It was in 2013 commercial salmon fisher and artist David Curtis began work on a documentary about off-the-grid farming in his community of Dawson with Whitehorse filmmaker Andrew Conners.
It’s a production that was “always intended to pose more questions than answers” and it’s Curtis’ hope it will encourage viewers to look at their own connection with the land and think about their own role in the ecosystem.
On June 12, the National Film Board (NFB) of Canada announced a countrywide virtual release of Curtis’ film Sovereign Soil. It’s available through the Yukon Film Society’s website until July 10.
It marks Curtis’ first feature documentary, with Curtis also planning for future projects focused on the relationship between people and the land in Dawson.
In a June 15 interview, Curtis said as a commercial salmon fisher he takes joy in providing local food to the community and he’s long been interested in the motivation for local farmers to live off the land as they do.
Growing up in the Prairies, Curtis worked on a number of farms and came to know the effort and lifestyle that goes into farming and local food production. It’s not something anyone goes into for the money, he said.
“It just brought that back home to me,” he said of his experience making the film.
As the NFB described in a statement: “Sovereign Soil explores the myth of the rugged individual living ‘off the land’ through the lens of contemporary people who are actually doing it.
“In the process we discover that there is much to be learned from these people and their way of life, especially the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in First Nation, who have lived contentedly in this challenging environment for thousands of years.”
Curtis said it was important to have the TH Farm featured in the film given its significant role in local food production. The farm is about 14 kilometres southeast of Dawson. The farm was established by the First Nation in 2014 to create a sustainable, local food supply and in the past has also served as an on-site farm school for Yukon College (now Yukon University.)
Along with the First Nation farm, the film showcases a family of farmers who also home schools their children, a third-generation German horticulturist and others with a love for living and producing food on the land.
Having lived in the Klondike for more than two decades, Curtis said there weren’t a lot of surprises that came in making the film as he already knows many of those featured in the film, but it emphasized for him again the passion farmers have for food production on the land.
Throughout the production, Curtis helped out with some of the work (picking potatoes, for example) on the farms of those he was working with.
Since the NFB has made it available online on June 12, Curtis said he’s been getting email from viewers across the country interested in northern agriculture.
He noted the film seems to be reaching a wider audience with the virtual release of the film that came in light of COVID-19 than it may have otherwise.
While the global pandemic has halted any planned screenings of Sovereign Soil at film festivals for the time being, Curtis said there are plans in the works to have it broadcast on Northwestel Community Cable 9.
Early discussions are also underway on a potential broadcast on a PBS affiliate in Alaska.
Sovereign Soil had been scheduled to open the Dawson City International Short Film Festival that has now been postponed until Oct. 8 to 11 due to COVID-19. Curtis said he’s hoping the film will be screened at the rescheduled festival.
He’s also continuing to keep an eye on the status of other film festivals and the possibility of screenings when those events begin happening again.
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