“500 Days in the Wild” leaves filmmaker Dianne Whelan with a wealth of life-changing revelations

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      Discovering a profound truth takes blood, sweat, and fear, and it was revealed to Dianne Whelan as she crossed the country shooting her film 500 Days in the Wild, which opened at select theatres this weekend.

      The profound realization Whelan arrived at is that people are inherently kinder than commonly portrayed.

      In her captivating narrative, she unveils a poetic tapestry of reality, weaving together stunning imagery with profound insights, inviting audiences to heed the true call of humanity. We caught up with her this week.

      What was the first thing you noticed about your body when you started filming?

      Funny enough, I never broke a bone and I never got sick out there. But in that first week in Newfoundland, I had 37 bruises. I began to accept my limits. And I worked with those limits. When my body was really tired, I just stopped and camped out for an extra day or two and let myself recover. Self-care is so funny. You're not going to make it if you don’t [practise] self-care. Self-care is the most important thing on a journey like this and finding a cadence that you can sustain.

      How has this film changed you?

      Well, you know, everything that we do in life changes us. Every person you fall in love with will change you, everything changes. So the journey definitely changed me. I made a transition out there from feeling like I was on something to feeling like I was with something—with the water, or with the earth, and with the animals.

      What you connect with is what you share and what makes you different.

      In the six years, I never met anybody that was unkind, whether it was hunters in the middle of the night, or whether it was Indigenous elders and Indigenous communities.

      When you watch the news, it’s really easy to get a skewed version of what the world is. For me, it was really healing to be reminded that the world is not that. It is full of kind people, and that 99.9 per cent of people are good, kind people.

      When you hit your darkest moments, how did you get through?

      It’s hard. I spent a lot of time in Indigenous communities, listening and learning. And one of the first pieces of advice I had was from the Mi’kmaq communities I visited in Cape Breton.

      When I left on this journey, I thought travelling the old way [meant] I wasn’t going to use motors. But what I learned in my time in their communities was that, no, that’s not the old way. The old ways are what you carry in your heart as you journey across this land. As you walk on the earth, you say: the earth is sacred, the earth is sacred. And when you’re on the water, you say: the water is sacred, the water is safe.

      If you do that, you will be safe.

      Well, I listened. I didn’t need a logical explanation. I don’t need to understand how that works. I just accepted that. So in my moments of fear, if I got afraid, then that was my mantra, I could turn fear of something into connection with something.

      What was the scariest moment of the journey?

      Once we got up a couple of thousand kilometers up to Great Slave Lake, we heard that a young guy just started in Fort Smith trying to make a doc. And then there was another artist from France out there collecting sounds of the Arctic to blend with a symphony in France. So it was really exciting.

      And they both died.

      So that changed the journey psychologically, because you can get to feel pretty comfortable out there. You get used to it.

      They were both men. They were both artists. They were both following their dreams. And that’s what I’m doing out there.

      The challenge became psychological at that point. And then my partner also was there and it was terrifying for her. I’m proud of my partner for how she confronted her fear. The irony is, of course, when the bear does come into camp, I’m in my tent. I can’t find my pants. She’s the one that has to deal with it. And she’s the one that finds her power and confronts this fear. Nobody was hurt. The bear wasn’t hurt. We were able to just fire off some warning shots.

      How difficult is it to film yourself?

      Very difficult. I’m not used to being a subject in my work. My last film, Everest (40 Days At Base Camp) was a doc, and I’m not in it at all.

      We were laughing in the edit room, because the editor, Tanya Maryniak, was like: “There’s no footage of you. Where’s the footage of you?”

      So I wasn’t a very good director of myself, actually.

      The kind landing of this film has just given me a great sense of relief because it is extremely vulnerable putting yourself out there like that.

      It’s going to make me a better director, because I know what it’s like now, to be on the other side of the camera and to have your picture up on the screen.

      So, it certainly is going to bring more grace to my process.

      When you watch the film again, what changes would you make?

      My cinematography. It was pretty rough filming there in the beginning, partly because the physical demands on me were so much greater than I anticipated. I really had to push myself.

      Juggling the demands of the filmmaking with the demands of the trail were really hard. But you can really see through the course of the film how that changes. Once I hit those big skies of Saskatchewan, I had a rebirth. I was like a child again…especially filming animals. I got really into it, crawling on my belly and hanging out with moose with hours of wordless conversations. Being both the observed and the observer is really powerful, a really profound experience.

      What was your most memorable experience of shooting animals?

      There’s a little shot of some grizzlies walking ahead of me. That was pretty powerful, because I was very close to the grizzly bear at that point of time. And just seeing how gentle they were, a mother with a younger bear. Looking through my lens and watching like these large, powerful claws so gently, grabbing these little berries.

      What I learned out there is it’s all about resonance. I think animals have this incredible ability to read your emotional state, whether you’re angry or sad or full of joy. And once you understand that, it shifts the way you can have these experiences with animals. There’s something magical that happens in these moments. And I saw it happen over the years. I didn’t get the big moose and the big bears in the beginning. It was butterflies and frogs and dragonflies. But as the years passed, more and more of those moments came.

      What’s it like promoting your film?

      Know what? It’s not my film. Films are collaborative, right? I made this film with an editor named Tanya Marissa, who’s one of the greatest editors in Canada right now. When you’re a documentary filmmaker, your relationship to the editor is the most important relationship in the film.

      I don’t write a story and then go in and impose it on my footage. I go through every minute, and we had 800 hours, and you pull the story out from the veritas process. There’s four and a half minutes of credits. That’s how much help I had from strangers, friends, cousins, you name it. That’s what makes it all more meaningful; it’s something that I’ve done with a group of people. So this is all about us right now.

      This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

      RAPID FIRE with Dianne Whelan, filmmaker of 500 Days in the Wild

      Best piece of kit you relied on? Hot water bottle.

      Best read on the trip? Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer.

      How many tents did you go through? Eight.

      Favourite time of day? The end of the day in my tent, cuddled in my sleeping bag with a hot cup of tea.

      What quality do you admire in friends after the trip? Kindness, loyalty.

      Your main fault on the trip? Stubbornness.

      Worst misery? November soaking wet in a strong and cold wind, setting up my camp in the pouring rain.

      Favourite sounds of the trip? Sound of silence that wasn’t really silent.

      Best lesson you learned on the trip? The world’s a kinder place than I thought.

      Best tip for filmmakers? Bring more than one GoPro. Pretect your solar panels. Always shoot the highest quality.

      Best virtue you learned about yourself? My open-mindedness.

      Best line in the film other than “We are not at fucking Disneyland”? We are one.