Trip west provides awesome experience for aspiring filmmaker

Editor’s note: This is one in a series of articles about students who were involved in cool research, scholarly and creative activities during their summer break from classes.

Some people who travel through the Canadian prairies may describe their spaces as mundane, but to a young camera man with a vivid imagination and a desire for visual stimulation, the wide open west provides a bounty of opportunity.

“Everything looked like a nice shot,” said Michael Distefano, a fourth-year student in Communication, Media and Film who recently drove from Winnipeg to Medicine Hat with a film crew working on a documentary. “It was all these rolling hills and fields. We just shot out the window sometimes. It was beautiful.”

Distefano was working as assistant camera man on an historical film being directed by professor Kim Nelson, whose subject is the lasting impact of Max Sering, a young German professor who came to Canada in 1883 on a fact-finding mission to learn about how Canada was settling its vast tracks of land in the west. He was so inspired by how settlers were dealing with Aboriginal peoples that he travelled home to convince German authorities to use the same methods with Poles living in the eastern part of their country.

Tracing the history of how Sering’s ideas were implemented – and how other countries around the world have colonized their inner borderlands – is the research focus of Kim Nelson’s husband Rob Nelson, a professor in the History department.

Distefano made the 2,000 kilometer trip in late June in a rented minivan with a film crew that consisted of both Nelsons; music professor Brent Lee, who is scoring the film; film professor and director of photography Min Bae; and several other students. He described the trip, which consisted of shooting atmospheric footage as well as interview subjects, as “awesome.”

“All of our crew members worked really well together,” he said. “We always ate together, and we became like a family. We started referring to ourselves as a family and going to family restaurants. And Rob’s a food fanatic, so he always found the best restaurants.”

He said the days were long, but he didn’t mind because the learning experience was so rewarding. He’s shot plenty of short narrative films before, but this was his first time working on a feature length documentary.

“It was a whole different experience,” he said, noting that he had to do some brushing up on history to learn more about Sering. “I got a lot out of the story, and that was really interesting, but for me it was more about the film experience.”

And while the summer experience was great fun, he’s looking even more forward to the next chapter in his adventure. On September 15, he departs for England, where he’ll spend a semester on exchange at the University of Hertfordshire. After that, he’ll travel to Italy to spend Christmas with his grandparents in Italy, followed by several months of backpacking around Europe, before finally meeting up with the rest of the crew to shoot the remainder of the documentary in Poland and Germany.

“I think next year is going to be a whole lot more interesting,” the Sandwich Secondary School grad said. “I’ll be learning a lot more then. It’ll be a whole new experience.”