Writing the movie River of Silence, local filmmaker and screenwriter Petie Chalifoux knew she wanted to capture a real Indigenous family’s pain over a missing woman.
Chalifoux has firsthand knowledge of that unrelenting anguish. As she and family members testified at the National Inquiry Into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, she lost her own grandmother to suspicious circumstances on a remote road near Lesser Slave Lake about 18 years ago. Her grandmother was never listed officially as murdered, despite a missing purse and cane, and many other irregularities at the crime scene.
River of Silence is not specifically about that tragedy, but is rather a careful melding of the many similar stories Chalifoux and her husband, director Michael Auger, collected from people over the years to cowrite the project. The film tracks the fallout after a young, well-adjusted Vancouver student named Tanis (Roseanne Supernault) goes missing during the long drive to her family’s reserve. The tragedy sends her supportive family—including her successful, art-gallery-running mother—into a spiral of suffering, as it fights for an investigation against an uninterested police force.
“The media has portrayed a lot of Indigenous women as women who put themselves at risk,” says Chalifoux, whose film gets its Canadian premiere at the Vancouver International Women in Film Festival on March 8 as part of a day of free screenings to mark International Women’s Day. She’s speaking to the Straight over the phone with Auger. “My grandmother wasn’t someone who put herself at risk. And by showing this young woman who’s in university and has a healthy family, you show that if it could happen to her it could happen to anyone. For me, it’s definitely about breaking down stereotypes. I knew I wanted to tell a story that could intrigue other people who don’t know what we’re going through.”
Auger, who, like Chalifoux, is of Cree background and from northern Alberta, adds that it’s just as important that the film features a supportive father who throws himself into finding his daughter.
“There are lots of families who are healthy,” Auger says, “and there are a lot who are still suffering because of the intergenerational effects of colonization and residential schools. For men, there’s been very much a campaign to vilify them so they get reduced to virtually nothing.”
The bulk of the film was shot in the wilderness near Merritt, and Auger’s atmospheric scenes of the forests, mountains, and rushing rivers allude to the duality of nature and larger themes about Mother Earth.
“In our story the land is both beautiful but also a place where she lost her life. It’s wrong,” Auger says. “For Indigenous people, the land isn’t a place to be afraid of. Now people look at land as something to go and do something briefly and take something from it. And Tanis lost her life in a safe and good place.”
The remote locations posed their challenges for the crew, of which half were from Capilano University’s Indigenous Independent Digital Filmmaking program and half from the same institution’s School of Motion Picture Arts. Chalifoux, who remembers being in the middle of studying for final exams for her third year at Cap U. during the shoot, says the tough conditions brought the intercultural crew together.
“Being out there in Merritt, in the mountains, there was no Wi-Fi, no Instagram,” she recalls. “Filming along the river at Little Box Canyon, the roads were pretty steep and people had to haul gear up and down those mountains—and when it rained the road got really slick. But the elements really made us work as a single unit.”
Auger and Chalifoux witnessed an amazing camaraderie build between the Indigenous and non-Indigenous crew members over the course of the two-week shoot. “A smudge and a prayer and a song began the day,” Chalifoux recalls, “and after two weeks you could see the barriers between people breaking.…By the end they understood the importance of the land and the prayers and the stories.”
A plea for wider cross-cultural understanding is at the heart of River of Silence, as it is for several other Indigenous offerings at the Vancouver International Women in Film Festival, at the Vancity Theatre from Tuesday to next Sunday (March 6 to 11).
Doreen Manuel, a Secwepemc/Ktunuxa First Nations filmmaker and instructor in the Indigenous Independent Digital Filmmaking program, will moderate a discussion on Indigenous moviemaking next Sunday. The same day, a program called The Last Walk will feature three short films made by the circumpolar Arctic Film Circle. On March 8, the B.C. short “Thirza Cuthand Is an Indian Within the Meaning of the Indian Act” explores mixed-race identity and colonial trauma.
River of Silence may be joining a burgeoning Indigenous filmmaking scene, but it also opens against the tumultuous backdrop of controversy over the not-guilty verdicts in the murder trials for Coulton Boushie and Tina Fontaine. Auger and Chalifoux see River of Silence as an ongoing call for action. They want to see the inquiry on missing and murdered Indigenous women succeed. Chalifoux says she’d also like to see more cellphone towers put up in the province’s North for those who get stranded on the road.
Auger points out: “We wouldn’t need cellphones if this wasn’t happening—if Indigenous women or young people weren’t seen as easy targets for people working out their darkness.”
River of Silence is a start, he adds. “One thing I would hope at the bottom line is that people watch this and see Indigenous families are real people—and they feel real pain.”