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Gwich’in youth tap into Elders’ caribou knowledge in film project

For Arlyn Charlie, the decision to get involved with Reel Youth is already paying off.
Arlyn Charlie, 26, films the proceedings of the Caribou Summit in Fort McPherson in January. Charlie was one of 12 Gwich’in young people to participate in Reel Youth’s documentary filmmaking workshop, which coincided with the summit. Photo courtesy of Reel Youth

For Arlyn Charlie, the decision to get involved with Reel Youth is already paying off.

The 26-year-old was one of 12 Gwich’in young people to participate in the non-profit organization’s 2023 filmmaking workshop in the NWT, which was facilitated by the Western Arctic Youth Collective. It centred around the inaugural Caribou Summit in Fort McPherson this past January.

He and his peers spent two days of the summit learning from Reel Youth facilitators, who taught them the ins and outs of documentary filmmaking. They were then divided in teams of three to five, and paired up with three local Elders, whom they interviewed about their experiences and relationship to the region’s Porcupine caribou herd. Those interviews were filmed, and bolstered by background footage, or B-roll, that was also shot at the summit. All of that was ultimately transformed into three short documentary films.

After months of editing, those three films were released on Reel Youth’s YouTube channel on Oct. 8. The videos have been watched by hundreds of people across the NWT and farther afield.

Charlie, already an experienced photographer and creative writer when he enrolled in the workshop, said his favourite part of working on the three films was the way the experience helped him sharpen his storytelling skills.

“I trained in still photography, and that’s where I find comfort, working with cameras, taking stills,” he said a few days after the films were released. “I have education in creative writing.

“This workshop helped me to understand, one, how important it is and tell these stories, and two, how to go about telling them,” he added. “We have vast amounts of information out there and lots of stories that can be told.”

Charlie’s new storytelling skills will be useful as he continues his artistic pursuits, but he is also finding them useful in his work as the Gwich’in Tribal Council’s culture and heritage coordinator.

“I deal a lot with documentation, and traditional knowledge as it pertains to the Gwich’in,” he said. “I get involved and I help researchers that come to the North to help document and conduct research in regards to traditional knowledge. Once we have all that captured, we try to determine and find ways to present that to the public so that they will be able to utilize that knowledge.

“This opportunity with Reel Youth came up and I just thought it might be an interesting thing to participate in and learn how to tell these stories through video photography.”

Charlie also feels closer to his culture and Elders after participating in Reel Youth’s workshop.

“I am entirely grateful that [Elders] tend to do these interviews, and that they allowed us to go and do the interviews during the Caribou Summit,” he said. “There was a lot of information that was shared at that time, and it was an amazing thing to witness and to listen to.

“I think it just brought a lot more connection in regards to the knowledge that was shared, and allowed us to learn more and understand more about who we are as Gwich’in people and our relationship to the caribou, but also to grow closer to the Elders that still hold a lot of this knowledge.”

Reel Youth is “a media empowerment project that delivers community development programming to youth and adults across Canada and internationally,” according to its official website. It has worked with more than 7,000 young people to create more than 2,500 films, which have been viewed by millions of people worldwide.

To date, Reel Youth has facilitated approximately 25 workshops across the North, and plans are already in motion for a program in Fort Simpson, according to director Mark Vonesch.

After experiencing one of the organization’s workshops himself, Charlie encourages other young people to give it a try if the opportunity arises.

“I would highly recommend them to participate in this sort of a workshop,” he said. “Video photography, photography and storytelling with Reel Youth is really interesting to participate in, and I’ve learned quite a bit. So I would say just do it, honestly.”

A crowd gathers for a demonstration at the inaugural Caribou Summit in Fort McPherson in January. The summit featured discourse on the past, present and future of the Porcupine caribou herd, and also saw 12 Gwich’in young people interview local Elders for documentary film projects with Reel Youth. Photo courtesy of Reel Youth

About the Author: Tom Taylor

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