TIFF featuring Autumn Peltier documentary

Water advocate Autumn Peltier is the focus of the short documentary ‘The Water Walker.’

TORONTO – Wiikwemkoong water walker Autumn Peltier is hitting the virtual silver screen on September 14 at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) in ‘The Water Walker,’ a short documentary film about her advocacy work for safe, clean drinking water in Canada and across the world.

“It’s almost a bit of an overwhelming feeling,” Autumn told The Expositor, adding that she will be taking part in a virtual question-and-answer session after the free 6 pm screening at TIFF.net.

“I believe this TIFF launch is going to be huge for Autumn and her story, and for Indigenous people and our quest to let people know what’s going on with the water. We want the world to understand this,” said Stevie Salas, one of the film’s writers, producers and executive producers, whose southern Ontario-based production company, Seeing Red Six Nations, took on the documentary.

The company intended to launch the film next year when they received the surprise announcement that it would appear virtually at TIFF.

“It’s probably among the three most important film festivals in the world so this is just a dream come true for us, especially with our new, young Indigenous film company,” Mr. Salas said.

‘The Water Walker’ features 15-year-old Autumn as she travels to New York City to speak at the United Nations about the importance of safe water supplies for all peoples of the world, especially in many Indigenous communities in Canada that are under long-term drinking water advisories.

Water issues impact Autumn closely. Her great aunt Josephine Mandamin started the water walker movement and there are water advisories in communities near where she grew up.

“Even the fact that there’s a First Nation community on (Manitoulin) Island that can’t drink their water is shocking for me. I hope with this documentary, more people become aware, something’s done about the issues and the numbers go down,” said Autumn, referring to two water systems in Zhiibaahaasing First Nation that have been under a boil water advisory since June 11 of this year.

The 13-minute film, directed by James Burns, has been in production for less than a year and the finishing touches were still underway at the beginning of September.

“I’m hoping for it to be an eye-opener for people that don’t really realize the issues that First Nations people are going through in Canada. I know a lot of people that weren’t aware at all that there are Northern First Nation communities that have no access to clean water,” Autumn said.

It is an almost entirely Indigenous-led project, said Mr. Salas, except for a few industry experts to fine-tune the production. He said collaborations between Indigenous people and film professionals would benefit both sides.

Mr. Salas’ background is in music; he has performed with a number of major acts throughout his career as a guitarist but has shifted toward film and television production recently, including work for Aboriginal Peoples Television Network.

He and creative partner Tehah^tiyaks created Seeing Red Six Nations to allow more Indigenous people to tell their stories. ‘The Water Walker’ is the company’s first film.

In 2017, Mr. Salas produced the critically acclaimed ‘Rumble,’ a feature-length documentary about how Indigenous peoples have influenced major rock musicians.

Autumn and her mother Stephanie Peltier were fans of ‘Rumble’ and they formed a bond with Mr. Salas when he aided them during a trip to Toronto.

“(Making the film) was a nice experience because I always get asked to do stuff like this, but something really stood out about this team. The story behind why they were doing this stood out as well and it was a big honour to work with people like Stevie Salas,” said Autumn.

He had done water work in disadvantaged international communities but was not aware of the clean water challenges within North America. He learned about Autumn and vowed to make a film about her to both inform people of her work and to tell an inspiring story about rising to one’s potential.

In addition to Autumn, ‘The Water Walker’ features poetry and animated artwork from Métis artist Christi Belcourt (of Espanola) and narration by Oneida actor Graham Greene.

Film festivals have shown transformative potential to Mr. Salas in his past projects. 

“It’s the people that don’t care about these issues or who would care but they’ve only ever seen stereotypes—those are the ones you want to win over and to do that, we want to do it in a different way,” said Mr. Salas, explaining that by focusing on the impacts of Indigenous people, it is much easier to get the public to buy into the cause rather than through a victim narrative.

Mr. Salas said he was expecting take a loss on the project but he was prepared for that outcome.

“This film is so important that it’s money well spent to bring awareness. There’s things we want to do with our film company that’s not about money. We want to give people careers, spread awareness and tell stories in a way that’s not filled with anger and hate. Autumn’s is not an angry story, it’s a magical story,” he said.

Autumn encouraged people to protect the planet because its health impacts all people.

“Keep supporting the water, the environment and empowering youth from the Island to speak up,” she said.

Mr. Salas also encouraged Canadians to rally behind Autumn’s message, especially young people.

“It’s not like she’s living a glamorous life … she’s doing hard, hard work and it isn’t easy. She doesn’t get to just be a little girl enjoying her life; she’s got a huge weight on her shoulders,” said Mr. Salas.

To read about the film and get a free ticket to the virtual screening, visit tiff.net/events/the-water-walker.