Living on the Edge

Susan Woodfine

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Susan Woodfine and Joan Sullivan

I would like to tell you about a film project that aims to put a human face to the question of climate change in Quebec. It also happens that this project has consumed a good part of my existence for the last year and a half and is, naturally, very close to my heart. The film is about, and hence named, Living on the Edge.

Joan Sullivan at the Rimouski farmers' market. Joan and her husband, Jean Lemay, have become one of the largest certified organic garlic producers in the Lower Saint Lawrence
Joan Sullivan at the Rimouski farmers’ market. Joan and her husband, Jean Lemay, have become one of the largest certified organic garlic producers in the Lower Saint Lawrence

I met Joan Sullivan for the first time at a farmers’ market in Rimouski in 2009.  Funnily enough, but not uncommon for displaced Anglos, we spent several minutes speaking French before we realized hey, we’re both English. It is not often that you meet an American selling produce at the Rimouski market – I was intrigued; even more so when I discovered that she is a Harvard graduate, who spent almost 20 years in Africa doing AIDS prevention work. Joan introduced herself as a garlic farmer but was keen to point out that her true passion and calling is photography.

Through my work as a journalist and in covering the high tide storm surge that hit eastern Quebec in 2010, it occurred to me that there was an amazing and important story to be told, and I wanted it to be different. We had been hearing a lot from scientists, politicians and people devastated by destruction during this event but what about the bigger picture? For some, the 2010 extreme-weather event was our wake up call to climate change in eastern Quebec. But for how many people? Joan was thinking about this as well.

Here, some serendipity comes into play: my focus has always been radio documentary but due to the cuts at CBC/Radio Canada I thought this might be coming to an end. Then, by chance, I talked to  Dwane Wilkin of the Quebec Anglophone Heritage Network (QAHN) in the Eastern Townships who told me about the StoryNet Documentary Challenge which would award funding to four emerging English-speaking filmmakers for projects featuring English-speaking Quebeckers. I submitted my idea which, as you may have guessed, was one of the four chosen projects.

I hit the road with Joan, who by that time, had become very focused on climate change photography. As well as documenting climate change, as you will see in our film, she is also looking at the positive measures such as renewable energies, and wow, is she passionate about wind turbines.

On our journey to meet and talk to people who live on the edge of Quebec’s majestic St. Lawrence River, Joan’s photography, her spectacular stills, became the vehicle for telling the human story of climate change in our backyard. Parallel to the physical journey along the St. Lawrence, is the internal journey of how climate change became the central focus of Joan’s life, a story that lies at the heart of this film.

Bill Pearce and Joan Sullivan in Métis-sur-Mer: "Erosion is very much part of the Metis landscape"
Bill Pearce and Joan Sullivan in Métis-sur-Mer: “Erosion is very much part of the Metis landscape”

Joan and I travelled to Gaspésie and the Magdalen Islands, and around our home region of the Lower St. Lawrence. Some of our encounters were heart wrenching. We spent time with Johanne Jean in Gaspé who owned the one general store in the English community of Sunny Bank. In December of 2010, that 62-year-old landmark became history. Jean tells the story of how she made the tough decision to tear down the store and that although the storm happened almost three years ago, she still hasn’t recovered. She also has a pretty strong view about climate change and where we’re heading.

On the Magdalen Islands, we met amazing people including Rebecca Louise Clarke from Grosse Ile who decided to move back home from the United States. She clearly sees a change in landscape from when she grew up, but Clarke is hopeful. She believes Mother Nature will shift and balance things out.

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Joan Sullivan and Alexander Reford in Grand-Métis

On more familiar territory, we spoke with Alexander Reford, in his role as the Director of the Reford Gardens/Jardins de Métis, who explained how the Gardens are affected by and adapting to climate change. We also spoke to Métis-sur-Mer resident, Bill Pearce who told us that erosion is very much a part of the Metis landscape.

For better or worse, our low-budget project became rather herculean; we decided to take this film as far as we can because we believe this story needs telling. We also believe this documentary should be screened in both English and French as it touches the lives of everyone living on the shores of the St. Lawrence River, as well as of many living further afield.

We enlisted the musical genius, James Darling, to compose an original score for the documentary, a professional editor, Martin Charron, as well as in-kind support from Tortuga Films for which we are forever grateful.

As the project evolved and grew, so did our budgetary needs, so Joan and I turned to crowd-source funding, which was a story onto itself – believe me, CBC journalists are not accustomed to asking for money. We knocked on doors, sent emails, and met with groups in our community to seek donations, sponsors and partnerships with some success. It is not too late to help us realise the potential of this project and we would really appreciate any donation, great or small.

We are now in postproduction, which means we are editing the footage, adding a soundtrack and pulling together our film, Living on the Edge. We plan to finish the film by December 2013 with a screening in Rimouski in February 2014. We’re approaching film festivals and organising screenings across the province. You can follow our progress on our blog and Facebook page,  find out about a screening near you, and please, if you can, help spread the word.

All photos by Susan Woodfine

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