Watching films about food always gets my attention. They’re universal and we’ve all had experience with it. For those of us that enjoy cooking a good meal and appreciate fresh ingredients, films about food can be our brain candy! We hear the chopping, the frying, the sizzle, we see the steam and we wonder why we still don’t have technology that allows us to smell images. A game changer indeed but that is another story for another time. This film about food is quite different because it takes place in the Yukon, where there’s sunlight 24 hours a day for 2 months in the summer, when gardens are planted and rely on sun to grow. I believe the Yukon is the only place in Canada where you can be asked to grab a 50lb cabbage from the garden, pick your candy flavoured brussels sprouts from under the snow or cook up some purple cauliflower for the in-laws. This film will captivate you and give you a new appreciation for fresh produce and the unsung heroes that keep us fed.
Sovereign Soil is directed by David Curtis and co-produced by Andrew Connors (Jackleg Films) and Shirley Vercruysse (NFB BC & Yukon Studio).
The film is now available for free streaming in Canada on NFB.ca.
Set in the northern wilds surrounding the tiny sub-Arctic town of Dawson City, Yukon, Sovereign Soil is an ode to the beauty of this ferocious, remote land and the wisdom of those who’ve chosen to call it home. Over the course of a year, Dawson filmmaker David Curtis follows resilient, unassuming farmers—including a German immigrant, a young family tapping birch trees for syrup, a First Nations youth, and a matriarch who can shoot and quarter a moose—exploring life, death, and time through the simple, rich day-to-day of people deeply tied to the wilds.
Writer/director David Curtis is a commercial salmon fisher, carpenter, and artist making his first feature documentary, that is part of a planned triptych of works within his community exploring the intimacies of human relationships to land. He’s had the honour and privilege of living off-grid in the traditional territory of the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in outside Dawson City, Yukon, for the past 21 years. Producer Andrew Connors is the film and media arts programmer for the Yukon Film Society and the director of the Available Light Film Festival, Canada’s largest cinema and media arts festival north of 60 whose works have appeared on CBC, APTN, and Bravo (Facing Miles Canyon). This film has won the Crimson Snowflake Award for best Canadian Film at the 2021 International Festival of Winter Cinema | Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.
I was excited to talk to David Curtis about food but it really turned into a conversation about the remarkable people growing it. Roll the tape!
HNMAG “This was an incredible film that gave me a new appreciation for the labor and time that goes into growing vegetables, especially in northern remote locations. What was the drive behind making this film?”
DAVID “I wanted to look at the way our relationship with the land has evolved through the process of agriculture and food. I focused on people that I knew within my region because I was familiar with them and they all had some very interesting and innovative projects going on with very interesting personal stories.”
HNMAG “In watching the film, it doesn’t appear that the growers are producing enough to export outside of their town. Are they growing enough to sustain the town year-round?”
DAVID “No, not even the town. They don’t produce enough, so we still have to import everything. The work going into the fresh produce grown here does supplement that and there’s been an increase in local farmers turning to livestock, such as chickens, pigs, sheep. There’s also a small dairy that’s recently started up, so there’s some improvements happening but there are still many challenges. Another part of the film looks at the ‘back to the landers’, from the ‘60’s and ‘70’s to see what their experiences were like and where they are. Many of them are getting older and retiring, or their health has deteriorated, so there’s been less and less with very few young people taking up the call. There’s been a lot of talk about ways to fill that gap and who’s going to do it. One place that has shown some potential is the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in farm, that’s featured in the film. It’s a project, where the Sovereign First Nations have taken a piece of farm land and re-purposed it as a place of learning, teaching and healing through growing produce.”
HNMAG “In the film, it’s pointed out that the soil is very rich in that region, which contributes to very healthy produce. Do you know the reason behind the rich soil conditions?”
DAVID “It’s a very unique location within the Yukon territory. It’s had geological activity going on for millions of years, which created large sediment deposits from rivers and organic matter. It’s pretty unique within the territory and there’s only a couple of spots that have soil like this, but it’s quite widespread throughout the Dawson region, due to the geology. When the Gold Rush happened up here in the late 1800’s, there was a food scarcity. People with farming experience started looking for plots of land that had good soil. They immediately discovered a few micro climates here that were really conducive to growing large quantities of produce. With a short growing season, they were producing huge items of produce with pictures of cabbage appearing like they weigh 50 lbs. Although we only have a 100-day growing season here, we get more sunlight per annum than California. In the summer, we have 24 hours of sunlight for about 2 mths. During that time, the crops grow at incredible rates. It’s that combination of good soil and daylight that help to produce large amounts of food. The Gold Rush ended and the demand for fresh produce dropped considerably. It wasn’t until the last 40 years that market gardening has returned and become a topic of conversation again.”
HNMAG “Were you familiar with the history of the land before making the film?”
DAVID “I was pretty familiar with the Gold Rush history but not as much with the agricultural history, so I did a lot of research. The film was made over 6 years and the first 1-2 years were all research and development work. My producer, Andrew Connors and I did a lot of background research and talked to a lot of people, especially older people/people that grew up here, as well as First Nations People. We had a pretty good idea of the conditions beforehand. We wanted to make the film contemporary, so we wanted to find out what younger people were doing today and what the older generations of the ‘back to the landers’ had done – and taking a look at that transition. There seems to be a revival of back-to-the-land ideas and philosophies amongst younger generations, but things are different now and we want to take a look at those differences up here because they’re big. It’s a digital world now with people having different expectations… and they’re not necessarily willing to sacrifice as much and go out. They also know the pitfalls of the earlier pioneers that went out and cut down/cleared forests to build fields. There’s a fine line between impacting the ecosystem while domesticating the landscape. There are a lot of places in BC that were once forests and are now farmland. With that comes other populations and development. The Boreal Forest is a huge carbon sink, so we have to be careful about how we proceed.”
HNMAG “Considering that you’ve lived there for 21 yrs., did you learn anything new upon making this documentary?”
DAVID “I did. It was how hard people work and how much passion and love they put into providing us with food. I grew up in the prairies and I’ve worked on farms as a kid, so I had a sense of that but as a kid, you’re not aware of hard labour, where you put a lot of work into something and get very little back from it, monetarily wise. Other than the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in farm, everyone else in the film lived off the grid. They do it because of the love and passion for feeding the community. I was so inspired by their contributions for my existence and the community.”
HNMAG “Did you know the subjects quite well in the film, prior to documenting them?”
DAVID “I did and I continue to work with them on another project that focuses on stories from my immediate area. I wasn’t close friends with all of them, but I’ve known Sylvia Frisch since she was a teenager, I’ve known Kim Melton and John Lenart for a long time; we actually worked on salmon habitat back in the day. I’ve known Otto Muelbach and Grant Dowdell, as well as a lot of Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in People and we’ve all become better family and friends since the filming, which is a benefit that I’ve gotten from it.”
HNMAG “I found it fascinating, the different variety of vegetables they were able to grow, such as enormous cabbage, winter brussels sprouts and purple cauliflower?”
DAVID “Otto is a third-generation horticulturist from eastern Germany. He has a wealth of knowledge on how to grow things/fix things with an old school approach to farming. He is a precious commodity in this community because he encompasses so much knowledge. Otto and his partner are looking to retire, but who’s going to fill their shoes and take their place?”
David tells me that a journalist is going to be doing a spotlight on Otto, after seeing him in the documentary. Another couple in the film, Grant Dowdell and Karen Digby have left for the island. Although they have 3 kids, they all know how difficult a life it is to be a farmer, so they’re trying to find a young couple to take it over. So far, there’s been no takers.”
HNMAG “What did you want to convey the most in this film?”
DAVID “My love of this place and my concerns for the future of our community, given the environmental crisis that we’re facing and the changes that we’re seeing. I also wanted to pay homage to the people that produce our food up here, who I really admire and the sacrifices they’ve made to ensure that we’re supplied with healthy food. I also hope that people will think a little bit more about where their food is coming from, the people behind it and the effort that goes into growing it. Let’s support those people!”
HNMAG “You must’ve collected so much footage in the years of documenting them all. It was edited so beautifully, how long did it take to finish the post on the film?”
DAVID “(Laughing) It essentially took us a year to edit, maybe a little less – 9 months from assembly, doing all the selects, then to rough cut. There’s also time spent on fine cuts, dealing with various producers, colour correction, sound design. The team was amazing and I’m very happy with the end result. Our editor Graham Withers continues to work with Andrew and I. Shirley Vercruysse was an absolute dream to work with and the NFB were incredible supporters of the project from the very beginning and great people to work with. I can’t say enough about the role that they played in getting the film out and Canadian film in general.”
HNMAG “This film has seen a lot of theatre screens since you finished it two years ago. Can you mention some of those festivals it’s screened at?”
DAVID “It played the festival circuit for only 4 months before Covid hit. We thought that was the end of it, but it continued to play on virtually at the Santa Barbara Film Festival, the Tromsø International Film Festival in Norway, an environmental film festival in France and another big environmental film festival in the Czech Republic… and it’s been seen in New Zealand. We were also lucky enough to sell it to Arte, a big broadcaster in Europe. We cut it down to an hour and they’ve done voiceover work on it, so it’s currently showing in Germany and France. We also have interest from a Quebec environmental broadcaster. I believe it started broadcasting on the Knowledge Network too, so it’s been a slow burn.”
After all the questions, David shared an upcoming film project with me that encompasses 8 short films born out of the experiences of Covid isolation.
“I had focused my lens onto the micro world of insects and plant life. I’m making a series of films that deal with small dramas and the ongoing narratives of the natural world as opposed to the human world. I’m also working on a short documentary about a man that lives in a cave. He’s a neighbour of mine and a friend. In addition, Andrew and I are working on the research and development for our next feature documentary. Sovereign Soil was the first of a 3-feature series that we’d planned. Andrew and I have been friends for over 21 years but Sovereign Soil is our first project together and I believe it to be one of many. The film wouldn’t be a success if we couldn’t get through the 6 years and still be friends, but we are (laughing).
It was a pleasure speaking with David but I was still hungry after the interview and immediately apologized to my leftover hamburger and salad for swallowing without chewing. In all seriousness though, David’s film opened my eyes, expanded my mind and gave me much more appreciation for the skilled men and women that grow our food.
Sovereign Soil is a Jackleg Films co-production with The National Film Board of Canada, in association with Northwestel Community Television, with the participation of Canada Media Fund, with the participation of Yukon Media Development.
Filmed on the traditional territories of the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in and the First Nation of Na-Cho Nyäk Dun, in and around Dawson City and the McQuesten River Valley, Yukon.