Snowboarder Spencer O'Brien finds inner strength as Precious Leader Woman by exploring Indigenous roots

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      Sometimes, the subjects of documentaries grow and evolve during the filming process. And that can lead to astonishing revelations.

      Vancouver filmmaker Cassie De Colling certainly can attest to this in connection with her emotionally charged film about B.C. snowboarding star Spencer O’Brien. Precious Leader Woman, which is screening at the Vancouver International Mountain Film Festival, chronicles O’Brien’s journey reconnecting with her Indigenous heritage.

      “She did have epiphanies while we were making this film,” De Colling tells the Straight by phone. “Or if she didn’t have epiphanies, she was unbelievably honest.”

      O’Brien, an X Games gold medallist, was born in Alert Bay and is of Kwakwaka’wakw and Haida ancestry on her mother’s side.

      She concedes in the film that when she was in the midst of her glorious snowboarding career, she didn’t make space or time to learn about her culture. At one point, she candidly describes herself as the “perfect example of colonization”.

      “I had no connection and I didn’t want any,” O’Brien reveals.

      It was only after experiencing deep disappointment at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi that she began seriously reconnecting with her Indigenous roots. It started in Alert Bay on Cormorant Island off northern Vancouver Island, where she was greeted as a returning hero at a homecoming event at the Big House. It was there that she felt the power of her Kwakwaka’wakw culture.

      “It was a turning point for me,” O’Brien says in the film. “There should be more of this in my life.”

      Video: Watch the trailer for Precious Leader Woman.

      O'Brien's photo caught director's attention

      De Colling, an immigrant from Australia, learned about O’Brien’s heritage several years later while visiting the U’Mista Cultural Centre in Alert Bay. At the time, De Colling was working on a project about protecting wild salmon.

      “There’s a wall of fame that has notable people from Alert Bay on it,” De Colling recalls. “And there was this picture of Spencer that I recognized immediately from my background working as a snowboard videographer in Aspen and in Australia and in Japan. Spencer was a poster child of snowboarding in the early 2000s for women.”

      De Colling contacted O’Brien over Instagram to see if she might be able to do a short film about her. The first time they met over coffee, they talked about O’Brien’s career, the upcoming snow season, and her well-known battle with rheumatoid arthritis.

      Initially, O’Brien gave De Colling a list of about 30 people to speak to, including coaches, team managers, friends, and family who had influenced her. Some of them weren’t even aware of O’Brien’s Indigeneity.

      Over the course of three long interviews for the film, O’Brien opened up about how she came to embrace this aspect of her identity. Her sister Avis O’Brien (Nalaga/Kaaw Kuuna), a cultural-empowerment facilitator and artist, played a pivotal role in helping her along this path.

      “When I started putting all of this together,” De Colling says, “it was this bird’s-eye view of her life.”

      In 2016, Spencer O'Brien won a gold medal at the X Games.

      De Colling pushes women to the front

      O’Brien’s dad, Brian, is an Irish immigrant who moved to Alert Bay in his 20s and introduced his daughters to snowboarding.

      “He’s competitive by nature, and intense by nature,” De Colling says. “I think he really taught the girls that.”

      De Colling hoped to call her film Ku’l Jaad Kuuyaas, which is O’Brien’s Haida name. But she received feedback that this might make it tougher to market, so she used the translation: Precious Leader Woman.

      The filmmaker sounds pleased when the Straight tells her that the article on her documentary will be published shortly before International Women’s Day, which falls on Tuesday (March 8).

      “I have a real drive to push women to the front,” De Colling says.

      Part of this comes from the lack of women’s stories being told. But De Colling also endured persistent sexual harassment early in her career.

      In fact, De Colling says, one study showed that 72 percent of women in Australian film and television have experienced workplace or harassment or discrimination. It’s given her great motivation to empower women both behind and in front of the screen in her films.

      Precious Leader Woman director Cassie De Colling is passionate about telling women's stories on-screen.
      Kelly Russ

      Film was a team effort

      COVID-19 created some challenges in the production of Precious Leader Woman. Initially, De Colling hoped to film a re-creation of O’Brien’s homecoming ceremony in the Big House in Alert Bay. But that was changed to working with single shots by a fire. On the final day of filming, they heard about the preliminary findings of 215 unmarked graves being discovered on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School.

      “And it was so terribly sad,” De Colling recalled. “I had sort of scripted a bit about residential schools creating the disjointment in Spencer’s lineage.”

      But because the residential-schools issue is so raw—and because anyone who was going to watch the film would already know about their existence—there was a collective decision by Indigenous members on the team to focus on the ban on potlaches and the effect that this had on West Coast Indigenous culture.

      “When I arrived in Alert Bay to collaborate on the documentary about wild salmon, I worked alongside Chief Ernest Alfred, and he invited us to what was my first potlach in the Big House in Alert Bay, an all-day celebration of speeches, dancing, and food,” De Colling recalls.

      She emphasizes that Precious Leader Woman was a team effort. O’Brien and filmmaker Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers (Blackfoot, Sámi) shared the writing credit. It was edited by Dakota Morton, a member of the Métis Nation, and music was created by nêhiyawak band member Matthew Cardinal.

      According to De Colling, 90 percent of the crew on-set had Indigenous ancestry; matriarchs in Alert Bay and on Haida Gwaii checked the editing. No film can be made without funding—in this case, De Colling was helped by Telus Originals.

      This image shows Spencer O'Brien's ability to fly down steep hills in the back country.

      Backcountry boarder extraordinaire

      The film opens with stunning imagery showing O’Brien gliding down a fairly steep cliff near Pemberton. It’s one of many memorable shots in the film, which features cinematography by Leo Hoorn and Ryan Kenny.

      De Colling reveals that this near vertical drop was one of the first times that O’Brien had ever done a line like that.

      It’s become part of O’Brien’s new life as a backcountry snowboarder now that she’s ended her career as a competitive athlete.

      “She did all the right things and got her avalanche training up to speed,” De Colling says. “Last season was a huge step for her, learning about those conditions.”

      It’s clear that O’Brien still has the drive, even though it’s no longer in pursuit of the podium. 

      Spencer O'Brien is featured on the cover of this week's Georgia Straight newspaper in Vancouver.