Documentary work engages us on specific topics, often propelled by a compelling and true story. The ability for documentary film and photography to create empathy in the viewer is one of the most powerful things about these forms of visual storytelling. Viewing documentary work can create empathy about the lives of others and the issues that they are experiencing, even if the viewer was previously completely uninformed about them. Recent documentaries like Blackfish, Searching For Sugar Man, and The Invisible War introduce us to characters who go through trials and challenges that may feel far removed from our lives, but with skilled storytelling the viewer can identify and relate to their emotions. This kind of empathy is key to creating a bridge for understanding between different people.
Nelson-based filmmaker Amy Bohigian runs Watershed Productions, where her team focuses on creating socially aware films. Amy has a diverse background that includes managing YMCA Camp Pine Crest in Ontario, working at a girl’s detention centre in Boston, and a Master’s degree in education from Harvard. In 2006 Amy moved from Toronto to Nelson, a town she had previously visited and loved. “I didn’t need a lot of convincing to put it on my list of places to move to,” she says. When Amy arrived in Nelson, she enrolled in a filmmaking program at Selkirk College. After graduating, she worked on some small projects, and eventually began teaching a kid’s filmmaking camp, and momentum built towards the interesting career Amy has today.
Amy’s interest in documenting social issues is clear from her 2011 documentary Conceiving Family, a look at her and her partner’s experience of adopting biracial, 15-month-old twins. The twins were raised from birth by Christian Fundamentalist foster parents who had serious concerns about the children being raised by a same-sex couple. The film also examines the challenges and experiences of other same-sex couples as they move through the adoption process. The film was featured in several festivals, and was the winner of the 2012 Best Documentary Feature Award at the Women in Film Festival in Vancouver.
As someone who is working in the arts community, what do you think are the best parts about the Nelson community?
I just think there’s a lot of creative minds around, and people who are just willing to take risks and do really interesting projects, so it’s not hard to get something going. You have an instant team of people around you if you want, and there’s always something happening here to inspire you as well. So there’s always a constant motion in terms of creative energy in every sector, really. There’s an incredible theatre and music scene here, there’s some amazing visual artists, a lot of filmmakers running around, and it’s just a really neat place to settle in and practice something too because you’re not distracted by commuting to work both ways or other things that you can get kind of distracted by in a really busy urban life. We’re surrounded by this beautiful scenery that we live in, and that helps to settle a creative energy.
Are there any teaching techniques that you learned working at camp and at the girl’s detention centre that you apply when you teach filmmaking to kids?
I think it’s all about creating a safe environment with kids. Find out what they’re interested in. The detention centre kids absolutely did not want to be there, the Pine Crest kids completely did, but between the two populations or demographics, you can’t get through to any of them unless you find out what they’re interested in and build off of that. So I think with film, the number one thing I do every time I go into teach something related to film, or have kids work on their own film is basically just figure out what they’re interested in and build the film around that. Then they’re just completely motivated to learn everything that comes with it. If they’re not a technical kid, or they have a hard time being creative or coming up with ideas, as long as you have the thing that they’re into, then you can kind of get them wrapped around all the other things that go with it.
Are there certain times or places where creativity hits you most?
I walk my dog everyday, and a lot of times I feel too busy to do that, but because I have to do it, I go and do it, and it’s the best thing I could be doing because you get out in some fresh air, you don’t have to be returning emails and thoughts come up that way. That’s been a huge part of my creative process. We’ve had him for the last seven or eight years now. And it’s simple but that’s one thing. And also it’s invaluable to have two or three really good people that you trust to just tell you if your idea sucks or not basically [laughs]. Half the things that come out in your brain, you have to have a good sounding board. I tended to go with people who would tell me what I wanted to hear when I was younger, and now I go for the people who I know tell it like it is, and I think it’s made a huge difference. You don’t always want to hear that the idea you think is fantastic isn’t going to fly, but it’s not always up to them either. You have to do what resonates with you, but there’s something really great about honest friends. Between those two things that’s a big part of how I get stuff started and keep things going.
Conceiving Family is based on your experience adopting as well as those of other same-sex couples. Was it challenging to make a film about an experience that was so close to you?
As a documentary filmmaker I don’t think it’s supposed to be objective, I think that’s kind of a myth. But to actually see the film away from your own life, it was really positive because it helped me process what I had been through. And it also helped for my kids to have this document of how they came to our family and how loved they were when they were young by their foster parents. So I think that in and of itself was a good reason to make the film, if nothing else. It was a great challenge, and for me it’s the ultimate gift to my kids.