Nearly two decades after her grandmother’s death, Petie Chalifoux still has unanswered questions.
She and her husband, Michael Auger, both of Cree background and originally from Northern Alberta, are Vancouver-based filmmakers about to bring a very dark subject to light—one that has until recently gone largely ignored by government, media, and the public.
The story of Chalifoux’s grandmother is not a new one. When she went missing in 2000, it seemed to Chalifoux's family that in the eyes of the RCMP, their grandmother was simply another number on an ever-growing list of missing and murdered indigenous women.
“Hunters found her vehicle, and then the RCMP found her body a few meters away from the truck,” Chalifoux, seated alongside Auger, recounted to the Straight.
The truck was found on a remote dirt road, three hours away from the nearest town.
“At the time, the RCMP said, ‘Oh, she must have just driven off, got lost, and then laid down and died’,” Chalifoux explained.
“That doesn’t happen. My grandmother would never go there, especially alone. For me, it was always a deep pain to not have the answers to all of these questions.”
Chalifoux and Auger’s film, River of Silence, recently wrapped filming in Vancouver and Merritt. It is inspired by Chalifoux’s own trauma, as well as real-life events that have occurred to countless aboriginal families.
“When I was writing this film, I read a lot of stories from different people, what their families had gone through, their own personal experiences and feelings, and kind of combined it all with mine,” Chalifoux said.
The film tells the story of an indigenous family living in present day Vancouver, led by Helen Wolf (Mariel Belanger) and her husband Nathan (Stan Isadore). When their daughter, Tanis (Roseanne Supernault) goes missing, Nathan and Helen, along with her family on the Buffalo Mountain reservation, brother Trevor (Duane Howard), mother Margaret (Harriet Prince), and sister Kate (Madelaine McCallum), must navigate the devastating disappearance of their daughter, who is later found murdered.
A fourth-year student in Capilano University’s school of motion picture arts, Chalifoux has long known that she wanted to tell of the tragedy that occurred to her family, but it wasn’t until she discovered screenwriting that she knew she wanted to create a film. Together, she and Auger, who has a history in photography, TV news, and documentary production, set out to make it happen.
After applying to Telefilm Canada’s micro-budget program, Chalifoux and Auger were awarded a grant and given 15 months to produce the film. They are anticipating an early October invite-only screening at Capilano University, and are submitting the film to a number of local and international festivals. APTN has already expressed interest for a TV broadcast sometime in 2017.
“We have grand dreams, so that means we want to see it in major film festivals like TIFF, Cannes, Sundance, SXSW, and of course other festivals like Whistler, Vancouver, and Calgary,” Auger said.
“The themes that we are working with in this film are themes that we’ve discussed ever since we made the commitment to film over 10 years ago, so the topic of missing and murdered indigenous women, and of violence in general, is at the forefront, but there are all sorts of other issues we’re touching on,” he added.
Those other topics, Auger said, include racism, colonization, and environmental destruction.
In his eyes, what’s happening in regards to indigenous women in Canada is “a symptom of what’s happening globally, in terms of violence against marginalized people, and people living on the lower ends of the Westernized approach to life on this planet.”
While we might be hearing more about missing and murdered indigenous women thanks to the efforts of activists, allies, and a handful of government officials, Auger and Chalifoux agree that filmmakers haven’t broached the subject yet for a few reasons.
“I feel that one of the reasons that other indigenous filmmakers have been reluctant, is because there are so many real people, real families, real mothers and fathers that have experienced this,” Auger said.
“It’s a challenging subject to address, especially from the point of view that we have to answer to our people. Some of them are going to say, ‘Why are you making this?’”
The Nooaitch band of Merritt, with whom Chalifoux and Auger had been in contact before the movie was filmed, asked them that very question.
In sharing their story, the filmmakers learned that a Nooatich family had experienced a very similar situation to that of Chalifoux’s: their own daughter went missing and was murdered. In the end, the band contributed to the film’s production budget, and stands behind the work that Auger and Chalifoux are doing to shed light on the issue.
“I think another reason why other filmmakers haven’t touched the subject, is because it’s tough—a lot of our actors and people on set had a very hard time going through and pulling out those feelings,” Chalifoux said.
While filming what Auger called the “heavier” scenes in Merritt, crewmembers and actors often broke down. For some, it was their first exposure to the issue of missing and murdered indigenous women.
“In the short 10 days of filming, they learned more than they were exposed to in their whole life,” Auger said.
“Everyone on set was affected, so we know that when it hits theatres, it’s going to affect a lot of people. The knowledge that you can bring to people through story can bring hope, and by sharing it this way, we can communicate it to people in a way they didn’t understand before.”
Chalifoux and Auger are certain their film has the potential to change the collective mindset of not only Canadians, but of people around the world who might hold the belief that indigenous people are somehow “less than”.
“As we were affected and changed as children, in our story, we are reaching out to the next generation, encouraging them to have an open mind. In our culture, there is no separation amongst people. We are all equal,” Chalifoux said.
“On a lot of reserves, the RCMP seems to have this attitude of, ‘just another dead indian’. But for me, this film is about shifting that. We are not people who are just going to die and disappear. We are fighting to be seen and to be recognized; to be alive.”