The Making of Three Feathers — the Movie

    Flinch (David Burke) tests his skills in the bush. Screen capture from the film. © Videographer Craig Kovatch

    With hand warmers in our mittens and shouts of “Action” hanging in the sharp -30C air, the cameras begin rolling on what is likely the first four-language film ever produced. Fort Smith, Northwest Territories, is the set of Three Feathers: The Movie, a ground-breaking film about the power of restorative justice.

    In addition to battling the cold, the limited daylight means we must work fast so everyone — even the actors — pitches in to set up scenes and make sure the process runs as smoothly as possible. The first of four seasonal shoots has three wayward youth: Flinch (David Burke), Bryce (Joel Evans), and Rupert (Dwight Moses) snowshoeing, chopping wood, and making tea as they learn the lessons of the land from Elders Irene (Eileen Beaver) and Raymond (Henry Beaver). Burke, known for his role in the Hollywood film Cut Bank, is the tall and silent lead who swings the axe over and over, splitting wood for both the upcoming scenes and to feed the large fire we huddle around.

    “These are the spirits of our ancestors.” — Raymond Carla Ulrich © Sarah Pruys Photography

    The cast and crew are almost all Northerners, and nearly everyone is wearing more than one hat —both literally and figuratively. There’s Burke, who was born and raised in Fort Smith. He’s one of the stars in this movie and is also the trained stunt supervisor. There’s Richard Van Camp, the Smith-born author of the graphic novel that the movie is based on, executive producer, and giver of the kindest compliments, who says, “It’s the ultimate dream come true to have everyone you grew up with, everyone you admire in a movie that you helped imagine. I’m just so grateful to everyone who had anything to do with this movie.”

    There’s Carla Ulrich, a local filmmaker who both wrote the screenplay and is directing the movie being filmed in four languages: Dene Yatie (South Slavey), Bush Cree, Dene Dedline (Chipewyan), and English. And then there’s Brent Kaulback, producer and visionary behind the Three Feathers projects. Kaulback, known for his ability to inspire and empower others to succeed, was instrumental in breathing life into both the book and the movie.

    The Elders and youth depart for camp – nine months on the land. © Sarah Pruys Photography

    Inspiration for this project came from a conversation between Kaulback and Van Camp. Kaulback, then Assistant Superintendent for the South Slave Divisional Education Council, proposed a storyline that connected with some themes taught through the cultural curriculum of the northern schools. They explored the idea of how a few misguided youth might discover their culture, language and identity when sentenced to live in a bush camp on the land for their misdeeds.

    Van Camp had just the story in mind… an experience from his own childhood. “Three boys were breaking into all of our houses about 20 years ago in Fort Smith. An Elder thought his grandkids had come home early from school, and he surprised the boys and they got in a big fight, and the elder really did get hurt — he suffered a stroke and a heart attack. The boys were caught and sent down south for a very long time,” explains Van Camp.

    Craig Kovatch films Raymond (Henry Beaver), who relaxes after a long day out on the land. © Sarah Pruys Photography

    This turned out to be the perfect spark to the story but the reimagined ending had the three youth sentenced to live with two Elders in a bush camp far from town. At first the three youth rebelled against the routine and isolation of camp life but with the land as their teacher and the guidance and wisdom of the Elders, they begin to turn their lives around and rediscover a sense of purpose and identity.

    “Bryce, Rupert, and Flinch learn to become responsible and capable young men and, after their nine months on the land, are now intent on righting the harm they have caused their community. But how will the community react to their return? Are they ready to forgive? This story goes on to explore the power and grace of restorative justice and the cultural legacy that can empower future generations,” explains Kaulback.

    Tipi Raising. © Sarah Pruys Photography

    While we won’t spoil the ending for you, we can say that in real life, the movie has found incredible support within the Fort Smith community. It’s not just because of the excitement surrounding the opportunity to host the cast and crew — that’s just how this small Northern town is — but many local Native groups, organizations and individuals rallied together to provide the funding to get this project started.

    This support was evident during the second of four shoots. It was early summer and time to film a community feast scene. A call was put out to the community of 2,500, inviting extras to enjoy a traditional meal in the background of the filming. The Beaver family, many of whom also play major roles in the film, emptied their freezers and rallied their family members to spend the day cooking up a feast of moose-nose stew, fried fish, bison, bannock and corn on the cob.

    As drums and mosquitoes sang and cameras rolled, the tent overlooking the Slave River was filled with hundreds of people enjoying the feast and watching the movie magic happen.

    One unique feature of this movie is that it is being filmed in four separate languages — reportedly the first time ever in the history of film-making. Each scene is filmed four times with the actors repeating their lines in a different language each time.

    To ensure the cameras kept rolling, the cast and crew relied heavily on local language coaches, many of whom are retired teachers. The three coaches first translated the script into their Indigenous language and then recorded the translations so that the actors could practice and speak with the proper pronunciations.

    Eileen Beaver, who plays Elder Irene in the film, was one of the most important cast and crew members on set. Not only was she a main actor, she was also a language coach with a wealth of traditional knowledge. She also donated props and sets, offering up everything from the smokehouse tipi in her own backyard to her family’s fishing nets and filleting knives.

    Her husband Henry, who doubles as her movie husband Raymond, was also a constant presence on set, dividing his time between acting on camera with splitting wood, starting fires, setting up tipis and doing anything else that needed to be done behind the scenes. When he had a spare moment, he would grab his gun and head out into the bush to hunt, sometimes startling everyone as he took aim at some ducks overhead.

    “I thought it was a fine opportunity to show off Fort Smith, and the fact that it was filmed in four different languages is amazing,” says Eileen Beaver after the shoots had wrapped up. “They are showing me how to put the Chipewyan movie together so I’m gaining lots of experience. I really enjoy it — it’s an experience I wouldn’t get anywhere else.”

    The movie, which will come out as a full-length English film accompanied by three other films in each of the languages, is meant to be a great language learning resource. “The film will showcase our Indigenous languages and the richness of the Dene, Cree and Metis cultures,” explains Kaulback. “Our languages are struggling but hopefully projects like this will motivate many to reconnect with their language and culture and in so doing discover the strength of character and identity that accompanies such experiences — just as the youth in the movie.”

    Three Feathers – the Movie is scheduled for release in the fall of 2017.

    Sarah Pruys is Public Affairs Coordinator for the South Slave Divisional Education Council (SSDEC), a major investor in the film.

    Brent Kaulback, retired as Assistant Superintendent for the SSDEC, is Producer of Three Feathers – the Movie.