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Interview with Helen Haig-Brown conducted by Millie Seubert, Film and Video Center, NMAI
MS: Thank you for being here. Could you begin by introducing yourself and telling us where you’re from?
HH-B: Sure. My name is Helen Haig-Brown. I am from the Tsilhqot'in Nation in the interior of British Columbia in Canada. I’m a filmmaker.
MS: Have you always lived up on your reserve?
HH-B: No, I have always lived between my community in the interior and Vancouver. Probably the majority of life has been in the city, Vancouver.
MS: Why did that come about?
HH-B: My mom went to school, university [of British Columbia], when I was a child, so we moved to the city then. My father ended up trading in his career from working as a teacher in the interior and became a freelance writer in Vancouver, so he bought a place there. My mother, when she finished school, moved home. We were split between the two places quite consistently throughout our life after that.
MS: Was that a conflict for you at all?
HH-B: Yeah, in a lot of ways it was a conflict.... I’ve had to come to a place where it’s like, “Okay, I have to live in both places to a degree.” Trying to find a good compromise or a way to stay balanced within that is quite difficult. I finally decided I was ready to create my base back in the Tsilhqot'in, in the country. Right now, I just travel all the time into the cities.That’s kind of a balance, though it doesn’t seem like the balance that I want [laugh]. Hopefully I can, at some point, just come to the city for two months of the year, maybe even more, if I needed to do a specific project.
MS: How did you get started in filmmaking?
HH-B: I was never very good at school; I’m a high school dropout [laugh]. I really had a hard time academically or finding an interest in that sort of area, so I was really confused for a long time. I really just felt like I was a bit lazy or didn’t have initiative or didn’t have passion—a lot of those sorts of struggles. So I finally gave up on high school and traveled quite extensively, around the world. After a while, you’re working in factories folding fabric—I decided maybe I should try to go back to school. So I went to college as a mature student.
In the very first course that I was taking we were given an option to do a paper or an oral presentation or a video. I hate writing, so I said, "Great, I’ll do the video!" I had no idea—I had never done anything in video. I went [to the teacher] and said, “Do you have a camera?” and she said, “Oh, no, no, no. Just push record on your VCR with something on TV and record a few things and present on it.” So I went home and asked my brother if I could use his HI8 camera and decided to just go out and film with that.
Something happened—all of a sudden I couldn’t sleep, everything was dancing in my head; I would wake up every five minutes and write notes. It was amazing. And trying to edit it—I went back to the teacher, and she could see that I had developed a passion and had committed to this project, so she said “The English department has an old editing system, let’s go talk to the head of the department there and see if you could use it.” He asked how long I would need and if I knew how to use [it], and I said, “Yeah,” but I had no clue. It was one of those old VHS linear editing systems.
I went in and I just had a tiny little booklet there and I’m trying to figure it out. Of course, in the allotted time I didn’t figure it out at all. I begged him and got another day slotted in, but I still couldn’t figure it out. I just jammed the door so it wouldn’t lock and snuck back in there and camped there for the weekend, and hid my sleeping bag and food and finally figured out—well, actually, in the end a friend who knew enough to help me had to come in—and I edited that piece together. But that’s how I found that I, that I loved telling stories.
MS: Guerilla filmmaking! And did you go on and study film?
HH-B: I did. Many years later, because I believed I had to finish my Bachelor of Arts degree. I went from high school dropout to college dropout. By then I was tired of schooling and that structure; I’ve always had a difficult time with that. When looking at film school, I couldn’t imagine doing a four-year program, and I really didn’t want…I wasn’t interested in Hollywood, I wasn’t interested in drama, I wasn’t interested in all of those things. I didn’t want to study genre, I didn’t want to be told how to tell a story, I just wanted the basics—show me how to push record on a camera, show me the technical skills, because I just want to record people telling stories that I feel need to be talked about and shared within our community, within the Native community.
I was very stubborn and focused on that, so I took a week-long intensive media training program, and I did a four-month program in the city for aboriginal youth in Vancouver, through the Indigenous Media Arts Group. They’re amazing. I produced a film at the end of that one, which was part of our assignments. Then I went to Capilano [University] in the IIDF program [Indigenous Independent Digital Filmmaking]. It’s a two-year program but I went straight into the second year because of the…little tiny programs that I had done…and did one year there. Slowly, along the way, I started to become not so rule-orientated about my filmmaking. All of a sudden I started to become interested in lights and started to be interested in different ways of storytelling and fell in love with the art of it. I really seriously was so focused about what I wanted to do prior to that, I was almost closed to it.
So, that was an interesting opening up. I started to do experimental artwork and just play with the medium, but, still, always struggling, because I had this kind of—how do you call it—almost a set idea in my head that to do... that there had to be a very strong purpose; it was about giving back and not wasting my life. I wasn’t raised to... I was raised to appreciate art—but I wasn’t raised to think that I had any part in that. I don’t know how to explain it other than I felt really like the strong purpose…that I had to cover political stuff and I had to cover...there was this urgency of a lot of fights and a lot of pain. It was suffocating and heavy. Slowly that has been lifting, but I still struggle with it sometimes. Like if I’m doing something a little too fun or a little too... that I’m wasting my life or I’m not being as useful as I should be with this tool. So it’s interesting walking that line.
I’m noticing as it goes on, that more and more I’m doing things that I wouldn’t think I would ever [do]. All of a sudden now, I’m starting to admit that I have a real love for Chinese action movies [laugh]. I love war movies, Chinese war movies with martial arts and stuff. More and more things become easier, and as I’ve been on my path and been more and more supported, I go into these lighter areas. It’s interesting, this internal battle between making things that are enjoyable to people or things that are important.
MS: Could you speak to the role of film in your community? What does it mean to have filmmakers living in the community, and that maybe people in the community might aspire to be filmmakers?
HH-B: Sure. That’s interesting, actually. I come from a nation of 4000 people. We’re tiny. There are six communities, and in my community there’s 350 people there. I remember it being really nerve-wracking when starting, especially trying to tell traditional stories, or important stories. I spent a lot of years hiding in Vancouver, to develop my skills to feel ready enough to go home and do it in a good way and also to have a thick enough skin to handle it properly. Also, to research protocol as much as I possibly could, because I didn’t have another filmmaker that I could just look at how they do things—it wasn’t established, you know?
As I’ve been home and been doing that stuff, I’ve seen that there have been so many trailblazers doing media work and doing storytelling and communication and arts that I wasn’t able to recognize or see [before]. It was in my definition, in my head. All of a sudden I began to notice, “Hey, wait a second, my uncle is always video recording and editing on his computer”; they’re family videos, they’re recordings of events. He’s a rancher, he puts up the hay; he’s the one who’s continued my grandparents ranch along with a few of my other uncles and aunts. So he drives a tractor all day and then he’s taught himself to edit on a computer. Then I have a couple other aunts and my mother who have been recording stories and songs since the ’60s. So there’s not only old Super 8 footage that my uncle did, there’s VHS from another aunt, who’s been recording through the ’80s and ’90s. That’s just my family. Then I recognized, it dawned on me, “Oh my God! No wonder I do what I do!” It’s interesting to see I’ve always been following them or been taught by them in some way.
Now, coming home, I feel like I’ve just really come home. Up until a couple years ago every time I was at home spending four months of the summer or six months, people would walk up to me and say, “Oh, you’re still in school.” I was in university for 10 years, right? No one knew what I was doing. Even my mom, she’d say, “Oh, she does some film or something.”
So, doing the films now that I’ve been doing at home, actually doing films that are from home, that are in our language, that are our stories, that are acted by people all in our community—it’s been the first time that I’m being recognized as a filmmaker and feel like I’ve come home.
And, in that, now, has created out of the woodwork—this mass amount of—not mass, because of where I come from, but big to me—really talented and gifted young Tsilhqot'in people that are all over the map. We have a lot of really exciting young people, [like a] young boy who grew up and lives back home there who’s been editing and had taught himself to edit since he was a young child—the technology, they’re so savvy. Now he’s just leaving to go to Vancouver to go to film school. There’s a young Tsilhqot'in actor, who’s been acting in plays and movies all acros—really successful at it; there’s also a filmmaker who went to art school. What I’m saying is that all of a sudden I realized that I was surrounded by it. With that said, a lot of those artists live away from home or have stayed away from home because—like me—couldn’t imagine how I was going to create and continue to do the work that I’m doing in such a rural place.
But that’s part of my dream. What I’m hoping to do is find ways to bring artists and people from around the world to come to our territory—maybe an artist residency—and be able to train us and develop us there. Broader than just film; I’d like arts as well. The way I see that being so beneficial and so important is [that] I really believe in healing. I really believe that there’s a lot of gifts and a lot of power and a lot of beauty in my home. I think it took me a long time to recognize and see that through the face of the hard stuff, the pain that was there. Having that lifted and seeing the beauty has made it really important to do that for the younger ones, for them to see where they come from, [see] what it really is.
I think being able to express some of those stories and those feelings is really important to creating a healthy community, and I would really like to be a part of that. I think in that expression, the more and more resolving or living in beauty with some of that stuff, that more and more we can be good to one another and live in a good way. That is seriously a big part of my dream and I think it can be accessed. I think there are so many people working everywhere for those dreams and wanting to create that, and they’re doing it in multiple ways and multiple mediums.
MS: When you’re there doing it and other people are flowing in with you there gets to be this great synergy. I think it’s a great goal. Another question, all that archival footage that’s in your family, do you plan to work with that?
HH-B: Absolutely. Yes! It’s very, very exciting. Again, that’s another initiative that I’ve been interested in, mostly from direction from my aunts or from people from the community who are really vocal about what needs to happen and vocal about what I should do. But archives…and digitizing—we don’t have that sort of setup; it’s a very new thing. We just don’t have the infrastructure that a lot of communities have [who have] been doing a lot of that work, that’s for sure. But yeah, my next feature film will be using a lot of my family archives and stories and songs and footage.
MS: A full-length feature? Is there something you’re planning?
HH-B: Yep. Yep, it’s called Legacy and it will be a feature documentary. It’s been percolating for four years and slowly getting to the place where it needs to be to be ready, especially financially. We begin next month and it’s really exciting. It’s on five generations of women in my family. It’s about me, this generation, and what does it mean to have this legacy of these strong, incredible, resilient women that went through some pretty hardcore stuff—from smallpox to the Tsilhqot'in war to influenza to residential school. I believe that [our] sense of loneliness and grief and trauma is from a long time ago, [before] residential schools. I want to do it—not in a light way, I want to face some of that stuff—but also to celebrate that survival. I also want to understand what that means for me now and how I am in my relationships, especially intimate relationships [laugh]…. There’s going to be a lot of humor as well in it.
MS: Great. Well, Helen, thank you so much.