79-year-old Louis Diabo battles against the construction of Canada’s St. Lawrence Seaway during the 1950s to save his farm and the Kahnawake Mohawk community. Flat Rocks weaves together breathtaking present-day footage of Kahnawake with archival photos dating back over 80 years revealing the community’s way of life threatened by the Seaway. A poetic narration in the Mohawk language voices the community’s connection to the water.
Interview with Writer/Director/Co-Producer Courtney Montour
Main image: A ship passes through the Kahnawake community on the St. Lawrence Seaway.
Congratulations! Why did you make your film?
Nia:wen! We were fortunate to receive funding and mentorship through Canada’s National Screen Institute NSI IndigiDocs Program. Producer Roxann Whitebean and I are both Mohawk from Kahnawake (an Indigenous community outside of Montreal, Quebec in Canada) and we wanted to share the story of how Canada’s St. Lawrence Seaway impacted our community.
I’ll give you a little back story: the Seaway is a massive water passageway for large ships carrying cargo that stretches from the Great Lakes region to the Atlantic Ocean. It was built in the 1950s as a joint venture with the US and was billed as a modern marvel to boost commerce. Flat Rocks is a story about the cost of progress. The construction of the Seaway was and continues to be a traumatic event for Kahnawake that altered our connection to land, environment and ultimately our way of life.
The challenge was finding a way to tell such a complex story in a short film (10 mins). I decided to focus on the experience of Louis Diabo, a 79-year-old farmer from Kahnawake in the 1950s, who made international headlines for refusing to move from his farm to make way for the Seaway. It really was a David vs Goliath kind of story with Louis standing up to the Canadian Government. In Flat Rocks, Louis’ battle is recounted by his grandchildren and a community member. It was also very important to me to include the Kanien'keha (Mohawk) language in the film as a poetic narration voicing the community’s connection to the water. Many Indigenous languages are endangered but we’re fortunate to have revitalization initiatives in our community. The Mohawk language in the film is symbolic of Kahnawake’s resiliency.
Imagine I’m a member of the audience. Why should I watch this film?
Even though Flat Rocks traces a story from the 1950s, it remains relevant today. There are so many instances of expropriation of Indigenous lands for fracking, mining, etc. Standing Rock and the Dakota Access Pipeline is just one example that received lots of media attention. After all these years has anything changed? We’re all impacted by these environmental changes and Flat Rocks adds to this dialogue.
How do personal and universal themes work in your film?
Being Indigenous completely informs my filmmaking practice (from the way I tell a story to relationship building and community building). I don’t think it’s possible to separate my identity from my work.
What type of feedback have you received so far?
The feedback has been overwhelming positive. We have screened the film at three festivals to-date, as well as had some educational screenings in universities and high schools. The most poignant moment for me was screening Flat Rocks in our own community (Kahnawake). It was an emotional and celebratory event for everyone. People (re)connected with life before the Seaway. It is a part of our history, and Canadian history, that is rarely discussed outside of the Kahnawake community. This film is just one way to ensure this piece of history is not forgotten by future generations.
Has the feedback surprised or challenged your point of view?
In screenings in Montreal and Toronto, some audience members vocalized their own surprise that they were not aware of the negative impact of the St. Lawrence Seaway on Kahnawake. And they shared disappointment that they never learned anything about it in school. Strides are being made to incorporate Indigenous knowledge and history into the educational system but there is still much room for improvement. I really appreciate these reflections and acknowledgements from the audience. It is also why I love film so much. It connects people and has the power to bring an issue to a wider audience and contribute to discussions and change.
What are you looking to achieve by having your film more visible on www.wearemovingstories.com?
To help raise awareness and understanding of some of the past and current realities of Indigenous peoples, and to let people know that there are many amazing films out there by Indigenous filmmakers. It really is an exciting time for Indigenous storytelling to flourish.
Who do you need to come on board (producers, sales agents, buyers, distributors, film festival directors, journalists) to amplify this film’s message?
Each has unique skills and ideas to shine a light on underrepresented voices in film, including Indigenous filmmakers. The most important thing for me is collaboration.
What’s a key question that will help spark a debate or begin a conversation about this film?
Something along the lines of “What is the cost of progress?” and also to think about your own connection to land, place, environment – what would you do if it drastically changed and you had no voice in the decision-making process?
What other projects are the key creatives developing or working on now?
I am currently in development on my next documentary with the National Film Board of Canada (producer: Kat Baulu). Mary traces the story of Mohawk elder Mary Two-Axe Earley (1911-1996) and the Indian Rights for Indian Women movement which led the fight against the gender discrimination for Indigenous women who “lost” Status under Canada’s Indian Act. Mary's work led to the passing of Bill C-31 in 1985, and thousands of Indigenous women and their children regained their rights and status.
Her political activism awakened Canadians to the injustices faced by Indigenous women and mobilized them to challenge Canadian laws. She earned the respect and support of prominent leaders and key influencers, including Senator Thérèse Casgrain and Premier René Lévesque. I am currently seeking photos, video, testimonials and personal artefacts related to Mary Two-Axe Earley. If you have something you would like to share, please contact me: firstname.lastname@example.org
Roxann Whitebean is currently working on an Indigenous language documentary with the NSI and is in pre-production on a drama called The Warden (funded through Telefilm Canada). She is also shooting a short doc for Cinema Politica called Enhior'hén:ne (Tomorrow).
Interview: February 2018
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79-year-old Louis Diabo battles against the construction of Canada’s St. Lawrence Seaway during the 1950s to save his farm and the Kahnawake Mohawk community.
Flat Rocks weaves together breathtaking present-day footage of Kahnawake with archival photos dating back over 80 years revealing the community’s way of life threatened by the Seaway. A poetic narration in the Mohawk language voices the community’s connection to the water.
Length: 10 mins
Director: Courtney Montour
Producer: Roxann Whitebean & Courtney Montour
Writer: Courtney Montour & Roxann Whitebean
About the writer, director and producer:
Courtney Montour is a Mohawk filmmaker from Kahnawake (Canada) whose work explores issues of Indigenous identity. Her first feature documentary Sex Spirit Strength (2015) premiered on APTN in Canada and won Best of Festival and the Emerging Filmmaker award at the 2016 Yorkton Film Festival.
Roxann Whitebean is from the Mohawk Territory of Kahnawà:ke. She made her directorial debut in 2014 with financial assistance from the Canada Council for the Arts to produce Legend of the Storm. In 2016, she opened a production company called Whitebean Media Arts, which has been producing work for CBC’s digital platform: Thunder Blanket, Karihwanoron: Precious Things and Little Hard Knox, available to stream online.
Looking for (producers, sales agents, buyers, distributors, film festival directors, journalists):
sales agents, buyers, distributors, film festival directors, journalists
Social media handles:
Roxann Whitebean Films: www.facebook.com/roxannwhitebeanfilms
Funders: National Screen Institute (NSI) IndigiDocs
Made in association with:
Where can I watch it next and in the coming month?
Big Sky Documentary Film Festival 2018 (Missoula, Montana) screening Feb 19 & 20; Maoriland Film Festival March 21-25, 2018 (Otaki, New Zealand)
In Fall 2018, Flat Rocks will air on APTN in Canada as part of a 1-hr compilation of NSI IndigiDocs shorts. It will also be made available to stream on the National Film Board of Canada website.