Heather Condo is a filmmaker and editor from the Gesgapegiag community in the Micmac nation, located northeast of Quebec. Her first film, the documentary short My Father’s Tools, had its World Premiere at the 2016 Festival Les Percéides and its International Premiere at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. Produced in collaboration with Wapikoni Mobile, My Father’s Tools observes Condo’s husband, Stephen Jerome, as he crafts a basket in his studio.
Following its acclaimed Sundance premiere, the short was released in cinemas in Quebec, and continues to tour the international festival circuit. Heather Condo spoke with Sean L. Malin about the mediamakers in her home community, directing for the first time, and Jerome’s preference for Black Ash. This interview has been compressed and edited for publication.
Sean Malin: In several previous interviews, independent filmmakers and documentarians have told me that making movies requires asking for the simplest of favors and appealing to old friends. Did you find that, in making this film and getting it seen, you were required to ask many favors?
Heather Condo: Actually, Wapikoni Mobile took care of everything. In fact, sometimes, I didn’t know what was going on. They helped me a great deal.
SM: What is the filmmaking culture like in the Aboriginal community you returned to (from Massachusetts) in 2005? Is there a sense of filmmaking as a career possibility for the young there?
HC: That’s a very good question. My daughter, who is sixteen, wants to be a filmmaker. I’m not sure when it first struck her but she’s always made videos from a young age. [But] there is no film or media education near here; someone would probably have to go to Montreal for that.
SM: In the press materials, people refer to your film as “weaved”: there is an artistic mirror between Stephen’s basket-making and Emmet Walsh’s editorial structure. As a first-time filmmaker, can you explain how that parallel editing style, that “woven” quality, was discovered?
HC: I sat for hours with Emmet to edit this film as it was my first experience with this. I told him what we needed, and we had to cut so much – it is a delicate balance. Emmet is incredible at what he does. We discussed a lot of how we wanted it to look; he explained to me reasons to keep certain parts and why. He has a great eye. It was a very difficult process, but I’m glad I got to experience it.
SM: I’m fascinated by the wood Stephen uses to mold his baskets. It’s beautiful but a simple wood, unadorned, not striped or bronzy like mahogany or a handsome cherry wood. How does he choose the kind of wood to use, and what are the qualities in the lumber that assure the quality of his baskets?
HC: This wood is from the Black Ash tree. It is used for its bendable qualities. He chooses the specific log based on soil, smell, and even the sound of the tree when you bang on it. This is the only type of tree he uses.
SM: When I was a child, I visited an indigenous Pacific Islander community in Hawaii and was gifted a palm leaf basket. I was told to soak it in ocean sand, rub it down with olive oil, and leave it to sit in the sun with the guarantee that it would last “for ten years.” The basket has been in use for nearly twenty, and has become an object of great value and spiritual meaning for me. I am sure Stephen has made you and your family baskets many times – but do you have one particular object that you treasure above all else?
HC: Really, I treasure them all. He recently made me one to put by the kitchen sink for my tea. It is special because it’s the first of it’s kind. He has never made one before. His baskets are very tough and don’t need specific care. They will be around for my grandchildren’s children.
(Photos courtesy of the filmmaker)
SM: To make a short-film requires a lot of touring, a lot of educational screenings, and a lot of festival pairings with other films. How do you feel that pairing My Father’s Tools with Look and See: A Portrait of Wendell Berry affected the audience’s responses to your film at Sundance?
HC: They both had to do with nature and the love for it. Also, carrying on and passing down skills that cannot be taken over by a machine. It was a wonderful pairing. I had no idea who Wendell Berry was and this film opened me up to subjects I previously had no knowledge of. The same could be said of my film. I think audiences really enjoyed my film – we got great responses from people.
SM: As a citizen of the Gesgapegiag community, how has the atmosphere and creative charge in your husband’s studio changed in the time since you shot the film to now?
HC: I don’t believe it has – he will still do what he’s always done, although he is hoping for more recognition for his work.
SM: If you had to make a list of supplementary texts to help someone engage with My Father’s Tool – especially someone with no familiarity of Quebec’s First Nation peoples or the Micmac language – what books, essays, films, or podcasts would make that list?
SM: As we speak, there is a mass of hate being lobbed online towards any public figure who tries to speak up in favor of their social or political respect for indigenous communities around the world. In some ways, that silence is the subject of your film, which is itself without dialogue or music. Do you feel any sense of public responsibility as a storyteller/entertainer at this time, when free speech is legitimately threatened (esp. in Western society?)
HC: No, I didn’t pay any attention to what other people were doing in the world or what was being said about anything. I have been wanting to make this film for over a decade and always thought of how it could be shot. It was for my community, and for my grandchildren to see one day. I didn’t think it would travel so far and affect so many. I am forever grateful for this experience.