APTN National News
Vancouver-based filmmakers PD Chalifoux and Michael Auger just wrapped their first feature film, River of Silence.
The husband and wife team are the first Indigenous filmmakers to write, produce and direct a feature-length film that tackles the issue of MMIW.
“I’d like to think I’m the first,” said Chalifoux, who wrote the screenplay. “There could be somebody somewhere, but not that I know of.”
River of Silence tells the story of Helen, a woman who searches for answers after her daughter Tanis sets out to her grandmother’s house on a fictional First Nation, but fails to arrive. The weight of the subject matter is one that Chalifoux knows well. Her grandmother, Angeline Willier went missing in 2000 under mysterious circumstances.
For Chalifoux, the process of writing River of Silence took a lot of consideration and help from her family. She initially stayed quiet about the script in order to prevent upsetting her extended family members.
“Of course my mom knew and my father, and I think a few of my aunties… but not too many, because I wanted to write it without affecting them or hurting them,” she said. “My mom and dad were along the writing journey with me because I had questions about what happened to my grandmother. I’d ask ‘do you recall this, do you recall that.’ I wanted to be more clear on the circumstances.”
From the beginning of the project, Chalifoux had the support of her husband, director/producer Michael Auger.
“When I realized that PD was committing to telling a story that was reflective of her experience of losing her grandmother, it felt so right, and felt very powerful. I always knew we could make a feature film,” he said.
Auger and Chalifoux said they did their best to create a working environment for their cast and crew during the 13 day shoot. While most days on a film set start with a production meeting, mornings on set of River on Silence started with self-care.
“We started each day with a smudge. That really made a difference, even for the people who didn’t know what it was or what it did, but they were feeling its effects, and were coming up and asking for it. I found smudging each day in a big circle really helped us to bond and connect.”
That cultural element made a difference to actor Duane Howard, who plays the character of Trevor in the film.
“There were a few days where we had to sit down and pray. We prayed before the day started. It’s very comfortable working with a First Nations team,” said Howard. “Because we have a moral understanding of each other and our presence of who we are as First Nations People.”
Howard’s career has catapulted since playing the role of Elk Dog in The Revenant. However, it was his previous career as a front line worker that helped prepare him for the emotional weight of the script.
“It’s strange, the other main actors were also front line workers,” he said. “We all worked in the helping field. We always checked in with each other all the time. That’s a different thing about this film.”
Similar to Chalifoux, Howard has personally lived the experience of being a family member of a missing and murdered indigenous woman.
“There were days when I was like ‘wow, I can’t believe I just went through that again.’ I had a few experiences that I had to go back to in my life, and reflect on losses. I had a couple of aunts that were murdered in the early and mid ‘80s. I had to take myself back there.”
River of Silence was shot over 13 days in the communities of Merritt, Nooaitch First Nation and Vancouver.
Chalifoux and Auger plan to hold semi-private screenings in those communities before submitting the film to international festivals such as ImagineNATIVE, Cannes, and Berlinale.