Barb Cranmer – Messenger of Stories

The woman is short, stocky, compact. She has a face wide and mobile, a sun-filled smile. She speaks in a voice of brightness and enthusiasm, secure in her self-confidence. She appears filled with an intense and compacted energy, lightly reined, distinctly directed. The woman is of the ‘Namgis First Nation of Alert Bay, of the Kwakwaka’wakw Nation of British Columbia. The woman is Barb Cranmer, a documentary film-maker of note.

Her film, T’lina: The Rendering of Wealth, has just won the award for Best Short Documentary at the 1999 American Indian Film Festival in San Francisco.

As with all her work, T’lina shares an intimate view of the power of community and the strength of tradition among the 14 groups speaking the Kwak’wala language, who live in a territory that reaches from Port Hardy on Northern Vancouver Island, south to Campbell River area.

“I myself am living my own history through the films that I am making,” said Cranmer. “The strength, for me, in doing this work, comes from my family, comes from my community. I’m basically working in a non-native world, working and fund-raising in Vancouver. The films I direct and co-produce are big-budget documentaries; when I feel I have to be strong, it is the strength of the family and the community that I come from, the community I’m representing, that allows me to carry on. That’s critical. Because I have a strong sense of identity, I feel. Both sides of my family still potlach, still carry on the tradition that’s been passed on to us.”

Her visage is earnest, sincere, intense.

“That’s what drives my work. I give voice to the community, the native community large.”

The woman is also possessed of a becoming modesty, an attractive reticence about herself. Interviewed in advance of the film festival at which T’lina was recognized for excellence, she forebore from mentioning that she is no stranger to such recognition.

Cranmer produced, wrote and directed Qutuwas: People Gathering Together, about the rebirth of the northwest coast canoe culture. This film won the first Telefilm Canada/TV Northern Canada Award, Best Documentary at the American Indian Film Festival, and was invited to the 1997 Sundance Film Festival.

While the economic impact of declines in commercial fisheries has garnered national attention – where the local harvesting of a tiny fish known as the eulachon is concerned, it is the potential CULTURAL loss that is important to the ‘Namgis community of Alert Bay. In the Kwakwala language t’lina (pronounced “gleetna”) is the name of the precious oil rendered from the fish. This oil is a symbol of cultural wealth, a valuable trade item and important food staple. The oil is rich in vitamins, minerals and essential fatty acids. Historically, it has been traded on “grease trails” throughout the northwest. For thousands of years, the Alert Bay community has made its way by boat each spring to a remote mainland inlet known as Dzawadi (Knight Inlet). Here the eulachon are harvested and rendered after spawning. Habitat loss and commercial over-fishing now imperil this traditional fishery.

“I have wanted to do this film for at least six years,” Cranmer said. “It became urgent because many of our old people were dying and important knowledge and history were close to disappearing with them. When I made a research trip with my family to Dzawadi in 1996, we witnessed a sharp decline in the eulachon run.”

The tiny fish are not used commercially, but have suffered from indiscriminate overfishing as part of the industry’s unwanted “by-catch” – fish that are dumped in pursuit of more saleable species. Habitat destruction from logging is also a major concern.

“It was important to do the story right now,” said Cranmer. “In ten years we might not be going up there. The eulachon may be extinct.”

In Kwakwaka’wakw society, the highest honour a Chief can bestow is to give away, or potlach, the t’lina. In the t’linagila ceremony, families dance with huge carved feast spoons and bowls, symbolizing the pouring of the oil. Hundreds of bottles of t’lina are distributed to guests who have come to witness the potlach.

“The families who travel annually to Dzawadi are strengthed by the experience,” Cranmer said. “Each year brings something new. It is amazing that in these modern times our people are fortunate enough to be able to go to a place where we can still practice a traditional way of life. It is like travelling back in time as we reaffirm our connection to our traditional territory. We have discovered old houseposts, which supported many bighouses in the Dzawadi area. We can only imagine what it must have been like to live two hundred years ago in this same area.

“This film offers a rare opportunity to share these moments inour community’s way of life – for the benefit of audience today, and for future generations. I believe this film will inspire not only First Nations people, but the general public as well. This film is a tribute to our grandmothers and grandfathers. My only regret is not being able to make the trip to Dzawadi years ago, when more elders were still alive.”

The film, co-produced by Cari Green of Vancouver-based Nimpkish Wind Productions and the National Film Board, was made with $275,000 from the Canadian Television Fund.

The Making of a Film Maker

Barb Cranmer was born in Alert Bay and grew up there for 19 years, at which point she moved to Vancouver to take courses in administration at Capilano College. She then returned home to work for her band in economic development.

In 1980, fortune, in the form of an educational camera crew from Chicago, found her and Cranmer found her life’s work.

The quick video course that the visiting crew offered allowed Cranmer and others to learn how to edit on a basic level. What resulted was a library of some 200 tapes, oral histories presented by the band elders, many of whom have since died.

“I was really lucky, getting exposed to the film medium,” said Cranmer, her face alive and her eyes asparkle with intelligence. “Since then, everything I’ve done has been a natural progression. I am definitely a self-driven personality.”
Returning to Vancouver and Capilano College in 1988, she enrolled in an intensive, ten-month media arts course, sponsored by Chief Dan George Foundation.

“I got right into the idea of film right away, being on the video crew at home,” said Cranmer. “I knew this was something I was very interested in. With the whole idea that I was tired of seeing negative images of ourselves and I wanted to change that in some way. I wanted to make some sort of career out of it and so far I’ve been successful.”

Initially, she worked on other people’s films as a researcher, project manager, production manager, until she felt ready to go out on her own. She made her first film in 1993.

“I felt strong enough to make my own films a long time before that but the people who fund these things were not willing to take a risk on me as a first-time film-maker. I had to spend some years networking and establishing contacts.”

Eventually, she found her funding and made such potent documentaries as The Washing of Tears and Lazwesa Wa: Strength of the River, both about the reclamation of Native land and culture.

Cranmer regards her work as educational. She complains that native voices are never really heard in Canada: “It’s not very often our voices ghet heard and when they do it is in the mainstream media, which has its own twisted take on everything. You never really hear from First Nations people in that sense.”

Yeah, Right. Welcome to Canada.

“For me, film is a valuable tool, to be able to have access to this, because it reaches such a broad audience. Much more so than if it were a book. Because everyone has TV at home and can plug it into their VCR. Or they see it at a film festival or on television.

“And it was important for me to get the truth out there, from our own perspective, and do it with the respect and integrity that comes from our community. That’s been a driving force, for me.”

She pauses. She begins to speak. Her voice has dropped a half-tone; her delivery has slowed. Each word is enunciated clearly, precisely.
She wants to be taken seriously. She is.

“For our people, it has been a constant, constant struggle to just be here on this earth . My work is based on the fact that, despite the things that have happened to our people, we are still here. All the powers that be have tried to change who we were, and who we are, and they did not succeed. And I think that is all I have to say on that. I feel strongly about that.”

Barb Cranmer creates stories in film; some folk would call this an art form. She also takes care to go deeply into the background of her stories; some folk would call this history.

Cranmer insists she is neither artist or historian.

“I see myself as a kind of messenger of stories. Basically, the way I see it is that I can look at theses films twenty years from now and know that I’ve helped in maintaining the history and the culture of our people.”

It seems appropriate, in light of her commitments to promoting the expression of aboriginal voices, that her ‘Namgis name is Laxalogwa (pronounced Lak-wa-lo-gwa) which means “yelling for the people to come to feast with her.”

She is adamant. Her work is not mainstream. To use a narrator would be nonsense.

“My work definitely has its own feel to it, in terms of being right up front with the people that are speaking, from the voice of the community. I don’t have the voice of God in there, with a narrator leading us down the garden path, because I feel our voices are strong enough, that they can speak for themselves.”

“The strong point of my films is that they are telling you the straight goods; they are telling you the truth. These people are speaking from what is inside them and that is a very, very strong voice.”

Barb has been told that her body of work has been successful in educating Canadians about native people.

“Another one of my goals is to educate people to the fact that we have existed along the coast here forever,” Cranmer said. “Governments are asking us to prove that we have been here for 10,000 years. But we did not just land here from Mars yesterday; our people have been here forever.”

“There are so many more stories to tell. I have my whole lifetime of work in front of me, telling stories from a First Nations Perspective. I’d like to try directing a dramatic film at some point; I like drama. But that won’t be tomorrow; that’s still some time in the future.”

All of Cranmer’s future stories will emerge through the vehicle of Nimpkish Wind Productions, a company she formed in 1994 with producer Cari Green, following their successful collaboration on the documentary The Washing of Tears. The company, now an established force in the Canadian television scene, is venturing into multimedia, with a CD-ROM series mixing local fishing lore and ongoing political issues.

Barb describes herself as, “a 39-year-old, wise beyond my years, kind of person.”

She laughs: “I’m teasing!”

Teasing or not, the point is has been made and the point has been taken. Barb Cranmer is, indeed, a “messenger of stories.”