Martha Stiegman is a passionate and engaged community-media and documentary filmmaker who shares the lives and struggles of the people she films with. Currently based in Halifax, her work has screened in festivals around the world from Tunisia and New Zealand to Brazil.
Her first two documentaries, In Defense of our Treaties (2007) and The End of the Line (2007) explore alliances between Mi’kmaq and non-native fishing communities in her home province of Nova Scotia. She is curently directing, Honour Your Word which follows two young leaders in the Barriere Lake Algonquins’ fight to protect their ancestral lands; and K’at, documenting the importantce of eel fishing for the Mi’kmaq community of Paq'tnkek First Nation. Indigenous struggles and non-native solidarity have been the focus of Martha’s film work, community-arts practice and academic reseach for more than six years.
She holds a joint doctorate in Communications Studies and Political Science from Concordia University, exploring dynamics of Mi’kmaq Treaty Rights Recognition in Nova Scotia.
Interview with Martha Stiegman
Fishing for Answers: An Interview with Video Activist Martha Stiegman
Martha Stiegman’s two short documentaries are currently featured on the National Film Booard's CitizenShift website United We Fish. Her works tackles the fisheries in Nova Scotia’s Bay of Fundy and in Bear River First Nation. As a videomaker, Stiegman's work connects community and activism.
Martha is presently working on her PhD at Concordia University where we met to talk about her amazing projects.
AT: Martha, your work is currently featured on the NFB's Citizen Shift website, congratulations! Do you want to talk a bit about what it means to be featured there? And how its part of your process?
Martha: Citizenshift is a great way to reach a wide audience of people interested in social issues, and interested in how documentary film can play a role in social change.
AT:Can you briefly talk about what are your documentaries are about?
Martha:The project is called “In the same boat?”, and it's made up two parallel shorts.
The first, “in Defense of our Treaties” looks at the stand Bear River First Nation is taking to protect their treaty rights through fishing. There was a Supreme Court decision called the “Marshall Decision”, back in 1999 that recognized the treaty rights of First Nations in the Maritimes to fished commercially. It's the decision that sparked the conflict at eskinoopitic/ Burnt Church – which was kind of the Maritimes' Oka crisis. Since then, the department of fisheries has offered First Nations deals giving them money for boats, gear and training to get into the commercial fishing industry (which takes a lot of cash to get into) – provided they put their treaty rights aside and accept government jurisdiction over their fishing activities. 34 out of the 36 bands have signed these deals. Bear River is one of the two that has refused. So “In Defense” looks at why they've taken this stand, and follows their efforts to build collaborative relationships with progressive non-native fishing groups in their area to get on the water in a way that doesn't compromise their principles.
The second short is called “The end of the line”. It's a portrait of Terry Farnsworth, who's one of the last hook and line cod fishermen on Nova Scotia's Bay of Fundy coast. He is (or was) a handliner – which is kind of the marine equivalent of small-scale family farming. For Terry it's a like a religious vocation. My original intention in making the film was not to record this dying art – I wanted to tell the story of the fight to save this way of life; but the summer I spent hanging out with Terry, cod catches in the bay just bottomed out, and what he was dealing with was confronting this decision about whether or not he would have to “sell out” and give up this way of life that defines him. So the film is really his grappling with that decision – and it sketches the politics surrounding the hook and line fishery as well. Over fishing doesn't just happen – there are policies that have put the industry in corporate hands; there's been a movement in opposition to that.
AT:How did you become interested in this topic?
Martha: By complete fluke! A friend talked me into going to this workshop on “Community-Based Resource Management” (it was relevant to the work I was doing as a community organizer at the time). I knew nothing about the fisheries or about First Nations issues in the Maritimes. I got there and found this room packed with native and non-native fishers who less than two years before had been on opposite sides of this incredibly tense stand off triggered by the Marshall Decision. And here they were building the grounds for solidarity. It blew me away. Then over the years, the more I got to know them, and understand their organizing strategies… well, the more impressed I became what was going on around Bear River – I really wanted to spend time their and understand the issues, learn from the strength of the personalities involved – and make some kind of contribution to that struggle. It's also a way for me to learn about the place that I come from. I grew up in Halifax.
AT:What is your goal in making these films?
Martha: Fishing has such a different social and cultural significance in Mi'kmaq and non-native communities. I wanted to make a film that would show the grounds for solidarity between First Nations and non-native communities – but in a way that honors the differences. There's a lot of dialogue and cooperation now in the sustainable fishing movement between Mi'kmaq and non-native fishers – but so often the conversation centers around fishing policy and management issues. There's this whole set of issues related to treaty recognition, and the Mi'kmaq's inherent rights as the First People of Nova Scotia that is so poorly understood, if at all, by the majority society.
AT:How are communities involved?
Martha: First off, by hosting me and putting up with my camera in their faces for two summers! People have given me invaluable feedback over the course of building these stories. I went back to screen initial sequences after my first shoot – to make sure I was on the right track and that people felt comfortable with the direction I was taking the story. Together we identified holes that needed to be filled, things that needed to be tweaked – so I had a kind of mandate for the second shoot – and I think people felt more invested in the project as a whole because they had had some kind of say in things. Also, that gave them the chance to get to “know” me in a way that, well, I guess filmmakers get to “know” the people they interview: “so that's what you're going to do with my story. OK, I guess I can trust you” kinda thing. There was another community screening of a rough cut back in February to make sure people were happy with the close to finished product – and to start brainstorming potential audiences and ways that we can build a kind of mini-campaign around the launch of these films.
AT:Where else will you show these films?Who is your intended audience?
Martha: I'm entering the films into festivals, and I'm working towards a TV broadcast, but my first audience is really people in the Maritimes who are affected – either directly or indirectly – by these issues. We organized a community screening in Bear River of a rough cut back in February. A lot of people from the reserve were there, non-native fishers came as well. The conversation it generated was just so incredible rich. Hopefully we'll be able to organize more of those types of events in the fall. I'd also like to build some curriculum models to accompany the films and get them into high schools. I grew up in Halifax and things are just so segregated there. We really never learned anything about the Mi'kmaq, about the Treaties.
AT:In terms of your creative process, I know this is your first film. The films are very beautifully shot and tightly edited. And, the voiceover is intelligent and the overall flow of the film is very professional–no one would believe that this is new to you! What or who have been your creative influences?
Martha: Wow – thanks Mél!… I think the most important influences for me were more about process and approach than creative or artistic per se – I took a lot of inspiration from filmmakers with an activist ethic, who built collaborative relationships with the people in their films, and who worked to make sure the films were not just works of art, but organizing tools. Films like Eve Lamont's Squat!, Daniel Cross' S.P.I.T., Gwynne Basen's Working Like Crazy, and NFB Challenge for Change stuff like Bonnie Klein's VTR St-Jaques. That being said, I love beautiful documentaries where every shot could stand on it's own – stuff like Manufactured Landscapes and Working Man's Death.
AT:Can you talk a bit about your creative process, the formal choices and your vision?
Martha: Honestly, I never thought of myself as an artist before this project. I like still photography, but this was the first time I held a video camera. I don't really have the self-conciousness to recognize my creative process much less the language to describe it. I know I wanted to show what it felt like to be on Terry's boat – the still, peaceful, slow paced other world of being on the water – what it is that people like him are so attached to. I wanted to communicate Bear River First Nation's stand from their point of view (to the extent it's possible for an outsider to do so)…
AT: Thanks Martha!
Readers, be sure to check out Martha's United We Fish.