October 19, 2016

Out of the Grip and Into the Driver Seat

This week, James shares with us his up and down journey as a filmmaker and how this has led him to today, creating a film that chronicles his own story of abuse.


Welcome to my third post for the Rachel Grant blog. If you’re joining this conversation now, previously I discussed coming into awareness at age 45 about the sexual abuse experienced as a child and then how I turned a three-decade struggle around.

At age 15, I saw a film called Fanny and Alexander by the prolific Swedish director Ingmar Bergman and felt a powerful call to the film business. It’s the only profession I’ve ever had and becoming a director was the coveted goal. As I grew up, opportunities opened up in front of me everywhere I went. 

I made my first film in middle school. The second came during a summer program. An introduction to critical analysis by a high school media teacher blew my mind. I spent four years gaining a double degree in film production and screenwriting at a university acclaimed for filmmaking. 

Eager to excel, I scraped my way into the industry between my second and third years. By the time I graduated, I had successfully established myself at the very bottom of the industry. My days as a Production Assistant started before everyone else and finished last. I was driving my own car picking up directors and actors, then working with the technical crew and making $50 a day. I felt lucky on the days they remembered to reimburse me for gas. The environment was brutally stressful and blossoming with all kinds of abuse. Alcohol, drugs, unpredictable explosive anger, sleep deprivation. I felt at home. (*Parents, be wary: things haven’t changed. The film industry is notorious. If your child goes in this direction, stay vigilant)

Being an athlete in high school left me well equipped to become a grip. You want a scaffold around that house? Sure, no problem. You want it up to or above the eves? Gassing 5-ton trucks at 14 left me with confidence around vehicles. Grips also operate camera dollies and cranes. They are the cowboys of the industry and most social rules don’t apply because they know they are needed. I was in heaven. 

Ten years later, I could look back on what most people would call an enviable life. I had worked with stars and future stars on movies, tv shows, rock videos and commercials across Canada and in New Zealand. After a year down under, I turned down an offer to stay and returned home to resume my long delayed passion to direct. Many of my crew-mates went on to work on Lord of the Rings.

I began using filmmaking as a tool to heal in 1988. Learning the Hard Way was a school project where I documented the first conversation with my parents about my brother Mark’s suicide eleven years prior. Still gripped by unresolved grief, I struck out to make my first professional drama and help myself at the same time. I managed to convince our national broadcaster, CBC, to commit some money in advance (very rare for a first-timer) and The Stone Skipper was born in 1999. It is a story about a family in the aftermath of a suicide, through the eyes of a young boy. And that’s when things went sideways.

I pulled many a favour to get The Stone Skipper made. My friends from the industry really rose to the occasion. The broadcast money paid for union actors, bought the film stock and had it processed. Everything else came from generosity, which is another hallmark of the film biz. So when the film attracted little media attention and didn’t open any doors for paying directing gigs, I was devastated. 

Bottoming out is a very personal phenomenon. You don’t have to lose $50 million dollars or overdose with a needle in your arm to get there. You know it when it happens. For me, it was returning to the only trade I knew. For the next five years I lived a slow-motion nightmare, playing out my most humiliating shame in front of the very people who had supported me. I had reached for my dream and failed. And I couldn’t even get it together to write the next film.

By 2004, I had bought my first video camera. Having never mastered cinematography in university, I had given up on ever becoming a cameraperson. Learning how to expose the film properly eluded me, so I gave up because of the false belief that I was stupid. But with video, you see the results immediately. So I began shooting everyday things happening around me and the results were pretty good. My pals in the camera department were convinced the footage was HD, even though that had only just been invented. (I wasn’t). The real opening was when desktop video editing became available.

I met Jules Koostachin around then and we became fast friends. She was a single Cree mother from James Bay, just south of the Arctic Ocean. Jules wanted to be in front of the camera and I wanted to make something. She told me she wanted to make a ceremonial dress for dancing at pow wows in honour of healing her mother and grandmother. I didn’t know what a Jingle Dress was and had never heard of Indian Residential Schools, but I trusted Jules so we began with the understanding that the project would take a year to film.

Six years and two children later, Jules danced for the first time at a pow wow with her mother at her side in the Ojibwa territory of western Ontario, where the traditions of the sacred healing Jingle Dress originate. Four years after that, I completed Jingle Dress – First Dance. Over that time the amount of trust Jules and her mother placed in me slowly dawned. Jules’ mother was interred against her will as a child for ten years in the Canadian Native Residential School system, a federally designed and funded, deliberately racist tool of assimilation. Posing as education for over 100 years, First Nations children who were forced to live away from their families were chronically subjected to horrendous physical, psychological and sexual abuse. 

In 2008, the Canadian federal government apologized and paid a nearly $2 billion settlement and established a series of Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) hearings, based on those in post apartheid South Africa. The completion of Jingle Dress – First Dance coincided with the TRC and was invited to debut at the final hearings in Edmonton, 2014.

Jules’ wisdom, leadership, compassion and friendship have profoundly benefitted my life. After sustained attempts over decades to heal myself using filmmaking, a major breakthrough happened by way of the collaboration with her. And it opened the way for me to embrace my own healing journey from child sex abuse as a positive thing to do.

Voice is more than words. For me it includes my work in filmmaking. In the making of my next project, Picking Trauma’s Pocket, I give birth to my own voice. This journey is about nothing less than emancipation. And I want you to be my witness.

You can help complete Picking Trauma’s Pocket, the documentary by contributing to our crowd funding campaign until November 10, 2016. 

Go here to support this amazing project: https://igg.me/at/ptpthefilm
James Buffin is a filmmaker with over 26 years experience, working on movies, tv shows, commercials, music videos and documentaries shooting across North America, South America, Asia and the South Pacific. The theme of his current work is disaster/recovery, both environmental and personal. Current projects include a feature length documentary about becoming an aware survivor of childhood sexual abuse. Having taught for many years with organizations like Planet In Focus, LIFT Toronto and Workman Arts, he recently expanded his company, Veritus Pictures, to include video workshops in Toronto’s East End.

Picking Trauma’s Pocket 

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