Reflections of a generous place
story by France Benoit | images by Gary Milligan
Random acts of kindness are in fashion but I much prefer deliberate, small gestures that have ripple effects in the community and say, “I see you, I hear you,” which in essence means, “I love you.” These acts of giving by volunteers, and also paid workers who go beyond the call of duty – young and old, men and women, even children – are what make Yellowknife what it is. I knew there was a series of short films to be done about them.
The Art of Giving Project is a multi-media, multi-disciplinary exploration in the art of giving in Yellowknife, that now lives on the website artofgiving.ca. It includes 17 short films and original works created by more than a dozen local artists, all exploring how we give – from offering a couch to travellers, a foot bath for those on the streets, a healthy lunch to the hungry, or giving through art and music. Everything is in black and white with a unique splash of colour, but you will not see a single face so as to highlight the act of giving itself. This website is a timely ode to Yellowknife. The official launch on Thanksgiving weekend was preceded by public discussions about how unsafe Yellowknife was becoming; but also by the incredibly generous gift from Charlie Delorme, who donated part of his residential school settlement to local charities. I’d like to believe there was a major energy shift in our collective thinking the night of the launch.
People ask me what I’ve learned through this artistic journey. I learned that Yellowknife is largely held together by the work of individuals and not for profit organizations, that the fabric of our life here is continuously being sewn by thousands of giving hands, and that if they weren’t there to feed us, to nurture us, to heal us, we would not be who we are as a City.
The Art of Giving has already given back to the community. More than $2,800 was raised for the United Way from the sale of the launch tickets and hundreds of visitors have lingered on the website to learn more about ways to give. My hope is that through its website, the Art of Giving can continue to weave its way into the lives of friends, family members and complete strangers.
Film #2: Farewell Touch (7 min. 22)
I decided to film Funeral Director Janice McKenna preparing a deceased person for burial, to show the many facets of giving through one’s work. The National Film Board supported this short. The sound of the clock greeted us as we walked in the room and we decided to keep it in the film. I spent most of the time at the back of the room watching Gary filming Janice’s hands as she proceeded to wash Peter’s body. We had decided to keep on not filming faces. I kept saying over and over again: Thank you, Peter! Everything was white in the room, so how to include our trademark splash of colour in the film? We opted for the yellowish tone at the beginning; the same shot is at the end of the film, but without a yellow filter, to emphasize Janice’s’ words: You’re cleansing their external body before they’re gone… completely. At the end of the film, Peter’s spirit is gone, completely. I continue to visit Peter’s grave.
Film #1: Hand to Toe (8 min. 30)
This is the first in the series, but we didn’t know that back in 2010. As a premonition, the second part to the title is “an exploration in the art of giving.” The film is about the foot-washing program at the Salvation Army. Intuitively, I knew it would be in black and white and that for privacy reasons, we would only see hands and feet. I went twice by myself to scope things out, camera operator/editor Gary Milligan came with me the third time. Most of the footage you see is from that one evening, even though we did go back twice after that. There was good energy that night. On a hunch, I asked Gary to add some colour to the first rough cut. Gary kept the red line of the wool socks. I liked it! The idea to add a splash of colour to all the films was born. Hand to Toe was an official selection at the 2011 Hot Docs Festival.
Film #7: Abundant Gifts (5 min. 33)
Sometimes you get crazy ideas and they don’t leave you and you just know you need to follow through. One of those was to ask Darha Philpott to create a dance choreography focusing on giving, which we would film without seeing the dancer’s face? Thankfully, she said yes! Gary suggested we put a spotlight on the dance floor to get the dancer’s shadow on the wall. We then proceeded to film “the master,” a run through of the dance in a wide shot, then we did it as a tight close-up going back to certain segments we particularly liked, and then we filmed the dancer’s shadow on the wall. The result is an amalgamation and juxtaposition of all three sets of images.
Film #10: Kindness: Taking it to the Streets (27 min. 15)
This is by far the longest of all the films. I simply could not decide which organization or individuals to choose to portray social justice in Yellowknife. In the end, I decided to adopt the formula of “A day in the life of…” which gave us the freedom to cover many organizations at various times of the day – the Drop-in Centre, Salvation Army, Centre for Northern Families, the UNW, transitional housing and more. It meant for an early morning and a late night of shooting, and as much coordination as all the previous films put together. Gary did some additional filming late at night to be able to catch the temperature clock on Franklin at midnight. I could not have done justice to the topic had it been completed earlier in the project. The film embodies so much and provides a much broader picture of social justice in Yellowknife than I had encountered in my original research. I discovered many links between seemingly different organizations.