It was a combination of two experiences – studying film at Capilano University in Vancouver and the mysterious death of her grandmother – that inspired Cree filmmaker Petie Chalifoux to make her debut feature, 2017′s River of Silence.
Selected for Telefilm’s Micro-Budget Production stream while in the Indigenous Independent Digital Filmmaking program, River of Silence is set against the backdrop of Canada’s missing and murdered Indigenous women crisis. The feature follows a mother on the hunt for answers after her daughter’s mysterious death, which eventually leads the killer to her.
Through projects like River of Silence and her upcoming documentary and narrative projects, the recent graduate aims to empower Indigenous women through her stories.
“I felt that we could tell [the story] really well through my personal experience and of course, a lot of research. We just wanted to put a voice to all the people who have gone missing,” says Chalifoux.
Chalifoux didn’t always intend to be a filmmaker. She first worked in the visual effects industry, where she hoped to work with Indigenous filmmakers. “I was waiting for that to happen and realizing that there weren’t many Indigenous filmmakers out there who were ready to incorporate visual effects into their stories. So I thought, there’s no better way to do it [than to] do it myself,” she says.
Chalifoux then created her first project, The Shifter (2015), a VFX-heavy short film about a heroine who has the power to shapeshift. Chalifoux developed the short into the one-hour TV pilot Nîsowak through Storyhive’s 2017 $100,000 edition, and is now in post.
Capilano University co-ordinator Doreen Manuel says her former pupil’s work on Nîsowak is a perfect example of Chalifoux’s mandate to present strong Indigenous female characters. “[This is] a woman hero who can shapeshift, protect herself and protect other women,” she says. “You see the same theme in River of Silence [with its focus on] murdered and missing women. She has got a deep interest in our culture and part of that culture is bringing back empowerment to women,” says Manuel.
Since graduating from Capilano in 2017, Chalifoux has participated in a number of programs for Indigenous filmmakers, including Women in Film and Television – Vancouver’s writing program Coyote, Raven, Spider, Wendigo: Tricksters and Writers (overseen by Manuel and producer Peggy Thompson), as well as the National Screen Institute’s IndigiDocs program.
“I was impressed by Petie’s brilliance, determination and efficiency, as well as her grasp of visual storytelling,” says Elise Swerhone, co-manager of the NSI’s program. “Nothing is too difficult for her. She was a leader in the IndigiDocs group.”
She and her husband and producing partner Micheal Auger received funding through the program to complete their short doc, Mihkowapikwaniy. The project follows an Indigenous healing camp set up by a chief who lost his daughter, Bella Laboucan-McLean, under suspicious circumstances. A release date for the doc, produced for APTN and CBC, has yet to be announced. “It’s a gentle, beautiful film about grief, which there is plenty of in the Indigenous community, and how [that community] is healing,” says Swerhone.
Among her many projects on the go, Chalifoux is in production with Auger on a one-hour doc about Laboucan-McLean, called Bella’s Story, for APTN, which is set to be delivered in late December 2018.
Chalifoux has also directed a chapter of an upcoming doc about Indigenous culture and language for NSI and the Indigenous Leadership Development Institute (ILDII). The busy filmmaker is at work on her next feature, penning the script for Disappearing Moon, a drama about twins separated from their tribe who return 15 years later with a mysterious message.
The filmmaker is hungry to tell more Indigenous stories, and takes inspiration from her own experiences of healing from the history that has been passed down through generations. “For people who watch my work,” she adds, “I hope to inspire them to find their own healing path.”
Photo: Micheal Auger
This article originally appeared in the Fall 2018 issue of Playback