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Yukon doc tells survival story with universal message

Like a brother or close friend, Werner Walcher wrapped his arms around a member of the Paddlers Abreast team — a group of breast cancer…

Like a brother or close friend, Werner Walcher wrapped his arms around a member of the Paddlers Abreast team — a group of breast cancer survivors who annually race in the Yukon River Quest — as the rest of the team waited at the race’s start line.

After spending two years filming the Paddlers and hearing their survival stories as they trained for the grueling 743-kilometre race, Walcher couldn’t help but grow close to the women.

The intimate interviews in the resulting documentary, River of Life, are a product of that warm relationship.

Walcher, 55, became so emotionally involved in the film that at one point he had difficulty continuing the project.

“But the women kicked in and told me I have to tell their story. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen the film in editing, but it’s emotional every time,” he said, while sitting on the banks of the Yukon River, across the from the boat he used to film the race.

River of Life debuted to a packed house or more than 400 people at the Yukon Arts Centre on Sunday and will show again on Saturday in Dawson City at a post-River Quest screening.

Completed only two weeks before the debut, the film takes a poignant look at a group of women and their families dealing with a disease that affects one in nine women in Canada.

Breast cancer survivors represent one per cent of the Canadian population.

If the reaction from Sunday night’s crowd indicates the success of the film, River of Life will be very successful indeed.

“Right after the credits came up, everyone stood up and was clapping. It was emotional to see the reaction,” said Walcher.

Although the audience clapped for the film, the ovation was also directed at the Paddlers’ team and the feat they accomplished, he added.

“Werner really captured out story, he captured the beauty of the Yukon and the race and why we do the race,” said member Linda Rapp, who went to Sunday’s screening.

“We were blown away. We knew (the film) was good, but it was pretty emotional to watch.”

After spending two years with the Paddlers Abreast team, Walcher learned a few things about how to live.

“Life is very short. Realizing that is pretty scary,” he said.

“We wanted to give hope. When some women are diagnosed they gather all this information from the internet, from the hospital and from bookstores but the only information they want is ‘Am I still alive a year from now with my family?’” said Walcher.

It was that “message of hope” that prompted the Paddlers team to really dive into the project along with Walcher, said Rapp.

“People are telling their own personal stories. The film tells you that, really, it’s different for everybody and not everyone has the same experience,” said Rapp.

“I definitely think people want to hear positive stories and personal stories. They don’t want a write-up in a textbook.

“They don’t want to read the how-to book of self-breast examination but hearing about how different women found lumps makes it very real.”

Rapp, a seven-year veteran of River Quest who started the Paddling Abreasts’ seventh race on Wednesday, said the camera was not intrusive but it was overwhelming at first as the team learned to film themselves and capture more intimate moments in the boat.

“I was taken back a bit thinking I have to do this race, watch the map and worry about changing the batteries,” said Rapp.

“But it didn’t take us very long to realize the filming wasn’t going to be a problem.”

The National Film Board of Canada produced the hour-long documentary.

Behind the scenes, at least for an independent filmmaker, bringing the documentary to the screen can be an more problematic that any technical issues. But the NFB helps independent filmmakers navigate the often complicated and tedious process.

“You spend maybe 90 per cent of your time looking for the funding and meeting broadcasters and everything that has nothing to do with actually making the film,” said Selwyn Jacob, a co-producer of River of Life who works with the film board’s Pacific and Yukon Centre.

“(The NFB) frees the filmmaker to expend his energies on the creative process.”

The film board helps to set up contracts with musicians, makes travel arrangements and sets budgets, leaving the filmmaker to do what filmmakers are supposed to do: make the film.

“If you do everything by yourself, it’s costly and you’re not sure if you can sell it afterwards or if you can even make a film,” said Walcher.

“When the (NFB’s) infrastructure kicks in, you learn so much for your next project, whether it’s with the board or somebody else.”

River of Life has set a model for northern filmmakers and what they can accomplish, said Jacob.

It will also encourage emerging filmmakers in the North, and meet the film board’s expanded mandate to bring more northern voices to screens across the country.

“About five years ago, the Vancouver office was renamed the Pacific and Yukon Centre, (which) gave us the opportunity to interpret the name from a more literal perspective and actively reach out to northern filmmakers,” said Jacob.

Working with the NFB also ensures a film’s longevity, said Walcher.

“When you make a film like we did, it’s really important it doesn’t disappear,” he said.

“It’ll be in the archives, it will be used for education. It will be around 10 years from now.”

Once you’ve worked with the board you’re recognized as a serious filmmaker, said Walcher.

This helps to sell the film in national and international markets — as Walcher discovered at the 2006 Banff Mountain Film Festival.

The universal story of breast cancer survival is also helping to generate interest worldwide. The board is trying to get the film into the Vancouver and Atlantic film festivals, among others.

But right now, it’s the Yukon community that is enjoying the show. Despite seven years of solid community support, Rapp was still surprised by the size of Sunday’s arts centre crowd.

“That was amazing support, again, from our community,” said Rapp.

The community has taken ownership of the film, said Jacob.

“It’s like the film is no longer a National Film Board film. Anytime you make a film and take it back to the community there’s a certain expectation you have for a response. But it went beyond expectations,” said Jacob.

The community support has been overwhelming, said Walcher, adding that shooting all over — in a hospital, in a daycare — wasn’t always easy, but everyone involved was happy to help.

“I don’t know how many communities or bigger towns would do that,” said Walcher.

“It doesn’t matter if you paint or sing or make a film, you get that support. We’re so lucky up here.”