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Highway of Tears puts murdered and missing women in focus

Highway of Tears puts Murdered and Missing Women in Focus

Inspiring Documentary to Screen at Vancouver Int'l Women in Film Festival

One eagerly awaited feature screening at #VIWIFF2015 is the award-winning documentary Highway of Tears by Canadian expats, director-producer Matt Smiley and producer Carly Pope.

The documentary relates the personal stories of many of the missing and murdered, primarily aboriginal women along the 724-kilometre stretch of Highway 16 in northern BC. It premiered at TIFF 2014 and has consequently screened at several festivals.

The #VIWIFF2015 screening on Saturday, March 7 at noon will mark the Vancouver premiere.

Reel West's Katja De Bock caught up with the filmmakers and spoke with them about the making of the film.

As Canadians living and working in the USA, your interest in the issue of BC’s missing women is explicable. But how was this US documentary with a very Canadian subject financed? What hurdles did you encounter?

Matt Smiley - photo by Micha BohneMatt Smiley: As a Canadian-born filmmaker living in Los Angeles, I still consider myself Canadian, thus I always try to stay up to date with current affairs. The issue of BC’s missing women was not something that was on my radar. It was on a camping trip to Cluculz Lake with my sister and brother-in-law where I found out about Nicole Hoar’s disappearance. [Nicole Hoar of Red Deer, Alberta disappeared on June 21, 2002. Hoar was a 25-year-old tree planter who vanished while hitchhiking along Highway 16, west of Prince George. Status: Missing Person] That sparked my research, which lead me to discover the term "Highway of Tears".

We structured the financing for the documentary in Canada. 90 per cent of the film was financed via my production company, Finesse Films. We also eventually got some support from Executive Producer Luis Felipe Fernandez-Salvador Campodonico near the end of post-production. Once the film was almost completed, Carrier Sekani Family Services (which also runs the Highway of Tears board) partnered with us and Mary Teegee [President of the BC Aborignal Child Care Society] came on board as an Executive Producer too.

The hurdles we encountered were countless, but we were determined to get the film made. We remained focused on keeping to our schedule. I for one, decided to quit my job in film development to ensure I could dedicate my full attention to the project, which quickly brought on some financial strain, but the end result was worth it. Carly and I have a great support system of artists/filmmakers who were very helpful.

Carly Pope: While it’s true that both Matt and I happen to both live in the US most of the time, we are very much Canadian citizens and this is very much a Canadian production. I grew up in BC andCarly Pope - photo by Jobi Manson still maintain a casual residency there, and, like Matt said, am keen to stay up on matters within our home country.

I think the biggest hurdle, for me, was that this was both Matt’s and my first feature project and we were doing it ourselves and so there were- and still are- many long learning curves with regards to making cinema which is exciting, surely, and sometimes overwhelming. Having mainly been on one side of the camera as an actor for half my life, I feel my strengths creatively were familiar, but entrepreneurially as a producer were/are foreign, still.  

This is a tough and very sensitive issue. How did you gain access to the victims’ families and to the local community leaders and how long did that process take you?

Matt Smiley: The decision to actually shoot the documentary happened very fast. I had researched the topic for a while and written a feature script loosely based on the topic. When Carly read an early draft of my script, we talked about getting the film produced. Deep down, both of us sensed that it wasn’t the right way to tell the story. In my research and discussions with several family members, I found myself thinking that it wouldn’t be right to fictionalize this story. Their stories needed to be exposed, as it seemed like no one (in the media) was listening. Our goal was to take this issue off the shoulders of the family and friends of the victims and make it something that everyone could feel for.

Once we made our initial decision to shoot, Carly and I immediately started knocking on doors. Most of the people we were in touch with refused to participate. From their perspective, some of the families had already been subjected to their stories being sensationalized and for the most part, no one really addressed the underlying issues Carly and I wanted to expose. We kept our heads up and continued to push for interviews. Eventually everything fell into place organically, but it took some time. It was all in motion within a couple of weeks.

Carly Pope: We really didn’t – as Matt expressed – have the luxury of time. From the moment we decided to make this doc to the moment Matt had to roll camera (at Madison Scott’s fundraiser) was a span, literally, of about 2 weeks. [Madison Scott has been missing from her home near Vanderhoof, BC, since 2011] To boot, I was in the process of getting my green card and couldn’t leave the US. So all of the cold calling and introductions were being done remotely from me at my kitchen table in Los Angeles, while Matt was on the ground in Prince George, Vanderhoof, Burns Lake and beyond, meeting whomever he could, whenever he could. It was daunting to say the least as Matt was only one body doing the work of both of us (which, in theory, should have been many). 

Trust goes a long way in tighter communities, which I can wholly appreciate and respect, so I definitely felt like the more reliable and present and consistent “we” were, the more access we gained from the community we reached out to in the North. We had a couple very key liaisons who helped synchronize our efforts.

The issue of missing and murdered aboriginal and non-aboriginal women has been covered intensely by the mainstream media in the Lower Mainland, especially during and after the Robert Pickton trial. Were there things you discovered during your research that surprised you or proved to be never told before?

Carly Pope: Growing up in Vancouver, there was – as you said – coverage but never anything prominent enough to incite at a large-scale level. The Pickton case and trial, of course, created a much more mainstream awareness . . . but that wasn’t even scratching the surface, in my opinion. While there is a lot of cross-over with the Pickton case, the issues in the North are independent to those of the DTES – the commonality being that many of these victims remain nameless and faceless. 

I can’t say I’m surprised, but the amount of people who have come up to me after screenings and expressed their sheer distress that they were so unaware of what was occurring in their (our) backyards was very telling. For me, the most shocking discovery was how Canada-wide this issue of murdered and missing (aboriginal) women and girls really is. The RCMP number was revealed last year, at that time 1,181 [Canada-wide police-recorded incidents of aboriginal female homicides and unresolved missing aboriginal females in the review total 1,181 - 164 missing and 1,017 homicide victims.] I think that was utterly devastating and rightly infuriating to know that this injustice is imbalanced, surely, and also out of control since that number keeps growing.

Ramona Wilson ConferenceMatt Smiley: Yes, the issue was covered by the mainstream media, but if I asked you to name five of the victims in the Robert Pickton trial (out of the 49) you probably wouldn’t be able to. All of the victims got grouped together as a whole and the only person that really got covered was Robert Pickton. I think the coverage got to a point where people were so desensitized. The mainstream population never got a chance to learn about who these women were. They were people; and I believe it was wrong to bunch them all together. Carly and I made a conscious effort to focus on the victims in Highway of Tears. We originally wanted to title the documentary She Has a Name in order to stay in line with our focus, but that was already used by a play, so we chose to stay with Highway of Tears.

The biggest discovery, as Carly mentioned, was the number of missing & murdered women cases in Canada. When we first started working on the project, the E-PANA numbers [E-PANA is the project name of the RCMP investigation concentrating on the Highway of Tears] were 18 missing & murdered women, along Highways 97, 5 and 16, then numbers began to increase as we expanded our research across Canada. At one point in early 2012, the number of MMIW (Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women) was roughly over 400 (documented). By the time we screened at TIFF Human Rights Watch, it was over 600, then by the end of March 2014 it was over 900… the RCMP eventually released numbers totaling over 1,000. I’ve been privy to speak with many families and activists across the country and their estimation is over 4,000 MMIW. Surprising? No. Shocking? Yes!

How long and how often did you shoot in BC?

Matt Smiley: The initial shoot was roughly a month. After principal photography, we continued to research and interview people along the way to ensure we could tell the story the way we wanted. The first leg of the shoot I did with a crew, then ventured out on my own for some additional material(s).

You have many Canadians on your team, some of them living in the US, did you also work with local BC crew?

Carly Pope: Our crew was micro at best with many people (Matt) wearing a few hats. As mentioned, I couldn’t leave the US during the shoot, which was tremendously inopportune (for Matt), so I was a swing, from afar. We had a 3-person camera department, one person in sound, Matt, and many favours called in to friends, and friends-of-friends within the vicinity, in and around BC. In post, we had one editor, one sound mixer, four musicians, one dialogue recordist, a post production producer, a research assistant, and Nathan Fillion. Fairly skeletal! Principal photography was entirely Canadian. Post-production we had to widen the net slightly to complete the film.

Matt Smiley: Aside from our editor, Brandon Lott, and our composer, Daniel Tannenbaum, most of our crew was BC-based. While I was born in Montreal, I’ve spent much of my life in BC. That’s where home is. My whole family is there and I love spending the summers in Kelowna or Vernon.

As filmmakers, it seems as though Carly and I have become satellites, roaming project to project. Same goes for our DPs Amy Belling and Richard Walden. Whenever Amy, Carly or I touch base, one of us is in Europe, the other in BC, Toronto or LA. Our music producer, Chin Injeti was born in Toronto, but based in Vancouver and LA too.

How long was the editing process and what technique did you and editor Brandon Loft use to present this vast amount of information into a feature-length film?

Matt Smiley: The editing process took the longest. We spent a good 6-8 months editing, which seems like a really long time, but it sort of flew by. Brandon was really busy working on several on-air TV shows so we pulled many graveyard shifts to get the assembly done. The toughest part of the process was finding the right voice to tell the story. The way I shot the film was very specific. I wanted a certain tone that would not be too intrusive, but really shed light and make the audience feel for the women and girls. In re-watching the film at the Zonta Film Festival, I had a moment (for the first time in two years) to really sit back and watch the film objectively. I was surprised by how much information we packed into 80 minutes. Brandon, Carly and I really carved out every inch of material we had.

One thing that was important to me as a director, was not pointing fingers. While good storytelling needs a strong point of view, I did not want to manipulate the narrative to favor one side or the other.

Overall, I think Brandon, Carly and myself achieved our editing objectives by presenting the facts and letting the audience make up their minds on what they think of the issue(s). Not everyone will respond to it, but at least they will feel informed when they walk out of the theatre. 

Tell us about the musical concept of the film, working with two composers and Carmen & Camille as musicians.

Matt Smiley: As I said earlier, I had a very clear vision of what I wanted to accomplish when we set out to shoot. My concept was taking the audience on a journey along Highway 16. There is a sense of movement throughout the film and the only way we would be able to capture people’s hearts was to make them feel for the women. Music was the key.

I’ve known Carmen & Camille for years. They too are from Vancouver, but spend a lot of time recording in Los Angeles. I reached out to them early on in the process and they started experimenting with the score. In the end, Carmen & Camille have a couple pieces of score in the film and they also have a beautiful original song, A Great Divide on the end credits. There’s a mystic beauty to A Great Divide. I’m so proud of them, they nailed it.

A majority of the score was composed by Daniel Tannenbaum (a.k.a Danny Keyz), who was nominated for two Grammys this year. Carly was good friends with Grammy winner Chin Injeti who brought Daniel to the mix. Daniel is a major talent and his score has so much heart to it.

Carly Pope: Carmen and Camille were so keen and so emphatic about contributing music for the film. I loved their piece A Great Divide from the moment I heard it . . . It was hugely generous of them and the track is so tender and so evocative. Chin (Injeti) was an invaluable addition to the team as he is an incredibly accomplished musician, himself, and brought in Daniel (Tannenbaum) to compose our score, which still brings me to tears every time I hear it. I think our doc possesses a truly moving body of music and I’m thoroughly indebted to all of our musicians for providing such a vivid soundscape.

Moricetown Bike KidsLastly, you formed an alliance with Human Rights Watch, asking the audience to sign a letter to Prime Minister Harper. How did this activist approach come about?

Carly Pope: We had been encouraged to touch base with Meghan Rhoad and Samer Muscati from HRW who did the report on the missing and murdered indigenous women and girls travesty throughout Canada.  Their report Those Who Take us Away had a large focus on Northern BC. It seemed only necessary, therefore, for us to reach out, research, cross-reference, interview, ally, whatever we could, with them. When Matt and I had a phone call with Meghan and Samer, we were both so floored and inspired by the work they were doing at Human Rights Watch that, I think, we both felt that taking action on this issue was the only real option. It was a very organic and compelling (and fulfilling) partnership, though one that we never – at inception – saw coming.

Matt Smiley: When Carly and I set out to shoot the film initially, we just wanted to tell the story and shed some light on the families that didn’t have a voice. I completely underestimated the social impact the film would have. Our initial link up with the Human Rights Watch happened late in the process. We were already deep into editing when we discovered Meghan Rhoad’s hard-hitting report. It was very much in line with our thinking. We reached out to her via email and ended up talking for over an hour on the phone. While we weren’t planning on shooting more, both Carly and I thought it was important to have Meghan’s voice in the film. If Meghan researched these cases along the Highway of Tears and deemed them to be a Human Rights issue, then we should listen. Her opinion matters on a global level.

The actual alliance took a bit of time to develop. While we had the beginnings of a great documentary, we still needed to see if both parties shared a similar vision. And thankfully, we all did. Along with Samer Muscati and the rest of the Human Rights Watch team, I think we’ve succeeded in making the issue of missing and murdered women in Canada a topic that people can now talk about and support, as opposed to brush under a carpet.

The petition letter to Prime Minister Harper happened organically. We all helped each other to get more signatures. Even though we’ve probably amassed over 40,000 signatures through the various organizations, I still view our efforts as a failure. Harper hasn’t changed his position on supporting a national inquiry and the general population still isn’t fully behind the issue. I think racism has a huge role to play. When I learned about the history of our relationship with the indigenous population in school, for instance, I never felt like it engaged me. Much of the studies leave us off the hook in dealing with issues that affect them (colonization, residential schools, etc.) It really had me reflect on how it has informed my knowledge of the indigenous people. Fear and ignorance being at the forefront of the general population not willing to see the human value of this issue. We say they (the indigenous population) need reconciliation. I’d like to think that we do.
Our fight isn’t over. It’s only just begun.

Thank you for the conversation!

Following the screenings of Freedom Babies and Highway of Tears, Kwasuun Sarah Vedan, Artistic Associate for Full Circle: First Nations Performance, will lead a discussion on issues raised in the two films. Confirmed panelists include:
Fay Blaney, Project Coordinator for Warriors Organizing Women (W.O.W),
Lillian Howard Interim Executive Director for the Aboriginal Community Policing Centre (VACPC)
Bernadette Spence CEO of the Vancouver Aboriginal Child and Family Services Society (VACFSS).
Dr. Richard Vedan, Associate Professor Emeritus in the UBC School of Social Work.

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