Halifax a woman came up to me after one of the screenings and said that the issue missing and murdered women didn't affect her community. I was surprised by her reaction since she had just sat through the film, then listened to Delilah Saunders and her family talk for roughly an hour about Loretta - there also wasn't one newspaper or television channel that wasn't covering her case, which had Halifax turned upside down with media. Other cases in the area were mentioned in our Q&A, but I guess you can't convince everyone that violence happens everywhere . . .

The most surprising to me was the amount of people directly affected by violence. Dr. Carolyn Bennett mentioned in our group discussion (in Ottawa) that you never really know what kind of trauma the person sitting next to you might be going through. I've certainly learned that people tend to keep their pain and stories hidden. With the film, they seem comfortable reaching out with letters (via our website) after they watch it, and sometimes (pending enough courage) they speak up after our screenings.

RW: If you have a list of the June screenings/events, that would be great, I'd list them in the article.

MS: We're still waiting to re-release the film in Vancouver. For now there are a few screenings coming up, but we'll need to update the list next week on our website. We do have a charity screening on June 8th in Burns Lake and another screening in Own Sound that Gladys Radek will be attending. I'm now focused on finding partners to ensure we can get the film out properly across Canada. We finally found a few free days to cut the educational and TV versions, so those will be available by the end of summer.

RW: Thank you for the conversation!

Highway of Tears is a documentary looking into the missing and murdered women along a 724 kilometre stretch of highway in northern British Columbia. For more about the making of this film, check out our February 2015 article.

Q&A by Katja De Bock

Photos courtesy of Matt Smiley

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