Birks Diamond Tribute to This Year’s Women in Film: Director Nettie Wild

The annual Birks Tribute to Women in Film has become one of our most cherished events during the Toronto International Film Festival. It is undoubtedly an evening of celebration, connection, love and just the right amount of glam.

As in years past, we are profiling some of the honourees. For this instalment, we’ve spoken with director/writer/producer Nettie Wild, one of Canada’s leading documentary filmmakers. Wild’s award-winning documentaries, including FIX: The Story of an Addicted City, A Place Called Chiapas, Blockade and A Rustling of Leaves: Inside the Philippine Revolution, have challenged social change by bringing audiences all over the world to the front lines.

Her more recent projects, including Uninterrupted, which uses digital mapping to project footage of the Adams’ River Sockeye Run onto Vancouver’s Cambie bridge, and KONELINE: Our Land Beautiful, a cinematic poem about a changing wilderness, have earned critical praise. It’s no surprise that she was named one of British Columbia’s “most influential womenby the Vancouver Sun.

We love getting career and life advice from these luminaries, and whether or not you’re working in the entertainment industry, you’re sure to find inspiration, too.

SDTC: When you trace your journey as an artist, what’s one thing that sticks out as an opportunity that led to an unexpected place?

NW: In 1982, I travelled to the Philippines on a Canada Council grant to study street plays of protest put on by popular theatre companies in city streets and rural sugar cane fields. The commanding officer of the revolutionary New People’s Army heard that myself and a colleague were in the area and sent a message asking if we would create a play for upcoming anniversary celebrations of the NPA. Ten days later, we were underground with the rebels.

When I met Kumander Raul, I met someone who spoke precise English, was barefoot and carried an M16. Many years before, in his second year of studying agricultural engineering at the local university, Raul had led a protest against clear-cut logging. He was put on a death list. On the run, his Bishop advised him he had a choice: stay legal, face arrest and torture (or worse), or…go underground. Raul fled to the mountains. Seventeen years later, I realized that this gun-toting communist standing in front me…could have been me. I had been raised on protests against logging in my home province of British Columbia. If I had been born a Filipina, I could have possibly been fighting at his side.

A month after I met Kumander Raul, we were at last ready to perform; instead, we were attacked by government forces of the dictator Ferdinand Marcos. We were on the run for four days. After we survived the attack, I made a deal with Raul that if I could return to Canada, raise money, come back with a film crew and if he was still alive, we would make a movie about life underground. That was the beginning of A Rustling of Leaves: Inside the Philippine Revolution, my first feature documentary, which went on to win Most Popular Film at the Film Forum of the Berlin International Film Festival.

What philosophy is currently steering your life and helping you make choices?

A few years ago, it dawned on me that making films was never going to get easier. So I had to ask myself what would make it worthwhile to stay in the game. The answer was to make a deal with myself: with every new project, I would attempt to expand the cinematic art form beyond anything I had done previously…and work with new people.

It was a turning point that led to KONELINE: Our Land Beautiful, a cinematic poem about a changing wilderness, and Uninterrupted, a cinematic spectacle using digital mapping to project images of the sockeye salmon migration onto Vancouver’s Cambie Street bridge. They were difficult, exhilarating and the most creative work of my career.

If you think back to a point in your life when you felt frustrated, when nothing was working, what would you want to say to your younger self?

Take risks. Be prepared to jump off a creative cliff not knowing where or how you are going to land—that is where the surprise, and the art, lies. Even better if you can collaborate with friends—it’s way less lonely and far more creative.

When I think back on my creative life, I have shared that wonderfully scary journey with friends whose names recur on many of my credit rolls: producer Betsy Carson, editor Michael Brockington, cinematographers Kirk Tougas and Robin Bain, sound remixer Daniel Pellerin, sound designer Velcrow Ripper. There were other wonderful editors Peter Wintonic, Manfred Becker, Geoff Warren, Reg Harkema and Eduardo Herrera. And now new names: producer Rae Hull, cinematographers Athan Merrick, Nic Teigrob, Van Royko, Patrick McLaughlin, Scott Baldwin, and composers Owen Belton, Jesse Zubot, Hildegrad Westerkamp and Mark Lazeski. My list, like my credits, could go on forever. I am a lucky filmmaker.

What’s a lesson you recently learned?

I always knew that Dogma was Death. But what I have learned is that shooting and cutting in the abstract is a liberation from stereotype, from prescriptive finger-wagging, documentary storytelling. While on location with KONLINE: Our Land Beautiful and Uninterrupted, we developed a shooting style—if our frame was postcard pretty, we would cut. But if it looked like an abstract oil, we would roll.

Seeking the abstract allows me to frame the familiar in an unfamiliar way. It pushes me as a director and my entire crew to be surprised, and if we can surprise ourselves, we stand a chance of surprising our audience.

What are you enjoying most these days?

Swimming every day in the ocean and creating cinematic art that is big, public and free.

Can you share with us one of your current goals (big or small)?

I am attempting to get my house in order, the house that is my head and heart and community. Toss out the clutter and the noise to make space for good friends and good art. Live simpler. Get the mats out of my cat and get Uninterrupted to China.

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