People & Culture

 Behind the scenes of the award-winning documentary Keepers of the Land

Filmmakers Doug Neasloss and Deirdre Leowinata explore how this captivating film came to be, the significance of bears in Indigenous communities and cultures and the importance of storytelling

  • Published Mar 22, 2024
  • Updated Mar 27
  • 1,832 words
  • 8 minutes
A spirit bear glances at the camera after visiting a river to check for salmon in Kitasoo Xai’xais territory. (Photo: Moonfish Media/Kitasoo Xai’xais Stewardship Authority)
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There’s a reason why people refer to British Columbia’s remote coastline as “Canada’s Galapagos.”

A global treasure, this region covers 6.4 million hectares (about the size of Ireland) and is rich with diverse wildlife and breathtaking ocean vistas and landscapes. Commonly referred to as The Great Bear Rainforest, a trip to this part of Canada will leave you gobsmacked. I certainly was when I visited Spirit Bear Lodge, located in Klemtu on the province’s central coast and owned by the Kitasoo Xai’xais First Nation.

However, it’s difficult to visit a place as ecologically vibrant as this without wondering what is being done to protect it. 

Enter Keepers of the Land, a powerful, award-winning documentary showcasing the Kitasoo Xai’xais First Nation and the community’s impressive efforts to steward their territories for future generations.

In an exclusive interview with Canadian Geographic, executive producer/director Doug Neasloss (also elected chief of the nation) and co-director/cinematographer Deirdre Leowinata (an Indigenous ally) sat down to describe how Keepers of the Land was born and why it’s high time for the small community of 350 people to share their hopeful story with the world.

Filmmaker Doug Neasloss is the elected chief of the Kitasoo Xai’xais Nation. Neasloss, whose Xai’xais name is Muq’vas Glaw, which means "White Bear", is the visionary behind Keepers of the Land. (Photo: Moonfish Media/Kitasoo Xai’xais Stewardship Authority)
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Filmmaker Deirdre Leowinata, with her background in ecology and visual communication, is committed to evocative, evidence-based storytelling. She and her partner Tavish Campbell run Moonfish Media, with a focus on the world of environmental justice. (Photo: Moonfish Media)
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On joining forces to make the film

Leowinata: In 2020, Doug Neasloss messaged me saying he was looking for a filmmaker. I asked him if my partner Tavish Campbell and I could help out. Tavish has a lifetime of experience on the coast as a mariner and a photographer. I come from a science background and have a technical foundation in film. We’re both focused on the world of environmental justice and together, we run Moonfish Media. Doug agreed to trust us with this story, and work on the film started early 2021.

Neasloss: I’d been thinking about this film for a long, long time. Deirdre and Tavish are both divers and have their own boat. They both have good hearts and believe in what the Kitasoo Xai’xais are trying to do with respect to conservation, sustainability and stewardship in our territories, which include about 55,000 square kilometres of land and water. I liked the fact that they were this young couple, hungry for the work and with the ability to understand us and convey our story in a film. They had all the right qualities.

The waters of Gitdisdzu Lugyeks (Kitasu Bay) swirl with a milky blue colour during the herring spawn. In 2022, the Kitasoo Xai’xais Nation declared the bay a marine protected area. (Photo: Moonfish Media/Kitasoo Xai’xais Stewardship Authority)
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A school of herring swim through verdant meadows of bladderwrack and sea lettuce during the spring herring spawn in Kitasoo Xai’xais territory. (Photo: Moonfish Media/Kitasoo Xai’xais Stewardship Authority)
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On shaping Keepers of the Land

Neasloss: I was hoping for three things for this film. Our community has always taken an aggressive approach to stewardship and to indigenizing what are essentially archaic provincial and federal government policies. But I don’t think we’ve done a good job promoting our work. I wanted to highlight what our little community has done. We punch way above our weight. I also wanted to highlight the underwater world. The marine environment, which we’ve taken measures to protect, is very important to us. We’re an ocean people. We depend on the ocean for food and transportation. Finally, I wanted a film that highlighted the elders talking about our stewardship responsibilities, something future generations would be able to watch. Now, here they are, captured forever.

Leowinata: Making the film took two years, a year to shoot and a year to edit. Our job was to facilitate Doug’s vision and the vision his community has for itself. Tavish and I basically took this project on as a two-person team, shooting the whole thing — except for some amazing drone footage taken by Vernon Brown, who is lined up to be an incoming hereditary chief. We spent months in the village talking to people, [creating] relationships and trust building and getting an idea of who the key characters in this story should be. It became very clear that the main character had to be Charlie Mason, a hereditary chief of the Kitasoo Xai’xais First Nation, because of his strong stewardship-based vision for his community.

Vernon Brown is a field technician for the Kitasoo Xai’xais Stewardship Authority. The 37-year-old is preparing to receive a Kitasoo hereditary chief name, Dzagmsaigisk, meaning "to pull towards the shore." (Photo: Moonfish Media/Kitasoo Xai’xais Stewardship Authority)
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Hereditary chief Ernest “Charlie” Mason Jr. pilots his herring skiff during the harvest. One of Chief Mason’s hereditary chief names is Nismuutk, meaning “a person who helps, a person who gives.” (Photo: Moonfish Media/Kitasoo Xai’xais Stewardship Authority)
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On the importance of the film

Leowinata: This film is about a nation on the remote central coast of B.C. coming into its power and taking control of its resources after 150 years of oppression and trauma. They’re doing great work, but, as Doug says, their story needs to get out there. Indigenous people in B.C. are leading the way, and when it comes to Indigenous stewardship, Klemtu is one of those leaders. The conservation policy that they are driving offers solutions that are missing in the conservation world. These are solutions that I want to help uplift.

Neasloss: I hope that seeing Keepers of the Land inspires other Indigenous communities around the world. Maybe we can help them, or maybe they can help us. We push the limits of where we want to go. For example, bears are critical to our community and our culture. They’re part of our clan systems, our songs, our dances and our stories. Over the years, to see the B.C. government issue trophy-hunting permits to strangers to come in and shoot these animals for sport was a violation of our culture. We banned all trophy hunting in our territories, not asking anyone for permission. Today, I’m proud to say that not only are spirit bears protected in our territories (they’re the most rare bear in the world), but so are grizzlies and so are black bears, which can carry the recessive gene that results in the birth of a spirit bear.

A mother grizzly bear holds a chum salmon in a river in Kitasoo Xai’xais territory. The fall salmon run is the last chance for bears to get food before winter hibernation. (Photo: Moonfish Media/Kitasoo Xai’xais Stewardship Authority)
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On challenges faced during filming  

Leowinata: As cinematographers, we really wanted to blur the boundaries between the human and non-human worlds, creating a holistic image of what the territories look like. Because Kitasoo Xai’xais stories are about their ecosystems, it was important to show the wildlife that live in these incredible territories but balanced with the human component. This required making tough decisions about the length of wildlife sequences that we were attached to. As natural history cinematographers, some of these choices were painful but important to make.

Neasloss: We had to fundraise about $200,000 to produce the film, which was a challenge. It also took time and commitment to build trust and relationships in the community in order for our stories to come forward. And we had to be sensitive to the fact that we were still facing a world pandemic during film production. Remember, this is a sensitive issue for us because our populations — which were previously in the thousands — were decimated in the late 1800s by flu and smallpox pandemics.

On June 22, 2022, Kitasoo Xai’xais hereditary chiefs and band council declared the creation of the Gitdisdzu Lugyeks Marine Protected Area, covering 33.5 square kilometres of coastal waters. (Photo: Moonfish Media/Kitasoo Xai’xais Stewardship Authority)
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On film production highlights 

Neasloss: Watching our community see the film stands out as a highlight for me. They’re very proud. I also love that the film’s background music is local. We’re excited to get it out there! And I really love the underwater footage. It’s amazing. I wanted that to come across strongly in the film. You see the herring and the sea lions and how we, as a community, are connected. One thing that doesn’t get mentioned enough is that our stewardship responsibilities stem from our stories, which are passed from generation to generation. In these stories are lessons to be learned, which are the basis of our laws. 

Leowinata: For me, the highlight was getting to know a community and the people in it and basically coming out of the experience with a new family. Trust takes a long time to build, and having earned the trust of the community is such an honour. I don’t take this lightly. For this reason, Tavish and I hope to be working with the Kitasoo Xai’xais for the rest of our lives.

A channel in Kitasoo Xai’xais territory is home to a variety of underwater life forms, including white plumose, tentacled anemones, multi-coloured sponges, red urchins, rock scallops and lush perennial kelp. (Photo: Moonfish Media/Kitasoo Xai’xais Stewardship Authority)
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A Bigg's killer whale circles close to a sea lion haul-out off the central coast of B.C. Bigg's killer whales are mammal-eating whales and important apex predators in ocean ecosystems. (Photo: Moonfish Media/Kitasoo Xai’xais Stewardship Authority)
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On the role of allyship and reconciliation

Neasloss: We will take any allies we can get. The more people who want to support us, the better. The work we’re doing is for the benefit of the planet and for humanity. People give money to environmental groups, but we’re the ones who live here. These are our territories. We’re the people in the trenches with our sleeves rolled up, engaging governments and stakeholders like forestry companies and commercial fisheries. A major part of making this film is to help us build the Kitasoo Xai’xais Endowment Fund, which is administered through the Coast Opportunities Fund. The idea is to create a stable, long-term source of money for our research, where we’re driving science and merging it with traditional ecological knowledge. This fund will also support human well-being, where we’re making huge investments in our youth. If we don’t have a healthy community, we won’t have a healthy Great Bear Rainforest. If people can’t donate money, we’re always looking for volunteer marine biologists and scientists to help us conduct our research.

Leowinata: If the need is there, this is exactly the kind of project that allies can help Indigenous communities with. Indigenous communities have so much knowledge and so much to offer the world in terms of how to manage the future. It’s really important to think about projects like this as facilitation, though, instead of direction or storytelling. Non-Indigenous allies in film can help communities, when invited to do so, by creating a means for under-represented voices to come to life, as opposed to a non-Indigenous filmmaker coming in and imposing their own perspective. Allyship isn’t easy. You’re going to make mistakes. But if your intentions are good, people see what’s in your heart.

Humpback whales on B.C.’s coast have made a comeback in the last three decades given new government policies and the efforts of individuals and non-governmental groups. (Photo: Moonfish Media/Kitasoo Xai’xais Stewardship Authority)
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On who Keepers of the Land is for 

Leowinata: We have multiple audiences in mind. The people of Klemtu; there is an archive of information in the film that has value for their community. Indigenous communities everywhere; what the Kitasoo Xai’xais are doing is so unique and so powerful that if their story gets out into the world, it can serve as a blue-print for other Indigenous nations who are trying to figure out next steps in terms of managing their resources and territories. And general viewership; if you’re searching for hope in the world, no matter who you are, look at the stories of Indigenous communities, where they’ve come from and what they’re doing now. I guarantee an Indigenous nation near you is doing incredibly inspirational work.

Spirit bears were further protected after the Kitasoo Xai'xais and Gitga'at Nations formalized a hunting ban for black bears (which can carry the gene responsible for spirit bears) in their territories. (Photo: Moonfish Media/Kitasoo Xai’xais Stewardship Authority)
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On what’s next

Neasloss: Right now, the film is making its rounds at film festivals everywhere. We just won Best Short Film at the Victoria Film Festival, Best B.C. Film at the Vancouver International Mountain Film Festival and Special Jury Mention at the Banff Centre Mountain Film and Book Festival. We were also nominated for the Global Voices Award at the Jackson Wild Media Awards. It’s been cool to see us alongside big hitters like National Geographic and the BBC. Our little community! I’ve also been invited to speak at a First Nations university in the U.S. and we’re getting invited to screen our film everywhere from Portugal to the United Nations. I hope people around the world will watch Keepers of the Land and see that Indigenous communities like ours can get the job done. We’re not talking about the work. We’re actually doing it.

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