Last year, Kelly Vrugteveen composed the first few lines of a poem on the back of a receipt while bagging groceries at her supermarket job.
Her reading of that poem, with a backdrop of snow falling in darkness, opens the film Back to the Stars, available on the Capitol Theatre website free starting May 7.
The poem asks what if she had been born into different circumstances – taller, richer, with different parents, with a different body, and so on.
What if I’d been born into different coloured skin?
Would people hate me for things I can’t control?
Would I be happy now? Would I be angry now? Would I be alive now?
Following Vrugteveen’s poem, the film takes us to a West Kootenay forest with Sapphire Guthrie walking slowly, tying red ribbons to trees, singing her song “Missing Lady in Red.”
Six young Nelson women – Guthrie and Vrugteveen along with Rebecca Neudorf, Mélodie Giguère, Amanda Creak and Aliza Jones – created and performed the songs and poems that make up Back to the Stars. They were mentored and directed by Allison Girvan, and the project was managed by Isabelle Herzig.
Their weekly meetings over the past year were at first in person, and then later on Zoom.
The goal was to explore Truth and Reconciliation, and a restoration of Indigenous teachings, through readings, discussions, and journaling, with the help of Indigenous Elder Donna Wright and cultural advisor Ann-Marie Smith.
Girvan says this subject matter may not be initially obvious in the film, which communicates by metaphor, not through a linear narrative.
“I think that (viewers will) get that arc even though it’s a subtle thing. It is not done in a way that’s hitting the nail on the head. It’s all very gently laid out.”
Early in the process, Smith and Wright gave the group a drum-making workshop, which Girvan says set the tone for what was to come.
Vrugteveen says while making her drum she was at the same table as Wright, and she discovered the two have some similar character traits.
“I’m one that really likes to laugh and make jokes and make other people laugh, and she is kind of the same type,” Vrugteveen says. “My drum is embedded with so much humour. And every time I play it, I just hear the laughs come out of it that we shared together.”
The centrepiece song in Back to the Stars is Guthrie’s “I Feel Mycelial,” the only song sung together by all six.
“Allison read us an article about the old growth forest,” Guthrie says, “and the mycelial (fungal) networks all throughout it, and the connection of the forest through these networks in the earth.”
She adds that while writing the song she was watching Star Trek: Discovery, in which mycelial networks play a big part.
In addition to being an artistic and cultural exploration, the project also turned out to be an effective way of getting through the pandemic.
“On any given week, some of the young women were feeling OK, and some were not,” says Girvan. “And quite frankly, the same with the adults who were in on those Zoom calls. That helped to illustrate just how much we need each other, how much we need community.”
She says the young women learned that to function in a group we each don’t need to be at the top of our game all the time.
“If we’re not able to fully bring our best selves, we can just show up for each other. We can prop each other up, which is an incredible thing to realize.”
Rebecca Neudorf, who sings her song “Gifts You Bring” while the camera hovers above and follows a mountain stream in winter, says the group has helped her get through the pandemic.
“It lightened the whole thing, and also gave me something to look forward to, and a place where I could also be honest about how I was doing, and not worry about it affecting someone else – being true to who I am.”
Back to the Stars was filmed by Rio Mitchell and Danny Cox of BackBeyond, with additional music composed and played by Don Macdonald with background vocals by Girvan.
“Don’s music just it added so much,” Aliza Jones says. “Some of it was just so quiet you barely could hear it. But it just brought so much to it.”
Girvan points out that she, the singers, and Donna Wright are in three different generations, and each generation was inspired by the other two.
“It was a mutual and constantly refreshing reminder of how it doesn’t matter who you are, you can inspire somebody else. And it doesn’t matter how broken you feel. What you’re doing in order to address that can be hugely inspirational to somebody else.”
Back to the Stars was sponsored by VIDEA (Victoria International Development Education Association) and was funded by Canada Service Corps.