From May 6 to 14, the National Film Board of Canada’s The Grasslands Project will have its world premiere in a series of local screenings in villages and towns across the southern Prairies.
Created by filmmaker Scott Parker, along with NFB executive producer David Christensen, The Grasslands Project is a collection of 10 short films exploring one of the most accessible, but least known, of all the regions in Canada. Nine small communities across southern Alberta and Saskatchewan are featured in the project―each getting their own local premiere, with a selection of films specially tailored for their area.
Community screenings kick off in southern Alberta, in Magrath (May 6), Coutts (May 7) and Foremost (May 8), then travel to Saskatchewan, in Val Marie (May 9), Rockglen (May 10), Radville (May 11), Gravelbourg (May 12), Wood Mountain (May 13) and Eastend (May 14).
To make The Grasslands Project, Parker worked with a camera and sound package uniquely suited to a single filmmaker operating in the field, with his editing suite set up in the small Saskatchewan town of Eastend. Parker lived there for six months while shooting and editing the films and spent about two months in his “mobile production unit”―a specially equipped pick-up truck.
Subjects, themes, even interview questions were all conceived with significant community input, and each film was screened with the participants to get their feedback before the picture was completed. In addition to directing these 10 films, Parker also held 12 community media workshops that were attended by journalists, librarians, historians, prospective actors, Indigenous youth, agriculture insiders, bloggers, youth with complex physical disabilities, teachers, students, and federal inmates. The project also included local folklorist and writer Kristin Catherwood, who was instrumental in clarifying the ideals behind it and helping workshop participants understand the relationship between place and story.
The Grasslands Project is the latest in the NFB’s long track record of innovation in community-based film initiatives, from the early days of travelling NFB projectionists, to the pioneering Challenge for Change, which became a model for participatory filmmaking the world over, to sustainable NFB initiatives underway in Canada’s North and groundbreaking collective interactive experiences.
The Grasslands Project will be launching online later this spring on the NFB’s acclaimed portal, NFB.ca. But first, it’s coming home to the communities where these 10 films were born.
A Rancher’s View: Miles Anderson is in a tough spot. The land he ranches has been in his family for over a hundred years, but it’s bordered on three sides by an expanding Grasslands National Park and its conservation imperative. Cattle were once considered a major threat to the integrity of the grasslands and the endangered sage grouse in the region, but, due in large part to Miles’ persistence, his cattle are now seen as part of the conservation solution.
No Other Place: The landscape of the southern Prairies is spectacular, and has influenced artists for thousands of years. Five prairie artists from across the grasslands region take us to the places that inspire them. This film explores the landscape through the words and works of these artists and reminds us that the natural world exerts a powerful influence on both our creativity and our spirit.
Homecoming: Across the Prairies, annual celebrations take place in countless small communities. These small-town gatherings are a major force in keeping rural communities vibrant. In Magrath, Alberta, this is the weekend when everybody comes home to participate in chicken chases, family reunions and massive community barbecues. We follow the celebrations through the actions of key volunteers, who are the cornerstone of these events.
Life Out Here: Ranching and farming are male-dominated industries. But women have a strong voice in the operations, and some women have been running their own ranches for decades. A female perspective is expressed in this collaborative documentary, and it was the participants themselves who chose the themes to be discussed and then interviewed each other for the film. These women are deeply dedicated to their farms, ranches and families. They can ranch as well as a man, or maybe even better.
The Last One: “These small farms are a thing of the past,” laments Herb Pidt, whose family homesteaded on this land in the 1920s. The Pidt family scraped a living out of these harsh, dry prairies and, though poor, always managed to put food on the table. But that era has come to an end, and, as Herb very touchingly explains, he’s the last one on the farm, and there’s no one left to keep the home place together.
Generations: Many small communities are losing their young people, attracted to careers away from the farm. Nineteen-year-old Shawn Catherwood knew from a young age that he’d be a farmer. It’s always been his dream to follow in the footsteps of his father, Ken. This gentle film shows Shawn and his father as they navigate the coming generational change, while the audience is given insight into their deep love of the family farm.
Population 21: Wood Mountain is literally a bend in the road. It’s lost all four of its grain elevators, the railway was torn up, the old hotel is in ruins, and the school has been closed for a decade. One of the only attractions left is the community hall, which, on a scant few weekends out of the year, can still get crowded. Meanwhile, to the handful of kind souls who still live in the village, there are good reasons to call Wood Mountain home.
Val Marie Hotel: Aline Laturnus puts in long hours to keep the Val Marie hotel running. Breakfast is at seven a.m., and some nights the bar doesn’t close until two. This hotel is more than just a business: it’s the hub of the community, and Aline knows that closing the establishment would deal this small town a major blow. We follow Aline as she prepares for a big night, and we learn about the importance of the hotel from the people of Val Marie.
After the Fire: Small rural communities rely on their volunteer firefighters to handle any emergencies. While the Eastend Fire Department responds to its share of barn and grass fires, they are only a call away from tragedy. Rural first responders are usually first on the scene of grisly farm and motor vehicle accidents, and in a small community the victims are often friends and family. The toll it takes on these volunteers creates its own tragedy.
Les Fransaskois: The southern Prairies are overwhelmingly anglophone, yet a strong and vibrant francophone population persists in the small rural communities that dot this landscape. Gravelbourg is considered the centre of French language and culture in the region, and this short film hears from the Fransaskois (a term combining “French” and “Saskatchewan”) on the challenges and future of their unique prairie culture.
Friday, May 6 at 7 p.m. at the Magrath Museum
Saturday, May 7 at 7 p.m. at the Coutts Civic Centre
Sunday, May 8 at 2 p.m. at the Foremost Community Hall
Monday, May 9 at 7 p.m. at the Val Marie Community Hall/Palais
Tuesday, May 10 at 7 p.m. at the New Horizon Drop-In Centre
Wednesday, May 11 at 7 p.m. at the Radville Community Centre
Thursday, May 12 at 7 p.m. at the Renaissance Gaiety Theatre
Friday, May 13 at 7 p.m. at the Wood Mountain Community Hall
Saturday, May 14 at 7 p.m. at the Eastend Memorial Hall
Scott Parker has worked in film and television for 30 years, producing everything from music videos to documentary films. Parker has primarily focussed his career on directing and editing but also shoots his own films. His projects include the NFB’s Stories from Our Land 1.5, which was shot in the Arctic, as well as work on development films shot in remote Central American rainforests. Parker has been a mentor to emerging filmmakers and contributed to a number of community-based film workshops. In addition to his filmmaking career, Parker’s international community engagement work (notably in remote regions of Botswana) provided the invaluable experience required to make The Grasslands Project.
David Christensen is an Executive Producer at the National Film Board of Canada, where he oversees a slate of documentary, interactive, and animation productions made nationally and internationally. David manages the North West Studio, one of the six NFB English-language studios located across Canada. Recent production highlights of his studio include the Tribeca Film Festival launch of Guy Maddin and Evan and Galen Johnson’s interactive work Seances; If I Was God, Cordell Barker’s newest animated short; as well as the NFB co-produced feature documentary Hadwin’s Judgement. In total, David’s studio has about 25-30 projects in development and production at any one time.
“The generosity of people in these remote prairie places—that was how we ended up making such strong films. My role became one of interpreter, and with my colleagues at the NFB we leveraged our skills and resources to tell the stories that were presented to us. People all across this region made the project a success, and I’m grateful to every single one of them!”
“Tough as it is to believe, Canada is still a rural nation—and yet so many of our documentary stories don’t reflect that. With The Grasslands Project, we really wanted to work with people in southern Alberta and Saskatchewan to understand the kind of stories that were important to them—and then put them on the big—and small—screen. The 10 beautiful films that Scott has created could only have been done by being present in these rural communities for an extended period of time, and I’m proud that the NFB, as a public producer, was able to do this kind of work.”