My Road to Conservation Filmmaking
I still remember the night it all changed. It was the early hours of a frozen winter morning in 2015. My cousin and I had set about resolving the world’s problems in one night over some drinks and as we sipped our last, a conclusion dawned on my lips that made my heart sink.
“It doesn’t matter what we do, does it? We could vote with every penny, pinch every drop of water, and fight our entire lives. But it’s too late. The world is dying and we’re powerless to stop it.” I said.
If my cousin responded I do not remember. A haze set in over my mind with this new clarity. All I remember is driving the long and lonely road home to bed. Waking up sometime that late afternoon as the sun was beginning its descent through the shades of my window, I decided that enough was enough. I would no longer dedicate my energy to problems no one else seemed to care about. I was going to live my remaining days on a dying planet doing what I wanted.
And so I did.
I left my job working for an organic food company behind and started my own business as a marketing consultant. I taught myself graphic and web design. I learnt guitar. I helped kickstart an open mic. I built an app. Most importantly, I bought myself a smartphone gimbal and started creating music videos for my friends. Filmmaking was a passion I never thought I could pursue. I had always wanted to since I was a kid watching movies with my folks and 2 sisters every single Friday Night, curled up in blanket forts.. I still remember watching Braveheart between the gaps of my Dad’s fingers. Lo-fi widescreen.
As I fumbled through those first few music videos with the vague lessons I learnt back in high school media class, I felt something I hadn’t for a long time. Flow. Time disappeared. Worry disintegrated. I felt like a kid again and I was hooked.
My skills steadily improved and eventually I was given an opportunity to take on marketing for Ness Core Ventures, the company that manages the land where the infamous Ness Creek Music Festival takes place. I began making short videos for not just Ness Creek but all the festivals that take place under the canopy of trees, stars and northern lights that is this neck of Saskatchewan’s Boreal Forest. Not long into this contract I was given an opportunity of a lifetime.
Saskatchewan Tourism funding was up for grabs so, I pitched something big. The first feature length documentary about an entire summer at Ness Creek. Recently acquainted with my inner child, the three weeks it took to receive their response might as well have felt like an eternity.
Then it came. Yes.
I swapped my iPhone for a Sony A6500, upgraded my gimbal and shot everything. Literally. Country twang, traditional fiddles, blacksmiths and painters, bears, the beat den bass and spin jockeys, the greatest cover of Sinnerman I have ever witnessed, the towering cathedral of trees, forest gardening, and of course the convergence of the Ness Creek community in the third weekend of July. By all accounts it was one of the greatest years of all time and I was lucky enough to be smack in the middle of the vortex as they call it, with my camera on. By Autumn’s slow release, I had accumulated over 300 hours of footage. It took countless more editing it down to 75 minutes on a laptop, in the boreal forest with one bar of cell service. In March of 2019, I premiered my first feature length documentary, Essence to a sold out Roxy Theatre in Saskatoon. My dream of becoming a filmmaker was now a reality. The only problem? We were informed that the forests surrounding Ness Creek had been placed on the chopping block by the forestry industry.
My heart sank again.
I had finally found a place and a community where I felt like I belonged. It wasn’t perfect, but it was trying to be better and now all of that was to be ripped out and sold away as two by fours and toilet paper. This anything but ordinary place that for so many people is their only authentic experience in the wild. This sense of community that I had been craving my whole life. 3 decades of work by countless friends and families to be clear cut alongside the trees by a feller-buncher in a matter of weeks. We come into this world expecting the voices of a village and the light of a campfire. Some never find it. For those of us lucky enough to have, like those who have found the Ness Creek community, we know in the fibers of our soul that it is something worth fighting for.
I knew what needed to be done. Thankfully, so did Gord Vaadeland and the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society team, veterans in Canada’s conservation landscape and longtime members of the Ness Creek community. With the backdrop of Covid-19, we set about creating a short film docuseries about their conservation initiatives throughout the Boreal Forest. Here I was fulfilling another lifelong dream, one that I had forsaken just 4 years prior. Contributing to protecting the planet for future generations. Using film to tell the stories of the wild and its endangered species, that would hopefully inspire more people to stand up.
I was whisked into the pure Saskatchewan River Delta air, flown to the lands of the Caribou and Denesuline and set face to face with one of the world’s last free ranging Plains Bison herds and their Indigenous brothers and sisters. Another opportunity of a lifetime. I savored each moment. One thought haunted me however. Would anybody watch? I thought back to that fateful morning 5 years ago and that cold realization often. I knew in my heart though that this was what I was meant to do. That I had to at least try.
Episode 1, the boreal forest paradise founded by tree planters aired in late January. 128,000 views on Facebook. Episode 2, the most important conservation project in the country, The Saskatchewan River Delta aired a few days later. 260,000 views.
The reception of the first two episodes has blown me away and elevated my heart. It has proven to me what I have always known behind the anguish and sorrow I feel for our planet, the disappearing species, and our fading communities. The feeling that there is hope. That people do care. That every ounce of my energy spent in these endeavors is contributing to positive change.
In following my dreams, I have been able to make a difference and join countless amazing people who are working tirelessly to save our ecosystems and communities. I could sit here and tell you that it was hard work that got me here, that I was in the right place at the right time and put my entire soul into it. But even that is only half of it. Privilege is the other half. Indigenous People have been fighting for centuries to prevent the collapse of the environment and their ways of life. Often on deaf ears. I often questioned, why should I be the one to tell these stories. In truth, I shouldn’t even be holding the camera. Indigenous People have been sharing their experience for so long, it is up to the rest of us to start listening. Steadily, their voices are being amplified though and I am listening. For me, this series is as much a road of reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples as it is with reconciling the devastation modern society (to which I am a contributing member) has done to our planet.
The past 5 years has been one of intense valleys of despair and unbelievable peaks of bewilderment. I met the love of my life, became a father and reached my dream of becoming a conservation filmmaker. The most resounding thing I’ve learnt on this journey? The things that I consume and produce are Nature. The road I travel and the means by which I travel it are Nature. The house that my family and I live in is Nature. Everything I create is Nature. I… am Nature. You are nature too. The illusion that we are anything but is the single greatest threat to our planet. Until we realize that every towering tree, soaring bird and blade of grass is our brother and our sister, we will never stand up to protect Nature as passionately as we all must if we are to avoid the catastrophe that is unfolding right in front of our eyes.
We are nature and every step we take in protecting this planet, no matter how seemingly small, is worth it. It took me awhile, but I am back on the path.
I’ll see you out there, in the wild.
Nathaniel Puffalt was born and raised under the endless prairie skies. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in Business from James Cook University, Australia and is a self taught conservation filmmaker. Nathaniel has been running Prairie Rising Productions since 2016, a marketing and content creation consultancy dedicated to elevating the awe inspiring stories of the Prairies. He is based out of Blaine Lake Saskatchewan where he and his partner Kjelti raise their son Era under the endless skies of the plains.