After a day of showing and teaching his niece Michelle Derosier some of the old ways of wild rice harvesting at what the family calls Rice Lake, Uncle Simon sits with the filmmaker in their rustic, old family cabin.
“You guys got to do something,” the 75-year-old says of the rice harvesting. “Revive the whole thing.”
“That’s what I want do, uncle,” Michelle replies. “That’s exactly what I want to do.”
And it’s these attempts to revive that family tradition that are portrayed in Michelle’s 71-minute documentary, Return to Manomin, which premiered Sept. 23 at the Biindigaate Film Festival.
The scene sets up the premise of the film. Realizing they are only a few years away from the complete loss of an ancient tradition, Michelle and four generations of her family struggle to return to their traditional wild rice lake. Guided by the spirits of her Grandmothers and the wisdom of her aging uncle, Michelle attempts to revive her family’s annual manomin (Anishinaabe for wild rice) harvest with hopes of passing on the teachings of her ancestors to her children and grandchildren.
The film opens with some beautiful scenic shots – the work of cinematographer Dave Clement – of Rice Lake with a narrator speaking in Anishinaabe, introducing herself as a “grandmother who has left this world and become a spirit.” She indicates the lack of visits to the lake. Then we are introduced to Michelle, who is driving on her journey to revisit her family history.
The film is divided into three years, and in year one we are introduced to Uncle Simon, who shares his wisdom of the tradition.
“You don’t pick steady everyday,” he says as one of the first tidbits he shares. “You pick for a couple days then let it rest. Ripen, eh.”
As they visit the lake, Uncle Simon says there isn’t as much rice as there used to be. The audience at the screening let out a collective gasp as a shot of the present-day lake cuts to an archival photo of the lake full of wild rice.
The film’s description in the festival program describes the documentary as being of a cinéma-verité style, in which the presence of the filmmaker or camera is made aware – even acknowledged – by the participants and viewers. This is made apparent in a few scenes. In one instance, we hear Michelle asking, “OK, are we rolling?” before she updates the viewers of her journey.
In another scene, Uncle Simon says a prayer, offers tobacco then, as part of the ceremony, passes around a bottle of whiskey to everyone present, including the cameraman, who takes it. The camera even engages the participants at times.
There are no formal interviews either, save for a couple of Michelle updates. Instead, everyone’s statements or interactions are captured candidly, adding that sense of realism and truthfulness to the film.
The film also documents some setbacks in trying to revisit the tradition, be it due to mechanical or environmental factors.
“I’m not sure whether or not it’s going to work,” Michelle tearfully laments to the camera. “Whether or not it’s the right thing to do or whether it’s wishful thinking – to think you can go back.”
And while the film is about reviving a tradition, at the heart of it is family.
“Here, uncle,” says Michelle’s sister Neechi, offering a walking stick to the Elder. It’s subtle moments like this that help make the film a heart-warming story.
While the trip to Rice Lake is a remembrance for the uncle, it’s a discovery for the younger generation. At the advice of the uncle, Michelle brings her daughter MorningStar to the dam up the river leading to the lake.
“We’re not sure what we’re doing,” Michelle says to the camera, “but we’re going to check it out.”
After the harvest, a teenaged cousin admits to almost making up an excuse not to take part.
“But I’m glad I came out,” she says.
The film is also imbued with humour. I won’t spoil anything, but these moments come unexpectedly and perhaps unintentionally by the family members.
The film is underscored by the music composed by Jason Burnstick of Winnipeg and Faye Blais of Sudbury. Burnstick’s folk-blues acoustic work and lap-slide guitar adds a down-to-earth feel to the film, while Blais’ dynamic vocals and jazz-blues music heightens or underscores the drama in certain scenes.
Return to Manomin is a documentary three years in the making, with the past 10 months spent in post-production. While the Ontario Arts Council, Canada Council For the Arts and Eagle Lake First Nation initially funded the project, the budget ran out and the film became a labour of love for the filmmakers.
Michelle, who directed the film, was overwhelmed by the response she received. She was moved when a friend said her nine-year-old daughter saw the screening and later asked, “What traditions do we have, mom?”
“Everybody has traditions, and we live in an ever-changing world where it’s easy for the traditions to get lost,” Michelle says. “This was about a lot more than making a film, it was about starting an active process of remembering not only who we are as a family but who we are as a people.”
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