Hot Docs 2015: Survivor’s Rowe Interview

At only 21 years of age, documentary filmmaker Daniel Roher has shot films in Georgia, Israel, Africa, Nunavut and most recently in Anishinaabe native reserves in Northern Ontario. Survivor’s Rowe gives a voice to the victims of Ralph Rowe, an Anglican minister who sexually abused hundreds of young boys on native reserves in the 70s and 80s. The short film mixes testimonials with animation and 8mm footage to make something that is artistic, emotional, and carries an important political message.

Survivor’s Rowe had its premier at Hot Docs in Roher’s hometown of Toronto. We sat down with the incredibly articulate filmmaker to talk about the inception of this film and why it’s important that people know about these crimes that carried minimal punishment for Rowe. While most 21 year olds still collect comics and Blu rays, we think you’ll be surprised and impressed by what’s on Roher’s Dork Shelf… did we mention he’s only 21?

Dork Shelf: How did you discover this story? 

Daniel Roher: I did a film in 2014 in Resolute Bay, Nunavut which is a small Inuit hamlet about 1,000 miles North of the Arctic Circle. When I came back to Toronto I showed the film to my member of parliament, who is the liberal critic for aboriginal affairs Northern development, an incredibly hard working M.P. named Dr. Carolyn Bennett. She enjoyed the film and she said I really want you to meet my husband, his name is Peter O’Brian and he’s a filmmaker, I knew the name because Peter is a legend of the Canadian film game, he’s done some of the greatest Canadian films ever made. I went and met with Peter and he told me this story about the most prolific sex offender in Canadian history who was an Anglican minister and a boyscout leader who abused about 500 first nation boys in the isolated reserves of Ontario. He said he wanted to do a documentary about it. Nobody knew about this guy, it was a great injustice that nobody knew. The criminal who committed these crimes, Ralph Rowe, only spent five years in prison which in itself is horrible. He said he wanted to do a documentary about it, I said to Peter we can’t do a film about it, it’s too sad, no one will watch it. Eventually in incubated in my mind and I realized that if he and I didn’t go do this it would never get done and it was something that was unequivocally right, it was just a just thing to do.

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DS: Can you tell us a little about the mixed media approach you took to the film? 

DR: One of the great challenges when telling a story like this is most of the film takes place in the past. These guys are telling stories of their childhood and something that was a great challenge to me is that there were very few photographs and certainly no home movies available. Of course I’m working in a visual medium and I want to take a cinematic approach, and one of my favourite elements in documentary that I try to utilize in my work is archival. Home movies have this filmic quality that I just think is stunning. This antiquated beauty that I love as an aesthetic in my own work. But that didn’t exist for this, so what I did was I bought a Super 8 camera and I flew up Fort Williams First Nations outside of Thunder Bay and I hired a couple actors and literally filmed my own home movies about the kids, illustrating their life in their younger years to supplement the narrative. 

In addition to that I also create my own animated sequences. I do all the animation and it’s totally painstaking and I hate it so much but I really love it at the same time. I only recently learned how to animate on computers so all the animations in Survivor’s Rowe I painted with acrylic paint on a drawing board, and there’s 500 paintings that are these animations. It is brutally time consuming but it’s so rewarding and satisfying to put it on the computer and watch it move and come to life. I really don’t know how to animate but I know how to paint and draw a little bit, so what I do is I film scenes with actors and I print them out, in still frames, and I put them on a drawing board and I just recreate all 500 of them. It sucks but it’s neat. 

My mind is in the analogue I guess. I really like physical things so I much prefer drawing on paper than working in flash or whatever. What I recently discovered and started doing is using a tablet to draw on the computer which speeds things up a whole lot, it still has the aesthetic that look for, but it’s not the same. 

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DS: Other than the participants you filmed, did the communities you went into support what you were doing for the most part? 

DR: It’s really tough to articulate and understand how many individuals were affected and victimized by Ralph Rowe. In the reserves I’d be in town and I’d be hanging around filming or having lunch in one of the community centres, and someone would come up to me and be like what’s this white kid doing here? I’d explain that I’m making a documentary, they’d ask me what it was about and I’d say it’s about Ralph Rowe. I could see that this individual I was talking to was in the demographic, about 40 to 50, and I’d see their face turn white and they’d lean in and they’d say ‘I was a Ralph Rowe kid. He affected me as well.’ There were a bunch of guys who were real supporters of what I was doing but just couldn’t put it on camera. This type of sexual abuse, there’s such a strong stigma attached to it and subsequently people don’t talk about it, and that’s magnified in these isolated communities in Norther Ontario that are still devoutly Anglican and very religious communities. There are a lot of people who deny that Ralph Rowe, this criminal, did anything wrong. They think it’s a mass conspiracy, and that is horrible. That’s a great injustice. There were a lot of individuals who did not want to appear on camera because it’s a very scary thing to do but they definitely supported what I was doing and feel that it’s an important initiative to get those stories out there. 

DS: Did you interview anyone who wasn’t included in the final film? 

DR: I filmed with a few other gentlemen. I had a rough cut with an individual who asked that I take him out of the film because he couldn’t cope with it. We tried to convince him but he just wasn’t having it, I can’t have him tossing and turning in his sleep so we just took it out. It’s one of those things when a door closes a window open and new opportunities presented themselves and we were able to get the film made. It was quite challenging. Also, I wanted to find individuals who had a unique articulation, who could really embody the collective experiences, and through their story almost tell all the stories. 

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DS: Did you give the interviewees final say on what was included in the finished product? 

DR: No, they didn’t have final say. The nature of the documentary and I think any film is that you have to have trust and these guys trusted me. The case I cited where this individual asked me to take him out of the film, I didn’t have to. He signed his release form. He was gung ho when I was there filming, but at the end of the day this is a human being’s life, if he’s not comfortable with it then I will respect that. There were comments that the other guys in the film had that, that I didn’t focus on this or I should have done that, but the nature of the medium, if you shoot a two hour interview for a thirty minute film, things are going to end up on the editing room floor. Mostly the guys are really thrilled with the result, even though it’s an emotional experience I think they’re quite pleased with it. 

DS: How did you arrive at the estimate of 500 victims? 

DR: The Nishnawbe Aski Nation, which is the political organization that runs most of the first nations throughout Northwestern Ontario has heath workers and community workers, and that number of 500 was given to us by deputy grand chief Alvin Fiddler. The health workers who take surveys, keep tallies and notes of that that list would be, that’s where the figure comes from, the health workers on the ground. But the reality of the situation is we’ll never know how many people were affected. It’s impossible to tell. That’s just a reality of the fact that a lot of people didn’t make it. A lot of these guys succumb to substance abuse and suicide and many more live with an incredible shame that is just horrible.  So I would say that’s a conservative estimate. 

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DS: Or some who may have just blocked it from their memories…

DR: I shot one interview, and the guy claimed he was a Ralph Rowe victim, but we sat down and he was like ‘I don’t remember… I have dreams about it’, and it ended up being the opening sequence of the documentary. This guy who, he couldn’t visualize it, but he would just have these dreams later in his life about this guy coming in and victimizing him. He didn’t know where it was coming from, it was only when he shared his experience with others that 

DS: Why is it important that people see this film? 

DR: I think that it’s really important that the greater community, the country, knows about what happened. Ultimately something that I think everyone should ask themselves, what would have happened if this guy committed his crimes in the south, to white kids in Toronto? What I would assert is that the complexion of his sentencing and of the media coverage would be totally different. This guy only got five years because he abused native kids who were out of sight and out of mind. This is something that as a country we have to reconcile. It’s a total injustice, it’s wrong and it’s up to young people, our generation, to reconcile indigenous and non-indigenous Canada. We have no choice, we have to figure it out.

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DS: Did you ever try to contact Rowe? 

DR: I made every attempt to contact Ralph Rowe. I reached out every avenue I could think of, we contacted his lawyer. I believe Ralph Rowe knows we’re doing the documentary, he definitely didn’t want to participate in the documentary. I didn’t want it to be about him, I wanted it to be about what he did, whose lives he destroyed and how those lives were able to be reclaimed and reconciled. It was focusing on the victims and the survivors, as the title indicates. 

DS: What on your Dork Shelf? 

DR: Every time I go make a film, I always bring back a souvenir. I have a piece of shrapnel that was launched at Israel by Hamas that I got in a little town in southern Israel called Sderot, it sits on my Dork Shelf. I have a pair of Inuit mitts that were given to me when I was in Resolute Bay making a film. Then I made a film in Uganda about a blind boxer and he gave me his sweater so I have Bashir’s sweater. Then when I was up north shooting this film I got a beautiful Anishnawbe beaver hat that’s on my Dork Shelf. When I was doing research for my new film about Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, I found a really unique rare shot of Mackenzie King in a canoe which I absolutely adore. That’s my Dork Shelf. 

Survivors Rowe Trailer from Loud Roar Productions on Vimeo.

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