The Water of Life
This weekend’s Montreal Celtic Festival kicks off tonight with a screening of G. Scott MacLeod’s animated feature film The Water of Life. Recently we spoke with the multi-media artist about the work.
Why the decision to tie these four films into one feature?
Mike Burns, the author and storyteller of The Water of Life, originally wrote them as one story with six parts, featuring the histories of the Abenaki, the Americans, the Scots, the Irish, the English and finally the French Canadians. I chose to produce four of the six; The Abenaki – Children of the Dawn (2013), The Saga of Murdo MacLeod and his first contact with the Abenaki (2012), The Irishman – Child of the Gael (2014) and The French Canadian (2015). It was my online editor Yannick Carrier at the NFB (National Film Board of Canada) who encouraged me to edit the four into a feature. Thankfully my producer at the NFB Julie Roy agreed. While we were finishing editing The French Canadian we assemble all four together.
What were the challenges involved in piecing it together?
It was not that hard to do because the first three films were already done and Mike’s storyline arc was already in place. The stories were really meant to be tied together in the following sequence, beginning with The Abenaki, The Saga of Murdo MacLeod, The Irishman and ending with The French Canadian. The only changes were to cut out the end credits on each individual film and assemble them together as one large final end credit. We worked on the musical transitions and sound effects between each film and they are conveniently tied together with an opening quote for each short, acting as a pause and bridge into the following story.
How did you feel when it was all done?
I feel honoured to have had the opportunity to bring Mike’s wonderful untold stories of Canada into a feature length animation. I really tried to be of service to this Canadian epic and thankfully I had a wonderful team of editors and technicians who helped make this four-year project a reality, from conception to final print. It is a privilege to do such work and I am grateful to them and their expertise, not to mention the support of the NFB, Canada Council for the Arts, Conseil des arts et des lettres Québec, The St. Andrew’s Society of Montreal and The St. Patrick’s Society of Montreal.
What has the response been like from those who have seen the final work?
Few have seen the final work, as it has not been released yet but the ones that have, say that the work is timeless and an important contribution to our First Nations and Canadian histories. People have also comment on the great music featured in the film; Ruth Moody from The Wailin’ Jennys, Michel Faubert from Les Charbonnier de l’enfer, the late Scottish singer Ishbel MacAskill, First Nations artists Robert Seven Crows and Nathalie Picard, fiddler Jonathan Moorman and Piper Jeff McCarthy. Rob Lutes did an amazing version of Un Canadien Errant as the end credit song.
How did your process evolve from piece to piece?
I had three different editors for this project Phyllis Lewis (The Saga of Murdo MacLeod), Rebecca Arsenault (The Abenaki) and Rachelle Hamilton (The Irishman and The French Canadian), each film was treated differently by each editor. I was taught valuable lessons and insights by each of them; notably Phyllis Lewis, who won the Oscar for the animated short The Danish Poet (2006). Phyllis introduced me to, award winning documentarian Alanis Obomsawin and animator Martine Chartrand at the NFB, two very important and influential women in Canadian film. Having conversations about the work with Phyllis, Alanis and Martine inspired me to improve my drawings and knowledge of animation. My work and understanding of the filmmaking process has expanded tremendously over the four-year project. I am grateful for their interest and support.
Why is the work important?
The Water of Life (2015) tells some of the untold histories of First Nations and early Europeans in what is now Canada. Unfortunately and sadly our school curriculum overlooks many important events and issues around the First Peoples and the first settlers who came to this country fleeing oppression, only to be used as soldiers to subdue First Nation peoples and as cheap labour to break the land for industry. Mike’s work helps the viewer better understand these injustices committed against First Nations and the first European settlers in the name of colonialism.
From your perspective, are young people still interested in history & heritage?
Yes, I just screened The Irishman – Child of the Gael to a group of grade five and six students at Lower Canada College here in Montreal and they were incredibly receptive and interested in the story of the Irish, because they could draw on some of the common parallels from their own diverse family immigrant histories. Mike’s stories are universal and speak to all nations. Another point that I would like to make is that Mike has given his fictionalized characters a voice to tell very real but largely untold cultural histories – which is an interesting approach. It reminds me of Howard Zinn’s breakthrough book, A People’s History of the United States (1999). Zinn did something very similar by giving people their own voice in which to tell their history. Zinn’s approach in this book was to find first-hand written accounts of historic events, and when possible, living people, to give their eyewitness account of history. Zinn’s epic book enabled the American people to tell their own history of The United States. This approach sounds novel today but it is what storytellers/historians like Mike Burns have been doing for millennia. What is unique about Mike Burns’ stories in The Water of Life is that the approach somewhat parallels Zinn’s but in a unique context. And finally, my goal has been to get these films into libraries, schools and museums. These four short animated films are available in English and French. Each comes with a learning guide and in-depth production notes for classroom use.
What’s next on your creative agenda?
I am currently in production on a project called First Contact-Premier Contact (release early 2016), which will tell of the first encounters between Viking settlers and the ancestors of one of Canada’s First Nations, the Beothuk. Told from a women’s perspective, the fictionalized story will foreshadow certain tragic outcomes of subsequent relations between Canada’s settlers and its first peoples—while also exploring the moral danger, the creative challenge and the rich potential of encountering the “other.” Like The Water of Life, the animations will incorporate authentic visual motifs from both of the featured cultures into a vivid, pencil-and-watercolour style. I will begoing to L’Anse Aux Meadow’s Newfoundland this summer to shoot the Viking village at the Parks Canada site. The Viking era has been a passion of mine. I love ‘The Rock’ and its people. The place is rich with interesting history and untold stories. In the fall of 2015, the Centre d’histoire de Montréal will present an exhibition of my animation drawings, my documentary In Griffintown (2013) and other research on the post industrial neighbourhood of Griffintown. It will be depicted through historian Matthew Barlow and the lives and memories of the Mercier family. This francophone family lived in what is often considered an Irish, anglophone part of town. Their life stories describe the streets of an industrial sector that has undergone quite the metamorphosis.