Culture
Meagan Wohlberg

Big Screen Dreams in Fort Smith

Local filmmaking takes flight in a small Northern town.

“This is one of those things on the bucket list.”

A counsellor at Aurora College’s Thebacha campus in Fort Smith, Grant Paziuk admits his acting experience is limited to a high school English class reenactment of Who Has Seen the Wind? many decades ago.

Though his stage skills might be rusty, he’s still hoping to land the part of the judge in the soon-to-be-cast film Three Feathers, a true-ish story that focuses on a restorative justice response to burglaries and attacks in the community.

“It’s a license to reinvent yourself,” Paziuk tells the casting crew at his audition on Sunday afternoon, where he’s one of the last to try out for the dozen or so roles available to the community through an open casting call.

More than 30 Fort Smith residents, young and old, trickled into the rec centre theatre in a steady stream over the weekend, hoping to land a part in the film. There, they were asked to do an emotional scene -- a hurt, angry outburst directed at the juvenile offenders -- and read a second part as a social worker before they were thanked for coming and left to anxiously await the results.

For director Carla Ulrich, the fun is in witnessing people she sees in line at the grocery store breaking out of their shell, sometimes exposing a surprising hidden talent kept otherwise dormant.

“You see these people throughout the day, and some of them have no acting experience. All of a sudden they just pull out this super great little monologue -- some of them gave me chills,” Ulrich says. “It’s like, aren’t you the bouncer at the bar? How are you giving me chills right now?”

“Seeing the people come out and have fun -- I loved that part. I loved that people just came out for the fun of it, and they probably knew they weren’t going to get a role or that they were shy, but just the fact that they challenged themselves and came out was really cool to see.”

Hyper-loyal storytelling

Though Ulrich grew up in Slave Lake and studied film in Vancouver, she has strong family ties to Fort Smith. Her mom and grandparents, cousins and old friends live in this little town on the NWT-Alberta border, and she’s been offering film camps to youth there for several years.

It’s how she met Richard Van Camp, the author of the graphic novel on which the film is based, and formed a hyper-local storytelling team.

The duo teamed up for the first time last summer to produce a short film based on Van Camp’s story Hickey Gone Wrong. The film starred a completely local cast and was Ulrich’s first exposure to Fort Smith’s enthusiastic film aficionados, outside of her youth workshops.

“I learned that the community’s really receptive to it,” she said of the town’s almost overwhelming support, which included the donation of heavy equipment like scissor lifts for overhead shots. “People want to help us.”

For years, Van Camp and the rest of Fort Smith have been publicly struggling -- and failing -- to have his stories shot in the NWT community. So while on tour with Three Feathers last year, he, Ulrich and publisher Brent Kaulback of the South Slave Divisional Education Council put their heads together to figure out just what it would take to turn the graphic novel into a film.

Once the funding rolled in to make the project a reality, Ulrich said she jumped behind Van Camp’s vision to make it a fully Fort Smith affair, shot in four different languages: English, Cree, Chipewyan and South Slavey.

“I love it here too; my family’s here, I have strong roots here, and I think it makes sense -- [Richard’s] vision of bringing pride to the North, of sharing their stories in a beautiful way and using their talent, as well,” she says.

Apart from telling a true, local story (with a twist) using local talent, Ulrich says just having opportunities like auditions and the mentorships that come with the production are important steps for building a local film industry -- chances that weren’t available to her, growing up in northern Alberta.

“It was so foreign to me, because in Slave Lake there was nothing like that; nobody was making movies there and nobody was offering any sort of film class or anything,” she says. “So it definitely all of a sudden makes people think, ‘I can do that, there are opportunities for me’. It’s attainable. Even in a small town like this, we can practice those arts and express them.”

Community roots

While the main characters were cast ahead of time and have experience acting in larger budget feature films, they also all have a Fort Smith connection. Dwight Smith, David Burke and Joel Evans (who starred in the acclaimed adaptation of Van Camp’s novel, The Lesser Blessed) were all born and raised in the community.

The remaining bulk of the cast will be composed of people with little to no prior film experience, but Ulrich isn’t worried.

“We have a lot of talented people and actors up here,” she says. “We have people here who have experience in makeup artistry and props, who are maybe working at Fields or the government or hospital. It’s about tapping into those resources that we already have.”

The hardest part, Ulrich says, is having to disappoint friends and neighbours.

“I’m glad I don’t have to be the one to make calls this time,” she laughs.

It was the first time auditioning for Larissa Lusty, who works at the front desk of the Fort Smith Health Centre. Though she has always been interested in acting, casting calls in Fort Smith are few and far between, so she decided to jump at the chance.

“It’s here in our home community and it’s a good opportunity,” she says. That’s especially true for youth, she says, who will gain from seeing themselves and people they know on-screen.

“It’s kind of like setting good examples, allowing them to realize they can do this.”

While auditioning was a tad “nerve-wracking,” Lusty says there was comfort in knowing she was at home, surrounded by people she has known forever.

“Once you start, it’s okay. They’re people that you know, that you recognize, so it’s not too bad.”