“I …just let the images talk for themselves”

Paul Rickard chose his hometown Moose Factory for the premiere screening of his film Okimah. The hometown response was very warm and positive, with 180 community members turning out. Paul opened the evening with a brief speech, along with Chief Ernest Beck and producer Germaine Wong. The film’s subject is something most Crees are intimately familiar with: the goose hunt.

The film follows Paul’s family through the centuries-old traditional fall goose hunt on the shores of James Bay. The camera and sound crew bunked in with Paul’s family and people got used to them. The resulting closeness is an intimacy that we are invited to share in. Paul’s father, Frederick Rickard, is an “Okimah,” one of the leaders of the hunt. He leads the way in the film. It is about reaching out and passing on your knowledge and wisdom to the next generation. It is not just learning about the hunt, but life itself.

You see Paul’s family come together in the film. Paul’s father and mother are seen as respected teachers and leaders. While they teach you the ways of the land, your lessons lead you to a respect for the land and all on it. The National Film Board, which released the film, states on the film jacket that Okimah is at once an homage to generations of Cree hunters, a loving look at a cultural tradition and a plea for responsible stewardship of our resources. After viewing the film I would agree.

In Moose Factory, those who attended the December 10 screening of Okimah saw them something very familiar, and they recognized themselves and their families to follow the screening. Residents of the Moose Cree First Nation gave caribou, moose, fresh and smoked beaver and, because there was no geese, duck.

It was ironic there was no geese. In the film, Paul’s dad talks about the decline in the migratory goose population. This year he shot one. He can remember the days when there were so many that they seemed like huge black clouds when they flew.

On Saturday, December 12, Paul Rickard had a “videocassette signing” at the Northern Store in Moose Factory. The store ordered 40 tapes, which sold out within an hour. Paul took orders for additional 56 tapes. It’s a good feeling for Paul. The film already has a television sale. For those of you with cable or satellite access you can catch Okimah on Vision TV, 9 p.m., January 6, 1999.

Paul Rickard is the NFB’s first Cree director to have his film fully funded by the NFB under an Aboriginal filmmakers’ program. We are proud to say Paul used to once work for The Nation as well, as our correspondent for West Coast James Bay.

The Nation: The title of your film Okimah. For those who don’t speak Cree, what does it mean to you?

Paul Rickard: Okimah’s a kind of generic term people use to refer to a tallyman, an Elder, and it’s someone who knows. Okimah’s a kind of a hunting leader.

You went out with your family to their traditional hunting grounds. What I found ironic was that moat of your father’s children and those who married into the family hadn’t been out hunting much before like some other Cree families did. Did It feel good to back after all the schooling?

Like my brother and sister mentioned in the film, and it was the same situation for me, I remember when I was five years old and younger being out in the bush with my parents. I went to residential school when I was five years old until I was 11. I had the opportunity to go back with my parents to go on to the trapline and the goose camp. It was at this time that I was able to remember some of the stuff from when I was younger. I was always around my parents at that time and they started to reteach some of the traditional activities that we deal with like goose hunt. How to make the blind. How to make the decoys. At the same time how to pluck geese and stuff like that.

Who do you see as your biggest potential audience? I could see this being used In Cree schools, but I Imagine your vision is more than just a Cree audience.

Well, I’ve always been interested in documentaries about Native people. I’ve seen quite a few good documentaries about life in the Native communities or about Native people in general. Sometimes I’ve thought that these documentaries were done with a non-Native perspective done by non-Native people. They have a different sense of what Native communities are. There’s nothing wrong with those films. They’re great, but what I wanted to do is show what a goose hunt was all about… like from the perspective of my family. That’s why in the film, my brothers and sisters and parents spoke about what it was like for them. A way of teaching and of passing on these traditional values and customs of the goose hunt.

In this film I really wanted to show that perspective from the people as opposed to someone else looking in, trying to dissect every aspect of the goose hunt. In this film I tried to avoid that and just let the images talk for themselves. Sometimes we didn’t explain everything. I wanted people to see it would be like almost being there. The way it was shot, the way it was done. Going through a two-week period of the goose hunt. Showing leaving the community. The goose hunts and the stuff that happens in the camp. Leaving the camp at the end of the film. So I wanted to give people a look at what it’s like. In the film you’ll notice a lot of the Cree is not translated. That was purposely done because I felt that as viewer you hear a language and as an audience you are participating by just watching what’s going on and watching people talk. Sometimes the Cree is not translated but you kind of get a sense of what’s going on. You do some thinking and you might want to learn more about this stuff.

I think one of my favourite scenes Is the one where the kids are acting as geese and one’s the hunter. Did that happen naturally?

I remember that particular scene. Actually we were filming setting up the camp at that moment. All of a sudden we hear this sound. The kids are over there playing. I noticed the kids were running around pretending to be geese. I got the camera crew and said, “Let’s go over there, let’s leave this alone.” So we popped over with the camera and we just filmed these kids running around like geese. It just happened and we captured it. That’s the whole point of the film, too. To capture a lot of this stuff and not have to do retakes.

I noticed a lot of the shots seemed natural. Your family just did what they usually did on the hunt.

Yes, I guess it helped that I worked with a small film crew. A camera man, assistant cameraman, soundman and myself. I got my camera crew to really hang around my family. I didn’t separate them. When we stayed in Moose Factory they stayed at my brother and sister’s place to get a chance to know them before we actually started. At the camp my brothers and sisters fed the crew. One day we’d be at one place or another having dinner or breakfast. They had a chance to be part of the family too, and in that way it got people very comfortable. We could just stay back shooting and stuff would be happening. We weren’t saying do this and do that. We basically always had a camera ready to go. That was the plan I used. I felt it worked pretty well actually.

What other films have you done?

Well, the only other film where I would consider myself a director is for WildHeart Productions Ayouwin and a Way of Life. It was associated with TV Ontario and shown as part of the Aboriginal series that they did a couple of years ago. I’ve done a lot of work as a cameraman on a lot of other projects with the NFB and private film companies.

Do you see yourself as doing a lot of work as a director?

All my life I’ve wanted to make my own films. I remember the first time I got into this field I knew I wanted to go in that direction. I got a handle on camera work. It was something I really enjoyed. So I worked on that for a number of years before doing my own films. My experience as a cameraman prepared me to direct my own projects. This is the area I want to go into – starting making my own projects and film ideas. A lot of the films I want to do are based around my community because I do it from the point of view of Moose Factory. I remember hearing a lot of stories within even my community and the surrounding communities on the Bay. There’s quite a bit of stuff that would make good films. That’s what my goal is – to continue making documentaries within the Cree territory of James Bay and within the Cree communities.

How did your family feel when you first came up with the idea of using them in the documentary?

I remember three years before I went out goose hunting with my family. I was living in Montreal at the time so I home for the goose hunt. I took my still camera with me and started taking pictures of every aspect of the goose hunt. The goose plucking and the setting up of the blinds and everything. I also brought a home Hi-8 video recorder and I filmed some of what they were doing. Then I thought to myself, “Wow, this would make a great film.” I realized all these pictures I’ve taken on video maybe will go towards that. I asked my parents, brother and sisters if they would be interested if I made a film of what they are doing here. They know I make my living in film. They really had no problems with that. When we started filming they were just themselves. They were prepared. I was quite surprised. Sometimes when you do your families they’re too shy. I was surprised at how happy everybody in the film was glad to be a part of that.

How did you feel about going home to screen the film and to sign Okimah video jackets?

I really wanted to go back home and show people some of the work I have done because I think the film shows more than my family. It shows the community itself on the traditional hunt. The community put on a feast after the screening. It was really nice. I feel people were very pleased with the project.

The chief of my community made a speech and said there were a lot of people in the community who did interesting things and we should celebrate some of their achievements. He used me as an example starting out as a volunteer and working up to filmmaking. He said we should honour some of these people. I was touched by that and felt very good about it. People came up to talk to me. It’s great to get this kind of support from the community.

The signing was a promotional thing. We sold out in an hour and had to take names of people who wanted a copy. It was fun trying out the whole thing about promoting your film that way. Once you make the film, there’s the fact you want people to see it or know about it. People showed they were interested. I’m pretty happy about the whole thing.

What other types of documentaries are you planning?

One I’m working on right now, I’ve just doing research right based on people in Moose Factory and Waskaganish. You probably know the story; it’s called the Hanna Bay massacre. It’s a story that took place 166 years ago at a little Hudson Bay post between Waskaganish and Moose Factory. There were nine people killed at this outpost by a family group of Crees. There’s conflicting stories about why it happened. My father told it to us and to this day I’ve found that people in Moose Factory and Waskaganish still talk about the story. It’s interesting to know some of the details. It’s a story that has been passed on from generation to generation. I’m surprised people still know the story and can actually tell it really well in the oral tradition. I was curious and did some research in the Hudson Bay archives and read a different perspective on what it meant to the Hudson Bay Company and to the Native communities. So I’m trying to do a documentary on that story based on the oral tradition and how the Elders talk about. Also how the Hudson Bay Company probably perceived the event at the time. I want to include both because I think you shouldn’t do one without the other.

I’m not sure when I’ll start shooting this project. I’m hoping I can start this winter but we’ll see in regards to funding and that type of stuff. I’m kind of collecting all this material on the massacre right now and I plan to give copies of it to the area’s cultural departments or institutes. If there’s anyone else out there who wants to share his or her story, in Waskaganish you can talk to George Diamond or your local band office or myself.

One question a lot of Crees will be asking is how many geese did you get.

[Laughter] I didn’t get any. Even my dad talks about it in the film. The year before he only got three geese. And the year before, only four. So it shows what the situation is like for goose hunting in my father’s territory. For him he’s seen a lot of things and it hasn’t been a very good hunt in the past several years. It’s been very depleted.

One of the things I found interesting while I was out filming, I felt really guilty when I went to the goose camp because I was busy working. I wasn’t doing my share of the camp activity. After three days at the camp my dad starting asking me to cut some wood and get some water. I ended up getting my crew to work and at the same time doing my share of work in the camp. It was difficult.

Where can people get Okimah and any last thoughts?

Northern Stores or contact the NFB in Montreal. For a project like this what made it really happen is that my whole family cooperated in making this film. They were really enthusiastic about me doing a documentary about the goose hunt because it’s something that plays a major role in my family. I think the time when we filmed Okimah was probably the last one where we’ll all come together. My mother’s recent illness has prevented the family going out this past fall. I’m not sure about next fall. It’s really a testament or testimony of something that played a major role in our family and a lot of other Cree families.