Photo from documentary film series shot on location in Johnstone Strait, B.C. by alumnus Ken Matheson
On a dark and rainy January morning in 2006, I boarded a ferry, fresh teaching materials in hand, headed on a mysterious mission: I was to find a small classroom at the Sechelt Campus of Capilano University where I was to teach documentary filmmaking and history to several students.
The task sounded straightforward enough—I was in the middle of making a documentary about American conscientious objectors seeking refuge in Canada from the Iraq War. Surely teaching would be easier than getting Pentagon officials at the Fort Hood military base in Texas to talk about desertion rates.
I found the classroom, in which sat seven new students, ready to learn the art and industry of non-fiction cinema. Each was worthy of a documentary in and of themselves—all wonderful characters with interesting lives that had led them to this time and place: a strong Cree woman, a mother of six from Labrador, a champion of non-digital formats we called “Analog Girl,” a woman who had helped create the Canadian Television Fund guidelines (that were helping to fund my film), a sensitive man on a dark journey of the soul, a sunny 18-year-old South Asian woman, and a female adventurer whose final project would take her to Ellesmere Island with the Canadian Artic Rangers.
The little program that could
Ten years later, CapU’s Documentary Program has grown into the leading documentary program in western Canada, in a state-of-the-art film center. This year, the program celebrates its extraordinary alumni, the stories they have told and the impact they are having on the world.
One of those first graduates from the Sechelt class, Dianne Whelan (2007), having survived Ellesmere Island and Everest Base Camp, is now working on her third feature, trekking 23,000 km on the Canada Trail in an homage to forgotten spirits, an ecological pilgrimage and a modern day Canterbury Tales.
Another wild adventurer who joined us on the way, Markus Pukonen (2010), has just set off on his five-year “Routes of Change” journey, going around the world in a canoe to document environmental change.
Award-winning photographer Martin Gregus (2014) has just returned from the Yukon where he and his father are documenting Canada as part of their on-line Canadian Bicentennial photo exhibition and book project.
Former Emily Carr professor Martin Borden (2012) has just returned from a screening in Norway of his film project on dancers with disabilities; and Josephine Anderson (2009) is one of four filmmakers selected to attend the NFB/CFC Creative Doc Lab to produce her first feature.
Story and impact
Meanwhile, in addition to their independent film projects, many graduates are working for production companies across Canada and internationally as editors, cinematographers and researchers.
Perhaps most importantly, the documentary program has helped give voice to the many students seeking a way to understand, speak into and reflect the realities of our times, so we may better find our way together.
I became a filmmaker because I wanted to make a difference in the world. I have discovered that, as a teacher, you can have a direct impact on the lives of those who come into your classroom for a brief eight months.
In fact, the greatest teaching moment in these past 10 years hasn’t been an award-winning film or even some kind of social policy change inspired by powerful stories. Rather, it was the graduate who told us the Documentary Program saved his life. To me, that is the real power of story.