The Grasslands Project
10 short films about life on the southern Prairies.
Q&A with Scott Parker
The southern Prairies are among the most accessible, but also the least known, of all the regions in Canada. The rolling hills and waving grasses, the small towns and family farms, the bake sales and fall suppers are all there. The winters are cold, the summers hot; and everything sometimes seems a thousand miles away. It is a land of many stories, and a new collection of films from the National Film Board of Canada brings some of these stories to audiences across the nation and around the world.
In the summer of 2015, filmmaker Scott Parker travelled to this region to produce 10 short documentaries based on community-generated ideas. Subjects, themes, even interview questions were all conceived with significant community input, and each film was screened with the participants to get their feedback and final approval. Each doc is a beautiful portrait of prairie life.
The Grasslands Project, as it became known, was conceived and designed by Parker in concert with NFB Executive Producer David Christensen. Parker then travelled to the area, headquartered himself in the small Saskatchewan town of Eastend and began the extensive community engagement the project would require if it was to be successful either cinematically or as an outreach action.
As Parker was the point man of this engagement, it was decided he would also be the only filmmaker creating the 10 short documentaries. Over several weeks, he managed to form strong, trusting relationships with many people who would be instrumental in making the films, so the NFB team organized a camera and sound package uniquely suited to a single filmmaker operating in the field, and an edit suite was set up in Eastend. Parker would live in the town for six months while shooting and editing the films, and he spent about two months living out of his “mobile production unit.”
The films provide a strong sense of place and character, and of the pace of life in this remote corner of the country. Parker’s vivid cinematography and editing do nearly as much to tell the stories of these hard-working people as the subjects do themselves.
In addition to the 10 short films, The Grasslands Project aimed to hold 10 community media workshops across the south; in the end, due to popular demand, 12 were held. Participants included journalists, librarians, historians, prospective actors, Indigenous youth, agriculture insiders, bloggers, youth with complex physical disabilities, teachers, students, and federal inmates. Parker developed and led each and every one of the workshops. The project was fortunate to team up with 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.
There is power in people telling their own stories back to themselves, and while not all the workshops had a profound outcome, many did. They not only provided people with the fundamentals of making their own short films but also demonstrated the power of story and film.
And film indeed has power. The finished documentaries are rough and unprofessional, but, to the participants, both the process and product were transformative.
How did you settle on the southern Saskatchewan Prairies as a place with stories that needed to be told?
David Christensen, Executive Producer of the NFB North West Studio, and I had worked on a project similar to The Grasslands Project in Nunavut (in 2012). David was eager to tell stories in another remote and less-visited region of Canada: the deep southern Prairies. This region is largely ignored but is among the most spectacular in Canada. David wanted to create a project that could tell a variety of stories from this sparsely populated region.
What was your relationship with the region before embarking on this project?
I’ve been camping in Grasslands National Park since before there were any campgrounds there, and I’ve always had a love of the Prairies. I was born in Saskatoon and spent a decent part of my youth out at my grandparents’ farm in northern Saskatchewan. My grandmother was a big inspiration for my life-long love of big, open spaces. My father and I still own our family homestead, built in 1902, near Maymont, Saskatchewan, although we don’t farm there anymore.
How were you received by the people there when you first arrived, and did you encounter any sort of resistance from them when you revealed your purpose?
I had met a lot of people when we did our community consultations a few months prior to launching the project. We went down to meet with various communities to learn how they felt about a film project like this, and what kinds of stories and issues are important to them.
There were some participants who were wary of being in a film, especially a film done by a city-guy like me about things that are really important to them. I spent a lot of time getting to know people and how they saw their own stories. I travelled a lot in the first few months, dropping in to visit people and talk about their stories, and really listening to them. I also put my own vision as a filmmaker aside: we wanted to make the stories that were important to community members, not the films that were important to us. For Val Marie Hotel, I think I made six trips to speak with the owner, Aline Laturnus, before she agreed to make the film. She was just a little nervous about it. I told her a number of times that if she said, “No, I don’t want to do this,” then that’s fine and that’s the end of it. But she did want to do it; she wanted to tell her story and a story about their community. The film reflects that.
Did the project change substantively from your original conception of it?
Remarkably, no. David and I set out with a very clear idea of how we wanted to respect the stories from the community. I was surprised by how generous people were when they participated in the films; we got so much help from so many people. I mean, when we started out of the gate in June, we had a pretty good idea of what five of the 10 films would be about, but other films just showed up, or were dug up. In fact, for Population 21, I shot without having a really strong idea of the story, but felt there was a beautiful story there. The people who are in the film helped shape the film by their statements and participation. Also, The Last One was pure serendipity, as I met Herb Pidt while standing on a street in Eastend watching construction of a new fire hall. And After the Fire was going to simply be about volunteer firefighters, but after speaking with Chief Robert Stork and other firefighters, and learning about issues related to PTSD in their field, we created an important film on the relation between volunteer first responders and their risk of PTSD.
What can people in other regions in Canada learn from these films?
I don’t want to be cliché, but even with this country’s political and cultural diversity, we are all so damn similar. Many of our social and political issues are so divisive, yet Canadians are by and large a remarkably kind bunch. This can really be said of any nation in the world, but sometimes we have to be reminded of it. The Grasslands Project is a good way to provide that message to other Canadians.
Additionally, there is much that larger urban centres can learn about the nature of “community.” People in small towns in the south look after each other, they really do. They organize things: like in Val Marie when they needed an ambulance service, the community bought their own ambulance and organized training for people and a schedule of operations. Volunteers do so much of the work in a community, far more than in the cities. And when something bad goes down, people come together and help. They’ve always done things this way, and it’s a beautiful aspect of the culture down there.
I think there is an awful lot that big urban centres can learn from rural Canadians.
A Rancher's View Clip
After the Fire Clip
Life Out Here Clip
No Other Place Clip
The Last One Clip
Val Marie Hotel Clip
Les Fransaskois Clip
Population 21 Clip
A Rancher’s View | 8 min 22
No Other Place | 9 min 12 s
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 grasslands integrity 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.
(Grasslands National Park)
Homecoming | 7 min 26 s
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.
(Shot in various locations across the region. Two artists are from Rockglen, one from Radville SK, and two live in Lethbridge now.)
Life Out Here |11 min 45 s
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.
The Last One | 6 min 16 s
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.
Generations | 7 min 47 s
“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.
Population 21 | 9 min 17 s
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.
(Ceylon, SK to which Radville is closest)
Val Marie Hotel | 10 min 32 s
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.
(Wood Mountain, SK)
After the Fire |9 min 27 s
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.
(Val Marie, SK)
Les Fransaskois | 8 min 35 s
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.
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.
WRITTEN AND DIRECTED BY
FILMED AND EDITED BY
MUSIC COMPOSED AND PERFORMED BY
SOUND MIX ENGINEER
SOCIAL MEDIA COORDINATOR
(TRANSLATION & TRANSCRIPTION (ONLY FOR LES FRANSASKOIS))
WESTERN TRANSLATIONS SERVICES
RAT CREEK DESIGN
EDIE KLEIN (POPULATION 21)
EMILIE DONOVAN (HOMECOMING)
GUYLAINE GREEN (LES FRANSASKOIS)
CENTRE OPERATIONS MANAGER
DIRECTOR OF ENGLISH PROGRAMMING
MICHELLE VAN BEUSEKOM
About the NFB
The NFB is Canada’s public producer and distributor of award-winning documentaries, auteur animation, interactive stories and participatory experiences, working with talented creators across the country. The NFB is taking action to combat systemic racism and become a more open and diverse organization, while working to strengthen Indigenous-led production and gender equity in film and digital media. NFB productions have won more than 7,000 awards, including 12 Oscars. To access this unique content, visit NFB.ca.