"Highway of Tears" documentary paves way for more research

By Costa Maragos Posted: August 29, 2017 6:00 a.m.

Tennessa Wild, a master of journalism student, grew up in Houston, B.C.  For her masters project, she has produced a documentary about the people affected along the “highway of tears.”
Tennessa Wild, a master of journalism student, grew up in Houston, B.C. For her masters project, she has produced a documentary about the people affected along the “highway of tears.” Photo courtesy of Tennessa Wild taken in Moricetown, B.C.

Tennessa Wild grew up surrounded by the pain and sorrow associated with the area commonly referred to as the "Highway of Tears" which is located in northern British Columbia.

Wild has produced a documentary that will tell the stories of the people affected by missing and murdered women along a 720-kilometer section of highway 16 between Prince Rupert and Prince George.

So far, 19 women have disappeared over a span of more than 30 years. Of those cases, 18 remain unsolved.

The documentary has formed the basis for Wild’s master of journalism thesis at the U of R. Wild earned a bachelor’s of science in Psychology from the University of Victoria.

She recently returned from filming with the help of two of her former journalism school classmates, Emily Pasiuk and Alex Antoneshyn. This project has been a challenge as Wild has set up a FundRazr page to help with the costs.

We spoke with Wild about her very personal connection to this project.

Highway of Tears Highway Pix

What got you interested in this project?

I grew up in Houston, B.C. I had my own experience with being followed one night along the highway when I was a teenager. Thankfully, someone picked me up that I knew. There wasn’t any fear of the highway because you came to normalize the situation, but there’s nothing normal about missing and murdered women. I knew the cases were still transpiring since I moved away from the area and I wanted to know how the phenomena continued.

Given the sensational nature of the stories done here, what approach are you taking with your documentary?

As a journalist, I’m reporting my findings. I think people will be surprised by the facts discovered. Hitchhiking culture or the act of community-accepted hitchhiking needs to be more clearly understood and not criminalized.
 
You are coming from this story as a local. How does that affect your reporting of this in your documentary?

There is a trust factor with the locals. Everyone I’ve talked to is connected to one case or another. It’s a very traumatic experience for them.

Highway Group shot
Tennessa Wild turned to her former U of R journalism school classmates to assist in the filming of the documentary. (l-r) Emily Pasiuk, Tennessa Wild, and Alex Antoneshyn. Photo courtesy of Kevin Campbell

How did the locals react about this topic when you approached them?

Vivian Tom – Wet’suwet’en Band chief councillor - talks about little improvements, but stresses more needs to be done to inspire the younger generation to be proactive. They were excited that a “fresh face” was approaching this story from a fresh perspective, yet local.

I repeatedly heard how important it was not to forget the tragedies and to remember there’s still more to be done about it.

What are you hoping will come out of this project?

I’m hoping to inspire others to ask questions and think more critically on the issue. Acknowledgement is appreciated, but real change occurs when action is taken. Write your MLA. Personal letters to an MLA in the Prince Rupert region indirectly uncovered the B.C. government’s mishandling of FOI documents in 2015, The Triple Delete Scandal.   

You travelled with two friends, journalism graduates Emily Pasiuk and Alex Antoneshyn. What was the reason for that?

With only three and a half months to complete the film, it was recommended to hire a talented crew to get things done efficiently. Thankfully having the experience with them in school it was a smooth transition to working with them in the field.

You are documenting some of your experience in a blog. I noticed making a regular appearance during your travels is a gnome. What’s the story behind that?

highway of tears mascot
The film team adopted this gnome, Rupert, which Wild says “was our distraction from the heavy material we encountered during the production.”

Our gnome Rupert was our distraction from the heavy material we encountered during the production. We occasionally had very long interview days that described the tragic missing and murder cases. To keep our focus on the production and not to be overwhelmed we created time to step away from the work. We would take Rupert out with us and he became known to the locals too. It was a way to stay grounded and find a healthy balance with our time.

The realities of doing a documentary like this one is that it not only takes a lot of time but it costs money. How have you managed with the fundraising part of your masters project?
 
A production such as this comes at a huge financial cost for a student. We are encouraged by our mentors and peers to get creative with funding ideas.

I applied for everything I was eligible for – bursaries, grants, scholarships etc., but still was not covering costs. Stats Can statistical data, wages for the crew, post-production costs: the list goes on.

I started a FundRazr account to encourage supporters to help me. Unfortunately, the costs are still adding up. I think this type of work doesn’t get accomplished because of the lack of funds.
 
Wild will present her documentary "Highway of Lost Years" October 19th at 7 p.m. in Theatre 119 of the Research and Innovation Centre located on campus. You are welcome to help her project by contributing here.

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