The Rivers Speak Story: A Community-Created Documentary Film

Thinking Rock Community Arts is receiving support for their documentary film project through SPARC’s Collaborative Community Initiatives program. This project has a longer timeline than some of the others that have received support, so instead of only writing an end-of-project reflection post, Miranda is updating the SPARC community partway through…

By Miranda Bouchard (Acting Artistic Director)

For the past several months, Thinking Rock Community Arts has been working on a documentary film-based legacy project to celebrate and commemorate the Gigidoowag Ziibiik: The Rivers Speak project. What is this project, you ask? And what is Thinking Rock Community Arts?



About Thinking Rock Community Arts

We’re a nonprofit community arts organization – and SPARC member – based in Thessalon, Ontario that creates art with and for the people living along the North Shore of Lake Huron, from Spanish to Sault Ste. Marie and all points in between. We invite people of all ages, abilities and backgrounds to join us in playing, making and dreaming about this special place we call home – as it was, as it is, and as it might be. Our governance, staff and artistic teams represent professional established and emerging rural artists of First Nations, Métis and Settler descent who share a burning desire to explore how we can together begin to create spaces for dialogue and mutual understanding through multidisciplinary, multi-generational, cross-cultural community-engaged art projects.

About the Rivers Speak Project and the Gigidoowag Ziibiik: The Rivers Speak Community Play

Between 2013 and 2017, Thinking Rock engaged more than 3,000 people in the multi-year process of co-creating and presenting a participatory, cross-culturally collaborative community-engaged play – Gigidoowag Ziibiik: The Rivers Speak. The culminating performance was presented in September 2017 at the Mississaugi First Nation Pow Wow Grounds by a cast of over 40 Anishinaabe and Settler community members aged four to eighty, and led by a team of 20 professional Indigenous and Settler artists (musicians, dancers, theatre and visual artists) from Algoma and beyond. The play was developed in partnership with local Anishinaabe Elders, knowledge holders, youth and community partners, and was performed in Anishnaabemowin, French and English. It combined art forms, stories and histories from local Anishinaabe and Settler traditions, welcomed over 600 audience members from local towns and reserves, and was performed to much local media acclaim.

Following the play, Thinking Rock launched three projects to document and celebrate the legacy of the Gigidoowag Ziibiik: The Rivers Speak Community Play – including the Gigidoowag Ziibiik: The Rivers Speak Community Play Mini Documentary Film, which received support from SPARC’s Community Initiatives Fund, as well as the Ontario Arts Council’s Northern Arts program.

About the Gigidoowag Ziibiik: The Rivers Speak Community Play Mini Documentary Film (so far!)

The Gigidoowag Ziibiik: The Rivers Speak Community Play Mini Documentary Film is a crucial legacy component of the Gigidoowag Ziibiik: The Rivers Speak Community Play, in that it will provide an invaluable audio-visual record of the dynamic, multi-faceted, cross-cultural, intergenerational, multi-year community-engaged art making process that was the Rivers Speak. The project left in its wake a vibrant array of new relationships, experiences, memories and impacts for individuals, communities and partners who participated in it – including Mississauga First Nation, Blind River, Elliot Lake, Serpent River First Nation, AlgomaTrad, Timber Village Museum, SKETCH Working Arts and Jumblies Theatre. Through its production and distribution, this film will capture and share those experiences with a much wider audience than the play itself could have hoped to reach, and potentially inspire other similar projects in other communities.

The Gigidoowag Ziibiik: The Rivers Speak Community Play Mini Documentary Film is being led by Thinking Rock’s professional artistic team, which includes local media company Village Electric, professional musicians from AlgomaTrad (both fellow SPARC members) and Jon Cada – SPARC youth delegation member, resident of Mississauga First Nation, Rivers Speak participant and Thinking Rock Board Member.

Together with Village Electric, we have been working with the partners, community participants and volunteers who have been involved in the Rivers Speak project since 2013 to create a professionally-produced documentary film short that tells the project’s story from conception to completion: how it came about, the process of its making, the relationships created, the challenges and joys encountered on the way.

The film will explore this journey by incorporating amateur in-house footage and photos we’ve gathered throughout all five years of the community-engaged process leading to the final Rivers Speak production – including Elders’ sharing circles, community art-making and skill-building workshops, community outreach sessions, casting and rehearsals. It will blend this amateur footage with professional documentary footage of the play itself shot by Village Electric, as well as interviews they conducted with key artists and community participants about their experience taking part in the project. Finally, it will incorporate professional footage of our other legacy activities related to the project, including the Rivers Speak Evolving Gallery and the Rivers Speak Soundtrack recording project.

The documentary film will also feature a unique component: a professionally recorded, community-generated soundtrack. Concurrent to the Mini Documentary Film Project, during the summer of 2018 we reunited the original Rivers Speak community cast at AlgomaTrad camp and the Mississaugi First Nation Pow Wow Grounds to professionally record the original soundtrack to the play, which featured powerful music – created in collaboration with practising musicians, Anishinaabe traditional singers and community members – that draws on Anishinaabe, Scottish, Irish and French Canadian musical traditions. Last month, key members of the Rivers Speak musical team reunited to mix those recordings and begin the mastering process. Once ready, this original soundtrack will be incorporated into the film.

At Thinking Rock, the use of community-engaged artistic processes to build bridges of understanding and create pathways toward reconciliation is fundamental to our work. The Gigidoowag Ziibiik: The Rivers Speak Community Play Mini Documentary Film has allowed us to continue bringing our community participants along that journey with us by co-creating a legacy project that centres their Rivers Speak experience and conveys our shared ownership and pride in what we’ve built over the past five years. Hopefully it will inspire others across Turtle Island to start and continue on their own journeys toward reconciliation.

We look forward to continuing the process and sharing the final outcome of the Gigidoowag Ziibiik: The Rivers Speak Community Play Mini Documentary Film project in the near future!

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