Victoria Film Festival ’20 Interview: SOVEREIGN SOIL director David Curtis

Jason Whyte | Get Reel Movies

“SOVEREIGN SOIL is an ode to the spirit and resilience of people who live off the land in a remote northern Canadian community and who have dedicated their lives to sustainably producing food for that community. Shot over four seasons, the film reveals a deep understanding of the wisdom, passion, hardship, joy, and spiritual bonds that come from being intimately, and inextricably, connected to your environment and the cycles of life and death. SOVEREIGN SOIL is a lyrical tone poem, made with the love, intimacy and insight that only someone who lives in this place can truly have.” Director David Curtis on SOVEREIGN SOIL from the National Film Board of Canada which is having a screening at the Victoria Film Festival.

Welcome to my home town of Victoria! Is your first time here and are you planning to attend your screenings?

This is my first time showing a film at VFF, and I will be at both screenings. I’m really looking forward to sharing Sovereign Soil with Victoria audiences and hearing their insights and comments at the Q&As following the screenings.

So let’s hear more about you and how you got started in the business and what you have worked on in the past?

This is my first feature documentary. I come from a visual art and video art background but have also worked, on and off, in film, television and commercials in a variety of capacities over the past 20 years. My craft has been honed through work experiences and paying close attention to people whose work I admire and respect. While working on other people’s features, TV series, shorts and independent docs, I pay as much attention to what doesn’t work as to what does. Through this process I’ve been able to actively avoid many of the pitfalls and hardships that other first-time filmmakers I know have experienced.

How did this project come together?

Making SOVEREIGN SOIL took six years, from initial research and pre-interviews (note of advice: record these with professional sound gear, you never know what dialogue gems you’ll get in the early stages of research and development), through to the investigate and development phases with the National Film Board of Canada, which in turn led to a co-production agreement. Pre-production began in early 2017, with principal photography beginning that summer and carrying through four seasons into 2018. Editing on and off over seven months with Graham Withers was amazing, and then, after a couple of months of post-production sound and picture, we completed the film in May 2019. Over the whole period, we developed and maintained amazing creative and professional relationships between all invested parties, partners and crew. It was a dream working in co-production with the NFB including executive producer Shirley Vercruysse and her entire team, and I’m eternally grateful to my producer, Andrew Connors from Jackleg Films for his unwavering support, friendship and creative input throughout the entire six years and beyond. I’d do it all again in a heartbeat.

What keeps you going while making a movie? What drives you?

What kept me going throughout the making of SOVEREIGN SOIL was the excitement, camaraderie, learning curve and sheer fun of working in a collaborative process with an incredibly talented team of professionals. This, combined with all my wonderful friends and neighbours who opened their doors and hearts to us each day of filming, made the making of the film a life-enriching experience. Even if the film hadn’t been completed, this process would have still been rewarding, but now being able to share the film and its stories with audiences from around the world, well, that’s the proverbial icing on the cake!

What was your biggest challenge with this project, and the moment that was the most rewarding to you?

The biggest challenge in making SOVEREIGN SOIL was the logistics of safely getting crew and gear into some remote locations without the aid of helicopters or planes. We travelled as a small crew, sometimes me on my own, via snow machine, canoe, small river boat, and cross-country skis, as well as on foot, into places many people only ever dream of visiting. For me, these modes of transport are pretty much my day-to-day life as an off-grid dweller in the forest outside of Dawson City, but for many of the crew members, it was a real adventure that enriched their lives and infused the experience with “the lure of the North.” The most rewarding moment for me was being surrounded by family, friends, neighbours and colleagues at the cast and crew screening of the newly finished film in Dawson City. Hearing the roar of applause after the credits rolled made it all worthwhile. It was one of the most nerve-racking moments of my career and it ended in laughter, tears of joy and the affirmation that my community was good with how we had portrayed them.

I am about to get technical, but I would love to know about the the visual design of the movie; what camera did you film with, your relationship to the director of photography and how the movie was photographed.

Principal photography was completed primarily using the new Canon C200 in 4K RAW, with additional footage shot on an FS7 (4K), C100 (1080p). Our DOP, John Price, is a genius doc cinematographer who captured the poetic observational style we’d determined would be the foundation of the film from the very beginning. John and I had lengthy discussions each shooting day regarding the unique circumstances of the environment we’d be located in that day, and the light conditions particular to both the location and time of year. Capturing the subtle changing of the light and other environmental conditions over four seasons was a critical part of establishing the land as character, so that became the focus of our shooting schedule and plans. The psychological relationship between interiority and exteriority was also of critical importance in our shooting plans, and I think this is conveyed beautifully in the cinematic style of John’s shooting. We wanted transitions from indoors to outside and back again to be as smooth and seamless as possible. This was important to convey the deep relationship each of these people has formed with their environment. Also of concern was ensuring that we captured a balance between the vastness of the landscapes inhabited by these people and their intimate relationship to it and knowledge of it. We were always conscious of shooting a wide range of both interior and exterior scenes from a variety of angles to ensure we had the coverage to convey this throughout all seasons. With the exception of one interview, natural or available light was used throughout. This was something I was insistent on from the beginning, and luckily, we found a DOP who has established himself as a master of shooting docs under these restrictions. Getting clear and diverse location sound is also very important to me, and so we always had top-quality mics and sound gear with us. Other than when I was shooting on my own, our location sound recordist (Mike Code) spent a lot of time getting ambient tracks of everything from water, wind, birds, insects, snow, rain, hail, etc., through to the different types of “silence” one experiences over four seasons. These all play an important role in the final mix to help define the moment and immerse the audience in the imagery of the land.

What are you looking forward to the most about showing your movie here in Victoria?

I have a number of close friends and family in and around Victoria who haven’t seen the film yet, and so I’m looking forward to sharing it with them, along with general audiences from Victoria and beyond. I’m also very interested in hearing perspectives from Victoria-area food producers who will hopefully be at the Q&A sessions following the screenings.

After the film screens at VFF, where is the film going to show next? Theatrical? Online? More festivals?

SOVEREIGN SOIL is distributed by the NFB, so it will continue its tour of festival and community screenings from coast to coast.

We have a lot of readers on our site looking to make movies or get into the industry somehow. What is the ONE THING you would say to someone who is wanting to get into the filmmaking business?

Be honest, open and humble. Also, don’t think that you have to make something exotic or overly dramatic to garner attention; focus on what you know well and tell stories that are psycho geographically relevant to you. Especially for aspiring documentary filmmakers—listen, listen and listen some more.

And final question: what is the greatest movie you have ever seen at a film festival?

When I saw 20,000 DAYS ON EARTH by Jane Pollard and Iain Forsyth at the Available Light Film Festival in Whitehorse, Yukon, I was awestruck by the creativity and imagination that were employed in making this documentary. Everything in the film spoke to an attempt to portray the creative process through the conventions of cinema and cinema history. The film beautifully blends so many thematic threads and genres into its weave that in the end it creates an entirely new genre all on its own— one that currently can’t be described by any words that I know of.

Playing at Victoria Film Festival 2020 edition! Point your browser to for showtimes and ticketing information.

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