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A Shot in the Dark: Interview with SHIFT’s Kelly Milner

A SHOT IN THE DARK:
INTERVIEW WITH SHIFT’S
KELLY MILNER

by Niki Wilson

SHIFT tells the story of a group of aboriginal youth in Carcross, Yukon, who have spent the past 10 years converting historical trails in the mountains around their community into a world-class mountain biking destination. Writer and director Kelly Milner shares her creative process, and the importance of telling positive stories about Indigenous people and the North.


 

I met Kelly Milner on my first day of Grad school in 1998. We were both enrolled in an Environmental Science and Design program.  During the get-to-know-each-other mixer, she held out her hand, introduced herself, and asked me why I was there. I can’t remember what I said – I was a little struck by the question. But I clearly remember what she said, with the kooky sense of humour I now know her for: “I’m here to save the world.”

That was almost 20 years ago. She may have been half-joking when she said it, but over the past two decades, Milner has worked in one way or another to make changes that matter. She’s played a role in the fair implementation of First Nations Land Claims, and has advocated for wildlife conservation in in the Yukon Territory. She’s recently returned to her journalism roots with her first major documentary film, SHIFT, appearing at both the Banff Truth and Reconciliation Summit and the Banff Mountain Film Festival. With this film, Milner shows us that she’s serious about telling meaningful stories about the Indigenous people of the north.

Q+A WITH KELLY MILNER

Niki Wilson/ Where did the idea for SHIFT come from?

Kelly Milner/ About five years ago, my family bought a piece of land near Carcross, Yukon. Every morning I would see this group of kids heading across a nearby footbridge with pick axes swung over their shoulders. They were heading off to work on trail crew, building mountain bike trails as part of the Single Track to Success Program. As I rode the trails, I grew an appreciation for the work they were doing. But as I got to know the kids, I realized something more was going on. They were simultaneously developing a sense of themselves, reconnecting to their land, and they took a lot of pride in the work they were doing.

Over five years, this has translated into changing the community as a whole. I’ve worked in land claims implementation in the North for 15 years, and it’s not often that you see such a positive outcome of First Nations taking control and making decisions about how they are using their land. I kept saying to friends, “Someone should tell that story.” They would say, “Maybe you should do it.” Finally, I decided to go for it. It was a shot in the dark. And here we are, two years later.

NW/ How difficult was it to pull a team together?

KM/ It was a big job. The last time I made a film, film was a thing you cut and taped together. So when it came to editing, equipment, digital cameras – all that – I had no idea. I started working with a well-known mountain bike filmmaker, but scheduling was difficult. So, on a whim, I called these two young guys who had just graduated from film school in Whitehorse and were known to be interested in making biking films. I said “Hey guys, do you want to make a movie with me,” and they said “Dude, that would be sick.” So I started working with Alex Chan and Grant McWatters, and they suggested we hire a director of photography, Dave Hamelin. So we asked him to join the team. Dave did the editing as well. It’s been amazing. This team is one of the things I’m most proud of. The film is 100% made by Yukoners, and it’s beautiful.

NW/ Tell me about your role as the Writer, Director and Producer.

KM/ I wrote the story, and told it the way I hoped to tell it. But story is only one part of it. You really need somebody who can help provide the visuals and the context, and cut it together the way you want. I worked very closely with Dave. I couldn’t have done it without him.

Kelly Milner in Old Crow. Photo by Cathie Archbould.

Kelly Milner in Old Crow. Photo by Cathie Archbould.

NW/ What was the most difficult part of making the film?

KM/ Weirdly, it was the soundtrack. I wouldn’t have anticipated that was going to be the hardest thing. It was the most amount of work for me, by far. I got stuck on a couple of things. I was very lucky because I had a local composer, Jordy Walker, to work with. I also had a chance encounter with a local DJ, DASH, who works with an Indigenous dance group, the Dakhká Khwáan Dancers. Their sound mixes traditional songs with hip-hop and electronica elements. They were willing to work with us. We dropped a track in, and it was magical.

→ Listen: Check out one of the tracks on the SHIFT soundtrack. 

NW/ This project has been well-funded, especially by Yukon organizations. What is it about the story that brought out such a diversity of sponsors and supporters?

KM/ I think it’s because it’s a good news story, and one people can be a part of whether they’re mountain bikers that regularly go out to Carcross or people that have just started spending time there. At the premiere of the film, we weren’t sure how many people would come – 500 people came! The kids from the Single Track To Success project were there, and at the end the audience gave them a standing ovation. The kids realized there were all these people supporting what they were doing. We hear a lot of hard stories about Indigenous youth in the North and the challenges they face, and I don’t mean to minimize any of that. But I think it’s important to celebrate these positive stories as well.

Film crew on the photo berm. Courtesy Shot in the Dark.

Film crew on the photo berm. Courtesy Shot in the Dark.

NW/ You’ve been selected to show your film at the Banff Mountain Film Festival. What does that mean to you?

KM/ When I walked into the Yukon Sound and Film Commission to talk about how I could get this film off the ground, they asked me what I wanted this film to be. And I said “I want this film to go to the Banff Mountain Film Festival. That’s my ultimate goal. And if it goes there, I want it to make the cut for the world tour.” That’s what I said, although inside I was feeling like that was a pretty lofty goal. So now to be here two years later is a huge accomplishment for me. It’s pretty amazing to achieve something you felt was so unachievable.

NW/ What role, if any, does your film play in the healing that began with the truth and reconciliation process?

KM/ This is a mountain biking film, but it’s not. It’s really a film about change. Change is hard. When we think about truth and reconciliation, that’s about all of us moving forward as a country. We’ve put a lot of focus on truth, which is important. We need to understand our past. But reconciliation is reaching that understanding and figuring out how we move forward together. SHIFT is really a reconciliation piece – a story that makes us feel hopeful. When you look at First Nations’ youth in Carcross and mountain bikers, they’re not usually seen as groups that go together. But they do – we can build things together. I think that’s what SHIFT is.

The trail crew. Courtesy Shot in the Dark.

The trail crew. Courtesy Shot in the Dark.

NW/ Who are your mentors?

KM/ The people who helped me the most creatively through this process were the people I went through journalism school with all those years ago. Dawn Brett helped me figure out how to tell the story. She’s been working in TV since we left school. Amy Lennon was so instrumental in helping me have the confidence to be a producer. Every time I thought I would fall on my face, both of them kept me going. Having people in your corner is so important when you’re out of your element.

NW/ What’s next for you?

KM/ I’ve completed a pilot for a kid’s puppet series – kind of like “The Muppets” meet “Hinterland Who’s Who”. Pretty fun. We’ve also just received funding to develop a pilot for a serial crime drama, and I’ll be working with Yukon writer Kirsten Madsen. I’m also starting to work on a project called The End of the Ice Age with the Inuvialuit Communications Society and other people in Inuvik. This is the last year there will be an ice road to Tuktoyuktuk. The NWT just finished building a non-ice road from Inuvik to Tuk. We’ll explore the changes that come along with that.

NW/ You’ve got a lot on the go!

KM/ Yep. It’s starting to feel real now.

 


Niki Wilson is a science writer based in Jasper. She writes for publications like BBCEarth, Canadian Geographic, Motherboard, and Natural History Magazine.