'It's living and breathing in this generation': A conversation with Helen Haig-Brown

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Helen Haig-Brown is an award-winning documentary filmmaker from Williams Lake, B.C. She recently visited Kelowna as a Visiting Scholar at the University of British Columbia's Okanagan campus. We sat down in an airport hotel restaurant to talk about Haig-Brown's artistry and her ongoing Legacy project. Despite the somewhat aseptic atmosphere of our meeting place, this Tsilhqot'in filmmaker had plenty to say about her work and its role in healing and reconciliation.

Haig-Brown's mother, Maria Myers, is a linguist who teaches Tsilhqot'in and attended residential school for 12 years. Her father is non-native (her grandfather is the famed naturalist Roderick Haig-Brown), but Haig-Brown says that in her childhood there "was very much a strong raising around being critical, challenging the norm, looking at power imbalances [and] looking at patriarchy and oppression in its multiple forms." The emphasis on storytelling in her family has influenced the kinds of films she makes: "My father loves people and he loves story and he loves the world. We grew up from a very young age being told story after story after story. And with my mother's side, it is part of the culture."

Many of Haig-Brown's films are embedded in the physical landscape of her home territory, the Cariboo Chilcotin. The Cave, a 2011 short film that was an official selection at Sundance, takes place in the region and recounts the story of a hunter on horseback who discovers a passage to another world through a cave in the forest. Her latest work, My Legacy, is a television documentary that will air on APTN on February 6 as part of the network's "Reel Insights" series. This documentary is also set in Haig-Brown's home community and explores the impacts of residential schools on her generation.

While Haig-Brown's work is wide-ranging, two of her films -- Su Naa and My Legacy -- are intensely personal. The reasoning behind this, she says, "was that I realized that I needed to learn how to put my heart in my movies. So even when you are interviewing other people, what choices you make in the edit, and what makes it in the final cut takes you putting yourself out there and exposing what you think is important. So, for me when I was still in film school, I started to see that that was an issue for me, and so I made myself a promise that I would do two autobiographical pieces. I don't like being vulnerable in that way. But I thought it would be a good exercise for me to learn how to become unafraid to show what I think."

So Haig-Brown decided that she would confront this fear of vulnerability by making two autobiographical works. The first, Su Naa, (My Big Brother) is a "short experimental piece around the grief and the loss" of her brother William, who died in 2002. The film employs minimal dialogue, instead using sound and breath to convey the devastation and guilt of her brother's death. It won Best Experimental Film at the imagineNATIVE film festival in 2005.

The second part of this self-assigned project is the Legacy series, which will ultimately be comprised of an interactive website, a feature length documentary and the television documentary My Legacy. The latter recounts the intergenerational trauma of residential schools through the lens of Haig-Brown's relationship with her own mother.

My Legacy examines "the removal of children from their mother and the impacts that had on emotional suppression, breaking bonds and learning around mothering," Haig-Brown says, and then looks at "the effects on self love and intimacy and connection with others in adult life."

The film is a deeply personal piece. It is narrated by Haig-Brown herself and explores her own past failed relationships as it examines relationships in her family and the history of residential schools in her community. Central to this is an understanding of how the schools robbed students of the ability to show love in adult life. My Legacy is a "a journey to heal through that, and so part of that was resolving with my mother that relationship and understanding that my mother didn't give me what she have. It wasn't that I wasn't worthy of love, it was that she just didn't have it."

The primary intended audience for Haig-Brown's films are Indigenous communities who are dealing with similar impacts of colonization. The feature-length portion of the Legacy project (forthcoming in 2015) will look at five generations of trauma for the Tsilhqot'in people and will encompass the effects of smallpox, the Tsilhqot'in wars, Spanish influenza and residential schools. However, she thinks the exploration of trauma and healing can also be of value to non-native audiences, because, "on a human level, there are a lot of people who have experienced trauma and...a suppression of emotion that has effected family dynamic and feelings of love." And while Haig-Brown is more interested in how her work can effect healing in Indigenous communities, she also hopes that naming this trauma will bring understanding elsewhere:

the same thing that I hope for Canadians to get out of this is also something that Indigenous people will. Some of us don't really understand the impacts and how they live and breathe within us today. There's a very common thing that is heard: that was in the past, get over it. What can you do about it now, or just move on, or -- even internally, in our own community, because some of us are tired of it. So it's the same hope for the fifteen year old who may have never been taught any of this stuff or hasn't heard those stories, and it kind of lifts off the pressure for a moment.


However, Haig-Brown doesn't want her films to merely explain today's sordid statistics about Indigenous communities. That is not enough. She wants her films to show that the intergenerational trauma experienced in her community is something experienced by all of Canada -- white or Indigenous. "We're all interrelated and we've all had a role in it, it's living and breathing now, just as it's living and breathing now in me, it's living and breathing in this generation of Canada as well."

While My Legacy is optimistic in its conclusion, suggesting that she has successfully worked through her family's demons, Haig-Brown acknowledges that healing is an ongoing process. The intention behind this work, she says, is not only to articulate the impacts of colonization, but also to show a path for moving forward.

My Legacy will air on APTN on February 6.

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Christina Turner is rabble's current blogs and books intern and she tweets @christinalbt.

Image: Nadya Kwandibens.

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