While the seventh-annual Reel North Film Festival is Nov. 5-7 had some fine new Canadian independent work to be screened, it was Tumaini, an intriguing 90-minute feature film made on a $60,000 budget by students and alumni from the highly touted Red Deer College's Bachelor Of Applied Motion Picture Arts program in Alberta that perhaps exceeded all expectations.
Also making its Thompson and wider release premier was Greg Zbitnew's Grand Rapids, a 75-minute documentary about the impact of the construction of the hydro-electric generating station on the Northern Manitoba community from January 1960 to November 1968 when the "rapids were silenced" on the Saskatchewan River and a vast area of land was flooded upstream, altering every aspect of traditional aboriginal life.
It looks at Cree life in Grand Rapids before the project, and how swiftly it changed once the station came online in 1965.
Zbitnew has shown the film in the community of Grand Rapids, just north of the 53rd parallel that demarcates Northern Manitoba from the south, but the Reel North Film Festival marked its first wider release before a festival audience. Zbitnew, who was on hand for the premiere and much of the weekend, of course, made the famed 1979 documentary Muskeg Special, which offers a seldom-seen glimpse into the 30-year-old heart of Northern Manitoba.
Jeff Woodward, who just recently graduated from the film program at Red Deer College, and served as both the producer and lead male actor in Tumaini, where he plays Grade 11 English teacher Terry Bowman, was also on hand for much of the weekend, making his first visit to Thompson.
Woodward's character in the film can't easily reconcile the materialist and consumerist Canadian middle-class lifestyle with the urgent needs he witnessed on a trip to Kenya with his fiancée, Melody.
The Courtesy Productions film premiered in Red Deer in September. Directed by Matthew Orobko, also a Red Deer College film student, the screenplay was adapted from an original script by Steve Neufeld, who received input from playwrights through the Central Alberta Scripts at Work Festival at Red Deer College.
Neufeld, who teaches school in Sylvan Lake, Alta., has said he was inspired to write a play about a fictional high school instructor, who begins to mentally unravel after returning to teach in Canada after an eye-opening trip to Kenya.
While Neufeld's own Third World visits have never triggered real-life breakdowns, he has said, they have informed and altered his worldview. Neufeld remembers marveling over western wonders upon his return to Canada - such as how water came out of his kitchen faucet.
Neufeld's fictional alter ego, Terry Bowman, played by Jeff Woodward, starts to hallucinate in the classroom. The figment of his guilt-plagued imagination is a little African girl named Tumaini, who makes a habit of popping up in his classroom. Only Bowman can see her, leading his students to wonder if he's going mad.
Also starring in the film is Kelsey Johnson, who plays the character of Rene Zelt, an intelligent and skeptical student, but one who wants to build a school in Kenya, but who is burdened and disillusioned by having to look after her alcoholic mother at home, detracting from her academic performance and make extracurricular activities almost impossible. Johnson has been involved in acting since she was 12 and appeared in the short film, The Insomniac's Handbook.
Eleven-year-old Mustaha Adair, who is also from Red Deer, plays the role of Tumaini. Woodward said Nov. 6 in Thompson at the Reel North Film Festival that the goal was to cast as many Red Deer College students, graduates and local residents as possible.