McMahon brings “Stories from the Land” to CBC

This is the first in a series with Ryan McMahon and Wendell Collier about their CBC Gem series “Stories from the Land,” an adaptation of McMahon’s podcast which premiers on the digital streaming platform Friday, March 19.

From a podcast to the CBC, formerly local actor, comedian and filmmaker Ryan McMahon’s “Stories from the Land” is still focused on what it’s always been about: the stories.

McMahon is making the jump to a television documentary series along with his longtime friend and series producer Wendell Collier, both of whom are Indigenous and met during high school in Fort Frances. The TV version of “Stories from the Land” will be hitting CBC Gem, the public broadcaster’s virtual streaming site, this Friday, March 19. The series will continue the storytelling journey McMahon started with his podcast, visiting with Indigenous people across Ontario and sharing their life’s experience through a number of different lenses.

McMahon said the move from podcast to television documentary wasn’t necessarily one he had planned on making. Rather, it was a natural evolution of his work as he began to see the reach and impact the series was having on those who tuned in, as well as the potential it could have.

“Once I really started digging into the podcast series and started to understand what it could be as a podcast series, it really just showed me that there was potential to do basically whatever we wanted,” McMahon said.

“It slowly showed itself as a live tour, then evolved into this community engagement tool where communities could come together under the guise of reconciliation and kind of retell community stories, historical stories, linking them to the contemporary reality. Then the project became sort of political and entertaining and educational, and I’d like to say I planned it all this way, but it really was just a slow evolution. At the core of it is storytelling, so I think the reason why we can take this into other mediums is that really what we’re trying to do is tell good stories.”

Local filmmaker and comedian Ryan McMahon, right, is releasing his Stories From the Land documentary series on CBC Gem this week. The series is based on his popular podcast, telling the stories of the people and places in northern Ontario. – Photo courtesy of CBC

Eventually, McMahon said, he and Collier bumped into each other on the streets of Toronto and began discussing the possibility of creating the adaptation to further explore the themes McMahon had already begun diving into on the podcast. Collier is accomplished in the world of film and television, serving as a director and cinematographer on a host of projects, and explained that the podcast itself did most of the work when it came to reimagining it as a visual series.

“Listening to the podcast, I’m automatically imagining what it must look like,” he said.

“Everyone on the podcast are describing these experiences that they’ve had, and the documentarian brain is firing on all cylinders going, ‘if there was a camera there, it would be so amazing!’ So four years ago we sat down and I said ‘look, I think we can do this. I think there’s something here.'”

From that initial discussion, the pair began to develop the concept from podcast to television series. McMahon noted that the process itself wasn’t too different from creating the podcast, explaining that at the end of the day it’s still figuring out the stories that he wanted to tell and trying to find the right way to approach them.

“The cool thing about being a storyteller is that you decide where the story starts,” McMahon said.

“You really want to hit the ground running and give the audience the benefit of the doubt that they’re going to know some of this information, but you’re also trying to backfill some of the detail.”

The added benefit to being behind the wheel, both said, was that as difficult as it was to navigate around the burgeoning COVID-19 pandemic, which sent the world into lockdown right as they were preparing to start filming in March 2020, it also drove them to explore stories closer to home in northwestern Ontario. Sticking mostly to the northwestern region played into their strengths of knowing the people and the land, and they used both to heighten the storytelling in the series.

“The big thing for me is I wanted to allow the story, from the podcast sense, space to breathe,” Collier explained.

“I never thought of the episodes 100 percent visually. I thought of it as a 50/50 split. Yes we’re going to have amazing visual captures of scenes and people doing what they do, but also what’s going to ring true, and keeping it in the podcast roots, is audio of the people talking, and giving them the space to tell the story.”

The series tackles issues and experiences of Indigenous people in the province, and McMahon noted that even while the subject matter might not be universal – an early teaser on the CBC Gem page examines the tradition of corn soup in Fort Erie and commercial fisheries on Rainy Lake – the series still balances out the different knowledge levels and cultural experiences of potential audiences.

“This is where editorially and creatively how we approach these stories is really important, because we don’t want to leave people behind, but we also don’t want to do ‘here’s the Native 101,'” he explained.

“So we have to create narratives that are welcoming and open to an audience not necessarily knowing this information, and we have to do it in a way that fully represents the actual humanity of the Indigenous people therein. As an example, in powwow culture, to reduce it to just the dancing or just the singing, you’re leaving out 90 percent of what powwow actually is. So you really want to represent fully the question in front of you.”

There are inherently political questions that are raised in the course of watching these episodes, and while McMahon stated that there is a necessity to ask these difficult questions, he also pointed out that the series itself isn’t necessarily focusing on those issues.

“We’ve left the politics behind,” he said.

“We’ve left that conversation behind. Of course all of it is inherently political; there are big questions in front of this country, but we’re trying to take these micro snapshots into these worlds to say ‘and this, and this, and this.’ Behind the scenes we’re calling these love letters to the places we’re from, because they play that way. You get these subjects and sources who absolutely love their homeland more than we could ever imagine, and then they take you into their homelands, into their lives, into their worlds. I think we’ve accomplished something pretty great.”

To celebrate the launch of “Stories from the Land” on CBC Gem this Friday, McMahon and Collier will be hosting what they are calling a virtual binge viewing for the series on Facebook and Instagram, complete with guest interviews and live music. The plan is to start the stream at 6:00 p.m. Central / 7:00 p.m. Eastern on McMahon’s pages @rmcomedy on Instagram and Ryan McMahon Comedy on Facebook.

Next week, McMahon and Collier talk about the technical difficulties of filming a documentary series during a global pandemic, and the help they received from their families and communities to get the job done.

By Ken Kellar
Local Journalism Initiative reporter