Damien Gillis was born and raised in Campbell River. He’s the son of two long-time fixtures in School District administration here – his father was superintendent for many years – and he graduated from Carihi High in 1997.
Then he went off to make movies.
Well, that’s not entirely true, but that’s how it feels now.
“I didn’t take the film program, but I had the equivalent of a minor in film when I graduated from UBC,” he laughs. “Let’s say I took every film class that was available, even though I never officially declared it as part of my program. I just loved it, so I studied it.”
After graduation, he formed a production company and began making films for UBC itself, and soon joined on with SFU for some projects, as well.
Recently, however, he’s turned his attention to producing feature-length documentaries focused on the environmental and political issues he sees around him.
He’s been involved with two films about aquaculture on our shores: Dear Norway: Help Save Canada’s Wild Salmon and Farmed Salmon Exposed: The Global Reach of the Norwegian Salmon Farming Industry.
His most recent effort, Fractured Land, which he co-directed and which took five years to produce, follows the struggles of a young Dene lawyer named Caleb Behn as he fights the world’s largest fracking operators in his community.
So when he was taking every film course available at UBC at the turn of the last century, was he dreaming of getting to Hollywood to make fun, entertaining superhero blockbusters, or romantic comedies, or movies about famous people throughout history, or did he always want to tell the real stories of real people and taking on big sociological issues using the documentary form, as he’s been doing?
“It’s not that it was a conscious plan,” he says. “I wouldn’t rule out doing narrative or non-fiction films down the road, but when I started out, and what I’m still doing, is using film as the tool I have at my disposal to explore these issues that are close to my heart as a British Columbian concerned about what I see happening around me, such as the increasing need to protect our land, air and water.”
But he wouldn’t call Fractured Land “an issue film.” It’s more about how the characher struggles than what he’s struggling with.
“It certainly deals with some heavy issues,” he admits, such as fracking and other environmental and political concerns, “but it looks at these issues through the eyes of the main character, and is his story more than it’s the story of those issues.”
And that’s why it resonates with audiences.
“I think audiences have connected with it because they become invested in the choices he’s making as a person, and they care about him as a character.”
And care about him, they do, apparently.
At this year’s Hot Docs Festival in Toronto – one of the largest and most prestigious documentary film festivals in the world, featuring more than 200 documentaries from all around the globe, Fractured Land was a top-10 audience choice.
The film then went on to win Best BC Film at the Vancouver International Film Festival, where it also garnered the Canadian Audience Award.
“It’s been doing well on the festival circuit,” he says, so the next stage is to make it public.
Gillis says because it was produced in cooperation with the CBC and Knowledge Network, it’s already slated for broadcast here in Canada, but they are currently also working on broadcast agreements in places like Australia as well as with PBS affiliates in the U.S.
But first, it will show right here in his childhood hometown as part of the Campbell River Festival of Films.
“I’m very proud to be bringing it to Campbell River and be working with some people I very much respect in the Campbell River Film Association,” Gillis says. He will be in town for the screening, as well, and is very much looking forward to seeing the response from people first hand.
He’s also looking forward to having some very important people in his life see his work.
“This will be the first time my parents will see it, so that’s pretty exciting,” he says, “and I still have strong connections to that community, so it’ll be really nice to share this with it.”
Fractured Land screens at the Tidemark as part of the Festival of Films next Tuesday, Nov. 3, at 7:00.