Filmmaker Amy Bohigian on Dreamers & Dissidents
Filmmaker Amy Bohigian on Dreamers & Dissidents
How many sashes do you have in your closet?
Filmmaker Amy Bohigian has at least one. It’s white, silk and printed with the words “Cultural Ambassador” in red cursive. Her mom made it for her after Amy was named Nelson’s Cultural Ambassador for 2014.
Amy wore it unabashedly, in true ambassador / proud daughter form, to our season launch event last year, where we played a clip from her film, Dreamers and Dissidents. The film tells nine stories. From war resisters to prisoners of war, hopeful immigrants to urban refugees, it explores why dreamers and dissidents have called Nelson home for many generations.
The film was made with Knowledge’s support after Amy won a filmmaker pitch competition we hosted in Nelson in 2013. In advance of its premiere (BC Day, August 3 at 8pm), I spoke with Amy over the phone about big ideas and bold folks.
Here’s a condensed version of our conversation:
Was the Knowledge competition a catalyst for you to realize this long-burning idea for a film, or did you come up with the film idea specifically for the competition?
I’ve always been interested in how people make a home. Whenever I’ve done a project since I moved to the Kootenays, it’s almost like I’ve been asking the question: how do I live here and how do other people live here and how do I make this my home?
Murray [Battle – Knowledge’s Director of Original Content] kind of talked me into including my own story as a frame for the whole piece. I kind of knew theoretically that it was a good idea, but I had included myself in the last film I did, so I was resistant to it at first. [Murray] said to me, “You know, you ARE from the States. Just be American about it. Stop being too Canadian and hiding in the corner.” It was funny. I thought, okay, I understand that.
Besides your own story, which of the nine stories resonate most with you?
Oh, that’s tough because they all have different aspects of something that I really connect with. Being from the United States, I felt strongly that the story about the counterculture and anti-establishment voices in our community needed to be told.
I told it through the eyes of three women who have over the different generations moved to the Kootenays because of their beliefs. They all pulled their families or their boyfriend or whoever it was at the time up to Canada and found the Kootenays. One group kind of influenced the next in terms of being tolerant and accepting. Even though they came for different reasons [from the Doukhobor Russians to the Quakers and the Vietnam War resisters], they connected over the whole anti-establishment… counterculture experience… that we’re still known for today.
It was important to me to tell that story through the eyes of these three women because war resister stories are typically told by men. Women played a central role in the peace movements (across generations) that often goes unrecognized.
I’m not necessarily here for overtly political reasons, but I really connect with that experience, having grown up in the States and leaving it behind.
“How is Nelson distinct from other places you’ve spent a lot of time in?
It’s not actually too different from where I grew up in St. Louis, in that you felt like the adults around you knew who you were when you were a kid. Nelson is all one neighbourhood.
When you move to Nelson, you feel like you’re living with the people you’ve chosen to live with.
It doesn’t mean you know all 10,000 people who live in town, but you certainly get to know the personalities of the town.
Other places, to me, were all about work. When I moved to Nelson it was really obvious that, for most people here, work was a way to support a quality of life. The things that they wanted were connections to family and friends and to a community. We’re all here because we love the landscape and the things it affords us.
How did you find the stories you featured in the doc?
Well, each one a little differently. Some were driven by photos… archival photos. A couple of them came through just knowing a little bit about the region. I’d just finished a history project and I’d heard a lot about the dams; they’d been flooding residences and displacing residents, and I knew that there were some really rich stories that could come out of that.
In Trail, which is about an hour from here, there’s always been an Italian community. I thought there are so many cultural groups around – how did they get here? I was literally rifling through shoeboxes of family photos.
Your production company is called Watershed, which you define on your site as both a gathering ground and a turning point. Why did you pick this name and how does it relate to Dreamers and Dissidents?
To me, Watershed represents a community space. When I moved to Nelson, I wanted to be part of a community; it was one of the reasons I moved here – so I could belong to a place. When the people and the landscape kind of all come together… one impacts the other so much. The turning points that I’m trying to create in my work are also about creating social change and inspiring action and raising awareness. To me, that all goes together when you’re part of a community.
You’ve done a lot of work to promote diversity. Your other films, Rural Transcrapes and Conceiving Family, explore transgender identity in the Kootenays and same-sex couple adoption. Why is it essential to tell these stories?
Certainly there’s been a lot more coverage of these types of issues… more or less in the last couple years, especially the transgender stories. But I don’t feel like there could ever be enough non-mainstream perspectives in the media.
We were starving for images of ourselves. When you have a media system that’s really about profit, you’re not going to get those important, often unheard stories front and centre unless you can sell them. They have to be sensationalized.
But the everyday stories that kind of create people’s lives are really important to get out there.
I’m always working on projects for clients that have something to do with folks that are marginalized… youth or seniors or people in poverty or the gay and lesbian, transgender community. Media’s a really safe way to share those stories; it’s like a conversation without having to put yourself out there too much… a good starting point for dialogue.
You got your master’s in education from Harvard. Now you’re making films out of Nelson. I’m wondering if there’s one question that sort of churns in your gut and drives the work that you do.
Oh boy… I’m going to want to say something different in like an hour. My gut reaction… I think I’m really interested in how we make connections to each other, to ourselves and to a place.
The work that I’ve been doing is a lot about people from different backgrounds. The Conceiving Family film centred around me and my partner, a same sex couple, adopting… and having to go through that with a Christian fundamentalist couple as the foster parents. We lived together for two weeks. I was looking at how when we have a true connection with people we can be more opened by that. I’m really fascinated by how we can create social change from that place of connecting people from different worlds and how we can build community from that place – and, also, how it transforms us, individually.
A great film mentor of mine said, don’t try to change the world. If you’re open to the creative process, you’ll end up changing yourself. And in that process you’ll change other people.
You represented Nelson by wearing a “Cultural Ambassador” sash to our broadcast season launch last fall. What did that mean to you to be chosen as Nelson’s official Cultural Ambassador for 2014?
Nelson has been known as a real cultural mecca, so for me to be the formal representative outside of this region was incredible. I took it upon myself to keep telling people – as all of us do in this town – how everything that happens in Nelson could happen in any large city. The… art programming, arts events, and cultural festivals are top-notch because we have so many people who have brought rich experiences. If you’re not creating it, you’re supporting it one way or another by going out to it.
We have kind of unofficially called ourselves “the best small arts town in Canada”. I would actually argue, and I know this sounds ambassadorial, that… it’s the best small arts town in North America.
Amy Bohigian represents Nelson at a 2014 Knowledge event (emceed by Shelagh Rogers).
Yeah. Come to Nelson!
I read that your mom made that sash for you. In your eventual Oscar speech, what will you thank your mom for?
She’s unwavering in her belief in me, and she’s always thought of me as a star from the day I was born. That’s what a good mom should do. She’s been behind every step of the way; she shows up to everything. It’s the belief.
And my dad… he’s lived very principled and has taught me to treat people with respect; I think that’s helped a lot with my ability to work with people and respect the stories that I’m creating for them.
What are you going to do next?
I’m waiting for the idea that I can’t let go of.
Dreamers and Dissidents premieres on Knowledge BC Day, August 3 at 8pm.