Filmmakers find inspiration in unexpected places

By Ken Kellar
Local Journalism Initiative reporter

This is the third 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 premiered on the digital streaming platform Friday, March 19.

Once you’ve set your mind on producing a documentary series, and the logistics of filming and keeping everyone safe, the next step in the process is finding the stories you want to tell.

What you might not expect is, sometimes, the stories find you.

Ryan McMahon, the creator of the podcast-turned-TV documentary series “Stories from the Land,” and his longtime friend and series producer Wendell Collier discovered this when they began the process of filming the four episodes that premiered on CBC Gem on March 19. The pair had a rough idea of the stories they wanted to tell, but knew to keep their eyes, ears and minds open to new possibilities. That’s what McMahon refers to as having a “light hand” in the process. After all, the smallest comment can completely upend previously laid plans and bring new life to the way a story is told.

One of the best examples of this came during the filming of an episode at Kay-Nah-Chi-Wah-Nung Historical Centre in Rainy River First Nations, where Collier explained that a casual conversation with one of their interview subjects provided them the opportunity to bring their content to the next level.

“Casey Oster works at Kay-Nah-Chi-Wah-Nung Centre, and she’s a visual artist,” Collier said.

“Part of our story was that she gets inspired by going to the mounds. While we’re standing on set one day she tells us this story of a dream she had. Ryan is there and he’s listening, and he looks at me and says, ‘man, it would be really cool if she could do an animation sequence to that story.’ We didn’t have an animation budget, so what were we going to do? But he kept saying it, so I said ‘let’s look into this, see what we can do.'”

Collier asked Oster if she would be willing to draw out her dream for the episode, which she was happy to do. The results in the episode “Kay-Nah-Chi-Wah-Nung” speak for themselves; Oster’s narration is accompanied by an animated sequence of her own drawings. The storyteller and artist are one, with the words and the art working to elevate each other to another level.

More than just crossing paths with an artist willing to share her artwork, Collier and McMahon said those kinds of happy accidents – call it serendipity or synchronicity – kept happening throughout the filming process, informing the direction of the stories beyond what they could have anticipated.

“This kind of thing kept happening across the whole shoot,” Collier said. “We’d show up somewhere and someone would say ‘yeah, I’m doing this really cool thing. I don’t think it’s cool, but do you want to look at it?’ Ryan and I would look at each other and say ‘well, now we have to go in this direction.’ Ryan talks about us having a light hand, but it’s also his credit as someone who has that gut reaction to a story and doesn’t necessarily let the ins and outs of production expenses stop him.”

In their episode “Wiigwaasabak – The Tree of Life,” the elder participating in the filming began their day with an opening ceremony of sorts that, while unexpected, again put their minds in a different place, and a new story at their feet. Collier stressed the chain of events were akin to a “recentring” – keeping their thoughts focused on the task at hand even while the direction they were heading changed.

Ryan McMahon, left, speaks with artist Casey Oster in this screengrab from McMahon’s “Stories from the Land” series. Oster lent her artistic talents to an animated segment in the series’ “Kay-Nah-Chi-Wah-Nung” episode, available to stream now on CBC Gem. – photo courtesy of CBC

All of these unexpected turns worked in their favour, McMahon said, noting that the role of the documentarian is to ask questions about the world around them, creating snapshots of the daily lives of the people they encounter and spend time with. It is also, he said, a tool to scratch away at some of the “dark corners” that the public at large might not have otherwise stopped to think about. Over the course of the series, questions arise around land rights, traditional practices and culture that some might find uncomfortable and unfamiliar, but they accompany conversations that McMahon said need to be had, even if the documentary series isn’t necessarily focused on them.

“I think with ‘The Last Fishermen’ in particular, there are real political questions that need to be asked of the Ontario government,” McMahon said.

“There’s a real conversation there. We didn’t do it that way mostly because of COVID and the limitations of the resources we had available to us. But that’s what a good documentary does: it creates a doorway for people to walk through that otherwise wouldn’t have considered it. Presenting these questions in a way that I guarantee people around Rainy Lake have not considered before; what does it mean for commercial fishermen to disappear from our lake? And is it really a tension between sports fishing and commercial fishing, and if so what’s the tension? Presenting all of those complicated, nuanced questions is the joy as a creator, as a filmmaker. It’s ‘how do we get into this conversation in the most effective way possible?'”