Students explore creativity on the Gulf Islands

Megan Catalano

Boarding a pre-dawn ferry isn’t the way most students begin a school day. But, by the time a group of Master of Arts in Professional Communication students returned from a Gulf Islands day trip last November, they had filmed a documentary.

The students’ documentary, Paradise Found?, features life on the Gulf Islands: what brought residents to the islands, how they incorporate creativity into their daily lives and how they make their living.

“The concept of paradise isn’t so much about the place itself, but what you make of it. It’s really easy to idealize existence on the Gulf Islands, but it’s got its own challenges and things that make life harder,” says student Alina Fisher. “It’s just a very different lifestyle, so it’s about your outlook.”

People’s sense of place was one of the themes the students explored in their interviews with residents.

“We noticed how comfortable and how at home the residents are in their environment and how much the environment played into their lives,” says student Erin Beattie.

Peoples’ sense of place shapes how they choose to live their lives, according to Canada Research Chair in Innovative Learning and Public Ethnography Dr. Phillip Vannini who taught the Multimodal Publishing course.

“From how much time we spend outdoors, to where we envision ourselves living as our authentic selves, from the local resources and traditions we wish to make our own to the rhythms we incorporate into our quotidian existence, choosing how to live is largely a matter of choosing where we live,” explains Vannini. “A place owes its character to the experiences of those who dwell there: its smells, its sights, sounds, textures and all the myriad feelings it gives rise to.”

The elective course on video documentary production and distribution has the students research, film, edit and distribute a documentary with a small budget covering only their travel and postage expenses thanks to an internal grant. The class of 10 students worked as one crew on the ambitious assignment of creating a documentary film in 10 weeks.

“Instead of collecting research into a dusty drawer, students show their work to a large audience,” says Vannini. “This is beneficial to public audiences and to students’ own understanding of the social world and knowledge mobilization.”

Vannini invited his students to participate in his research themes through the documentary project.

“I am studying the culture of artisanship the Gulf Islands are known for, and I wanted the students to become involved in it,” says Vannini. “I believe that the notions of producing locally and shopping locally are rooted in a distinct sense of place and I wanted the students to understand how sense of place, lifestyle choices and local culture are interconnected.”

The students learned to use video and audio equipment borrowed from Royal Roads’ Media Services department by practicing around campus during their two-week residency. The students completed the editing process at home by downloading software and shipping hard drives to each other.

Each of the students took on multiple roles in the production process; some roles were familiar and built on their strengths and others stretched the students out of their comfort zones.

“It was the most unique course I’ve ever taken because it was so hands-on and we were really starting from zero,” says Fisher who was a co-producer, interviewer and narrator for the film. “Phillip made sure that whatever it was we were comfortable with, he pushed us to do something more.”

Beattie took on videographer, editor and public relations roles.

“It was a huge learning curve for us—there was some hair pulling during the editing process,” says Beattie with a laugh. “It was a hit-the-ground running class for sure.”

Student Lorimer Shenher, who was a writer, editor and interviewer for the film, says everyone in the class gained a sense of abilities they didn’t know they possessed.

“All of us thought it would be cool to make documentaries, but I don’t know that many of us felt like that was actually a practical dream,” says Shenher. “I expected it to be kind of stressful. Above all else, it was incredibly fun and I could not have done it with nine better people.”

The students agree the biggest success is seeing the final product, a 27-minute documentary film.

“There were times when I felt there was no way I was going to be able to finish this,” says Beattie. “We’re really happy with how it turned out because it is our first documentary as a team and, for many of us, individually.”

The early morning ferry paid off with an incredible learning experience, according to Fisher.

 “We came back in the dark absolutely exhausted but exhilarated.”

Paradise Found? will air on Shaw TV South Vancouver Island in February 2017 and will also be available online. Visit the Paradise Found? Facebook page for air dates.