Over the end of February and beginning of March, the students of Dorothy Johnson’s Grade 6/7 class at Sxoxomic Community School in Esk’et got to make a short film with high profile Esk’etemc actor William Belleau.
Today William is an actor based out of Vancouver who has been involved in a wide range of film projects in his life including The Twilight Saga: Eclipse and the T.V. Show Frontier. He’s been active in the film industry since 2008 after studying in New York.
Earlier this year, William was called in to do a film mentorship workshop with a class of students at Sxoxomic and brought along a filmmaking team to show the students the ropes of the industry. Previously in November of 2019, they’d filmed a short video on an iPad for a Christmas concert and because the students liked it so much, he was invited back to do a longer workshop.
“My initiative here was to pretty much just jump in the river with my crew and kind of show them how to swim, as we were making the movie,” William said.
Originally supposed to film a series of short videos for the web, William said that after they got there he realized he had eight young Esk’etemc actors, four male and four female, and that half of them knew Secwepemc and half did not. From this, an idea for a short film quickly emerged that would be truly unique in the world because for the first time ever, it’d be a film made on Esk’etemc land solely by members of the Esk’etemc people, from the writer to the actors.
The film is called Making of a Warrior and William said he originally wanted his eight actors to be fighting in their classroom, but couldn’t figure out why. When he found out four of them could speak Secwepemc, William said they found their central conflict that started a journey of cultural growth between the two groups of opposing students.
Leona Belleau, meanwhile, has been working with film for the last two years primarily in documentary films and works as a freelance artist on the side. She was brought in to be the project’s storyboard artist/editor but as time went on she began directing alongside William and trying her hand at the filming process.
“I’m an introvert, I was looking forward to just sitting in front of the computer editing away from everybody but it turns out, once we started, I missed being in the room with everybody else. I loved being on set with the kids, they were awesome I was full of so much pride that I almost ruined a few takes because I was trying to not cheer,” Leona said.
Leona hopes that this film will inspire other First Nations communities across Canada to start telling their own stories, as they have, through film. Overall she felt that the students have been very enthusiastic across the board to take part in this project.
These students included William’s lead in the film Nathan Johnson, who served as the leader of the characters who could speak the Secwepemc language. William said he challenged Nathan to speak fluent Secwepemc for one entire scene with his grandma which, while he personally thought was a bit intimidating, he had faith the young man would be able to grow through it.
Nathan said he really liked filming the last project they did on the iPad and had a lot of fun participating in it. When William asked him to be the lead in this film he said he felt excited by the prospect of having more fun. The most challenging part of the film, he said, was speaking fluent Secwepemc with his grandma.
“I’m definitely going to do this again,” Nathan said. “We laughed a lot.”
William added that when shooting this production, he made sure everyone was having fun with it and were approaching learning with a humorous attitude. As he sees it, you’re going to inevitably make mistakes but it’s important to learn how to bounce back from them and grow.
“For me (this project) was very spiritually rewarding, it’s really hard to put into words. I always thought making a film like this was important as it’s a thing where I thought someone else was going to make a movie like this and I finally accepted the responsibility that someone is myself,” William said.
As he views it, everything he learned at acting school doesn’t belong to him and it’s his duty and pleasure to pass on to the next generation. He’s grateful that Dorothy invited him to volunteer with these children and provide him with the push he needed to undertake this project.
Moreover, he hopes this film will promote the importance of learning Secwepemc amongst young people today.
He wanted to highlight that, while the number of fluent elders are declining, there is a boom coming within the next generation who are currently in school.
William said they are aiming to finish editing the short film by the end of March and hopes to host a screening in Spring in Esket and possibly one in the Gibraltar Room in Williams Lake.
Looking to future projects of this kind, William plans to grow his team and capabilities for future films both short and one day maybe even feature-length.
“I really feel it’s important for us just to start writing our own scripts, telling our own movies and shooting them the way we want to shoot them. As an actor, I’ve auditioned for a lot of First Nations characters and they weren’t written by First Nations people, and you can see that,” William said.