this river offers a first-hand perspective on the devastating experience of searching for a loved one who has disappeared.
Kyle Kematch and Katherena Vermette have both experienced this heartbreak. Kyle has a sister who went missing over five years ago. He now works with Drag the Red, a volunteer organization that searches the Red River for clues relating to missing members of the Indigenous community. Katherena is a poet and writer whose work stems from a family tragedy that happened over 20 years ago. Though their stories are different, they each exemplify the beauty, grace, resilience, and activism born out of the need to do something.
This deftly crafted short film offers a first-hand perspective on the devastating experience of searching for a loved one who has disappeared.
When the body of a 14-year-old girl was pulled from Winnipeg’s Red River in 2014, it sparked a public outcry and renewed calls for a national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women. It also galvanized a small group of Winnipeg citizens, who took action and formed Drag the Red. This grassroots collective of volunteers searches the Red River and its banks for clues that might answer some of the questions surrounding the disappearances and murders.
It’s believed that as many as 4,000 Indigenous women, men and children in Canada have gone missing or been murdered since 1980. Indigenous families from all over the country understand this too well: everyone knows someone who didn’t come home. In this river, Kyle Kematch and Katherena Vermette demonstrate this reality with profundity and humanity.
Kyle, a full-time volunteer with Drag the Red, has a sister who went missing over five years ago. From May to October, he spends time on the water nearly every day, searching for clues that might provide hope for all the other families who have experienced similar tragedies. Katherena is a poet and writer whose work all stems from a family tragedy that happened more than 20 years ago. Though the circumstances of their losses are different, they each exemplify the beauty, grace, resilience and activism born out of the need to do something.
Co-directed by Katherena Vermette and Erika MacPherson. Cinematography by Iris Ng (Stories We Tell)
How did the two of you come together to make this film? Have you worked together before?
Erika MacPherson: [NFB producer] Alicia Smith brought us together for this river—she is the mastermind behind this film. It is the first time Kate and I have worked together, but hopefully not the last.
Why did you decide to tell this story in the way that you did? There are some clear stylistic choices that were made—can you elaborate on them?
EM: The reality faced by the communities and families that have missing loved ones is strikingly stark. But within that, the intelligence and spirit of humour and strength, solidarity and resilience, reign. We wanted to reflect that complexity stylistically. The film is visually warm, with moments of near-disorienting closeness coupled with distanced vistas giving a sense of both being in this place, but also of this place.
We were faced with the challenge of weaving together the stories of the two main characters, Kate and Kyle. It needed to be clear that Kate is not working with Kyle on the DTR [Drag the Red] boat, but we also needed to situate her story on the river, in the DTR boat. So Kyle’s story unfolds through vérité as we follow him dragging the river. Kate is framed formally, her words offering a foundation for understanding the depth of meaning hidden in the Red River, for the city and the community. With both of them situated cinematically in the Drag the Red boat, the river itself becomes a character.
For the first two-thirds of the film, Kate and Kyle are seen in counterpoint. We see Kyle work and hear him tell us his story about what motivates him to be there, doing this seemingly thankless task. Intercut, we have Kate framing the river and the history. They only come together two-thirds of the way through the film. We see them in the Locks, the junction on the river between the city and north to the lake (which we subsequently find out is where Kate’s brother was found).
Their stories truly intersect when Kate tells Kyle the story of how her brother went missing and they share the understanding of the loss and disregard they’ve experienced. This scene is shot in the marshy area at the mouth of the river before it opens into the lake. Symbolically, this is the cleansing moment.
Kate’s final scene is at the mouth of the river, backdropped by the expansive Lake Winnipeg.
The film was beautifully shot. What can you tell me about working with Iris Ng?
EM: Iris is a genius. She completely understood the framing of this story. Her footage is stellar. We were in the Drag the Red boat, a crew of five women with Kyle, for six days in the hottest heat wave I can remember. It hovered around 30 degrees Celsius every day, as hot as 36 one day. We had no bathroom and no shade. Iris shot hand-held almost the entire film, never once complaining about the conditions, steady as she goes. What more can I say? I’d give my eye teeth to work with her again.
Who do you envision as the audience for this film? What do you hope people will take away from it?
EM: There has been some discussion that this is a film for the Indigenous community—I think that’s too restrictive. It’s important to reflect on the story itself, the characters and the nature of their resilience in their stories. The story shared by all is the poetry of a place. The poetry of loss.
I hope the story offers insight into the emotional realities faced by people with missing loved ones, but also recognizes the complicity of all citizens. These characters are not names and statistics: they let us into their stories of loss intimately, so audiences can connect to the characters as people.
Katherena Vermette: With anything I do, I make it for my community first. I seek to tell stories from a place of truth and humility. I want the people depicted to see honest reflections of themselves and those they love. That being said, the story should not be limited to the Indigenous community. I think non-Indigenous persons are seeking understanding about these issues, and I am happy to engage in that dialogue and share my small, personal knowledge of my world.
For the film, I felt that my role was that of a poet. Poets describe how things feel, and put images to those feelings. Poets seek to look at things in a different way, with, hopefully, the result of having readers/viewers see things differently as well. I think empathy is our most powerful weapon against the tyranny of apathy. This movie is about loss, mourning, anger and healing. Those are not Indigenous feelings. Everyone has the capacity to relate.
How long was the process of making this film? How long a development period, and how long a shoot?
KV: Alicia and I first met in early December 2014. We proceeded to have a bunch of long, long meetings where we talked about art, imagery, film and issues. It was really very fun in the conceptual stage. Things got real when Erika came on and we had to dig deeper and deeper, figuring out how we were going to say what we wanted to say.
This is my first moviemaking experience, and it was a great crash course in so many ways. And as hard as the shoot was, we had a great crew, and Kyle and Calvin, the Drag the Red volunteers featured in the Film are very generous, easy-going people. We had a beautiful first day filled with ceremony and songs, and then there were lots of “boat ride in the sunshine” kinds of moments.
EM: I was brought on board to meet Kate around March 2015, I think. We spent quite a long while developing a relationship with the people at Drag the Red. Kate was the person on the ground, figuring out what and who. We had a lot of support from Bernadette Smith from DTR—she was a tremendous resource during development and also when we shot. We shot for seven days in August 2016.
Katherena, considering your own history with the river, how difficult was it for you to make this film? Or was it more of a cathartic experience?
KV: I really loved the opportunity to work with Kyle, Bernadette and the DTR people. I loved being able to bring in and celebrate people, and of course our breathtaking river. But in many ways it was more difficult than cathartic. Personally, I went to a lot of places I didn’t mean to go to. That’s what happens when you plunge into stuff like this so deeply, so to speak. This is such an enormous, rage-making tragedy that happens every day, in so many communities. It is bigger than any one family’s story, and every family’s story is so, so heartbreaking.
For my family, in the end, I have a deeper understanding of what happened, and that kind of blows my mind because it’s been so long, and still there is so much to know. I was a kid and was kept protected from a lot of it, so my memory of everything is very different than anyone else’s.
the family finds out
this land floods
with dead Indians
this river swells
cold arms of ice
THE NATIONAL FILM BOARD OF CANADA
Erika MacPherson and Katherena Vermette
Katherena Vermette and Erika MacPherson
Director of Photography
Location Sound Mixer
Digital Intermediate Technician
Sound Mix Engineer
Centre Operations Manager
Director General of English Programming
Michelle Van Beusekom
Kyle Kematch / Drag the Red
Jan Bass / Whiskers and Walleye with Bass
DTR Ground Search Voluneteers:
Red Robe Drummers:
Kelly Dodds / MidCanada Production Services
Chester Kazimirowich / Redboine Boat Club
Jan Bass / Whiskers and Walleye with Bass
St. Andrews Lock and Dam:
Shot on the Red River in and around Winnipeg, the St. Andrews Lock & Dam,
and Lake Winnipeg
Poetry excerpt, indians, from north end love songs
by Katherena Vermette