A Conversation w/ Tomas Borsa and Jean-Philippe Marquis
The following email conversation took place in March 2015, upon the acquisition of Line in the Sand (2015) by Tomas Borsa and Jean-Philippe Marquis for active Video Out distribution. VIVO Media Arts Centre is excited to be the site of the documentary’s debut screening in Vancouver, on April 22nd 2015 at 7:00pm.
Shauna Jean Doherty (Video Out Distribution Manager): How is Line in the Sand consistent with your previous projects, and how does it deviate?
Tomas Borsa (Filmmaker): I’ve always had an interest in narratives around resistance and persuasion, in social stratification and displacement, and of “nation-hood” or “nation-building”, but my previous experience with time-based media, on the whole, was quite limited. (Like JP, my background is in journalism, but of the boring, textual variety). In content, I suppose there’s quite a lot of overlap with previous projects, but in either scale or medium, this was a relative first.
Jean-Philippe (Filmmaker): I’ve done several previous documentaries – one in Palestine, another in the Congo – and a core component to each was the idea of contested geographies. Still, this was the first major project I’d undertaken in Canada, and the longest in its duration. When you do a project abroad, no matter how much research you think you’ve done to prepare you for it, it takes months and months of catch-up before you can actually jump into the topic. Doing a project of this sort at home was totally different – there are things you don’t even know that you know, shared knowledge that you take for granted, that allows you to engage with the material much more intimately and immediately.
SJD: Have you collaborated before? What was the collaboration process like both in terms of filmmaking but also traveling together on the road?
TB: Actually, no. We met while treeplanting a number of years ago, and had each gone off to do other projects. When I initiated this project, I thought of approaching JP because of his background in ethnographic film; that tradition of allowing events and testimonies to unfold with minimal intervention was a huge asset and allowed us to recalibrate the project as new information presented itself. Given the length of time the project took from conception to completion, one of the most salient aspects of the whole process was the element of immersion.
JP: I had been following Tomas’ project and I saw the live stories and thought they were great. But I was impatient to see the film component – so when Tomas contacted me to say “there isn’t a film component yet, do you want to spearhead it?” I jumped on board. I had a bit of money put aside, but I wasn’t aware at the time that it would involve such a long length of time.
SJD: How and when did you become aware of the Northern Gateway pipeline project?
TB: I heard about the Northern Gateway at some point in early 2011, and was drawn to it as a site of inquiry because of the intensity of debate it seemed to be generating. At least in British Columbia, it had been front page news for months, so not hearing about it would have taken a bit of effort on my part. At the heart of the debate it had sparked was the economy/ecology nexus, but it seemed to encompass other components too: big, existential questions with aesthetic, social, and cultural nodes. Those were the bits I was interested in unpacking.
SJD: This project is more than a documentary – can you describe the multi-media components of Line in the Sand?
JP: Sure. Line In The Sand began as a sort of travelogue, with photo vignettes and short bits of writing from our travels and interviews with people living along the pipeline’s proposed route. It’s grown to include an interactive online map and a series of short web-based videos, drawn from the many, many interviews which for one reason or another we weren’t able to include in the film. We also contributed a short film to a group show at the Raglan Street Gallery in Melbourne, Australia, and as of April 11th we’ll have another video featured in a year-long show opening at the Gulf of Georgia Cannery in Richmond. At some point in the near future we’ll also be putting out a coffee-table book to accompany the film, and Tomas will be contributing a chapter to a book called Land/People/Power.
SJD: How long did the project take? How many trips did you have to take/how much footage did you have to work with?
JP: From beginning to end, the project took roughly two and a half years, with the last year and a half having been full-time. The first trip was actually done before I joined the project, and was more or less exploratory. The next trip lasted throughout October and November, all of it in British Columbia. In March we went to Alberta, and our final trip was this past fall, when we travelled to Northern BC to re-do a few interviews and get a bit more B-roll to fill in the gaps. All told, we interviewed around sixty people. I would describe the editing process as one of deduction, slowly narrowing it to the most compelling and emotionally candid testimonies.
SJD: Why is this documentary important? How does the pipeline impact you personally?
TB: First, I suppose, because there’s a tendency to frame discussions around pipelines in fairly didactic terms: the economy versus the environment. Within that framework, we’re told that it’s a simple matter of weighing the pros and cons and deciding whether or not there is a net benefit to the nation as a whole. I feel that’s an outdated way of looking at things. Place and identity are often intrinsically linked, and I would hope that we’ve managed to get across the point that pipelines have affective, psycho-social impacts, as well as physical impacts. Beyond that, its an important issue if for no other reason than the sheer number of pipelines currently proposed for construction across North America. If the Northern Gateway can serve as a litmus test, then we can better anticipate the direction similar debates will take in the future.
JP: I think its an important issue because its a matter of democracy and First Nations sovereignty. As a journalist its important to bring those stories to show people that these are not radicals or terrorists, they’re just people who realize they have more to lose than gain from the project.
SJD: This film deals with an ongoing issue, any plans to revisit the project when there are more answers?
TB: Absolutely. Many people have spoken openly about how this could turn into a “new Oka” if Enbridge decides to move forward with the project. In fact, while we were filming, the protests in Elsipogtog (Rexton, NB) kicked off, and provided a pretty clear indication of how far things could progress, if and when construction was to begin. We’ve tried to structure the film in such a way that we can offer a word of caution, and hopefully avoid that scenario.
JP: Before adding any more to this project, I want people in the midwestern US and in Eastern Canada to see the film; they’re dealing with very similar issues, albeit with different companies and in different areas. If construction does begin on the Northern Gateway, then there will certainly be another story, and I think it would be our duty to go back and do more filming, for sure.
SJD: How do you know when to finish a documentary about a topic that currently has no ending?
TB: I think it comes about through a combination of burnout, spending the last of your budget, and recognizing that this is still, at its core, a film about a current affair; it needs to be seen now, not in fifteen years, if its going to have an impact.
JP: It’s a challenge to make it open-ended, but to construct and ending that is still strong enough to stand on its own and have relevance in five years’ time. When you’ve seen the footage so often that you start being able to recognize it by its wave forms, that’s also a pretty good indication that it’s time to start wrapping things up.
SJD: How did you get in contact with the many people featured in the film?
TB: Initially, by contacting people directly through telephone or email inquiries. Some of those were successful, but what was much more important was keeping in touch and establishing a relationship. Through that, an element of trust developed, and ultimately it was personal referrals through previous interviewees that allowed us to gain access to some of the more enigmatic characters in the film.
JP: Our van definitely helped break the ice a number of times as well. A couple of local papers wrote stories about the rickety “van with antlers”, and people loved it.
SJD: Can you describe your previous history with VIVO?
TB: I was introduced to VIVO by Elizabeth Mackenzie, but this is the first time either of us have worked in partnership to create a work. I’m quite certain that our being able to lift heavy boxes during the big move to the new space was seen as a bonus.