We want to be Leanne Allison

Traveller, filmmaker, chronicler of wild Canada

photo by laura vanag

There’s a good chance our friend Leanne Allison is already on your radar.

If you don’t recognize her name, then you might be familiar with the work that has proven her a provocative force in the Canadian film scene.

She’s the award-winning filmmaker behind Being Caribou – where she and her biologist/writer husband Karsten Heuer travel with a caribou herd (on foot and by ski!) during its annual 1,500 km migration through the Arctic.

Finding Farley came next – a film that chronicles her family’s adventures as they canoe from their home in Alberta across the country to rally with famed Canadian author Farley Mowat on the East Coast.

And her most recent adventure? An interactive online film called Bear 71 which was produced in collaboration with, like her earlier two films, the National Film Board of Canada. A difficult but important story, Bear 71 chronicles the life of a female grizzly bear living and dying in Alberta.

This week, we managed to catch up with the Canmore, Alberta-based filmmaker on the heels of her return from Robert Redford’s Sundance Film Festival in Utah.

Toque & Canoe: You’ve led a remarkable life, Leanne. What put you on the path you’ve taken?

Leanne: You know what? It probably goes back to being a kid and paddling up the North Saskatchewan River. I was on a YMCA trip. We were 12-year-old girls. I remember brushing my teeth in the river at night, looking up, and seeing the Northern Lights and thinking “This is it! This is the life!!!”

More recently, I would say it was the trip that inspired the film “Being Caribou” that put a whole new reference point on our life. It changed Karsten and I forever. It felt so good to be out there, to be physical and moving. It was so unbelievably satisfying.

Humans haven’t evolved to drive around in cars and to be in front of computers all day long. We evolved to be out in the wild and part of it all. This experience made us want to share that kind of life with our son Zev. So we did the trip across Canada which turned into “Finding Farley.”

T&C: Your films have been huge hits in Canada. “Being Caribou” won a Gemini in 2004. “Finding Farley” won top prize at the Banff Mountain Book and Film Festival in 2009. What is it in your work that taps into the Canadian sensibility and wins over your audience?

Leanne: I think wilderness shapes us all as Canadians – through books, music, films and real life experiences that may be as simple as getting cold toes while skating at night on a frozen pond. I don’t think we can help it. And when someone is brave enough to really get out there, I think we all want to hear what happened!

T&C: You’re carving out the reputation as someone who gives a voice to wilderness. Why is this important to you – as a Canadian filmmaker?

Leanne: It’s simple. This is where I find the most inspiration.

T&C: Let’s say someone from outside the country tells you they’re planning a trip to Canada. Where would you send them so they get the fullest sense of what our country has to offer?

Leanne: First of all, Vancouver. Because it’s the gateway to that whole Pacific Coast that is so incredible. Then Banff, so they can experience the Rocky Mountains – a place where you can still experience all the large carnivores roaming around wild and free. And then the Dempster Highway. That’s the highway that connects the Yukon and the Northwest Territories. You can actually see the caribou migration if you time it right. I should probably also say the Great Bear Rainforest. But I don’t really want millions of people to go there.

T&C: You’ve traveled Canada more intimately than most Canadians will in a lifetime. Given your experience, where in the country would you say you feel most at home?

Leanne: Right here. Right in the Canadian Rockies. We live in one of the most beautiful places in the world. Karsten was out ski touring off the Banff/Jasper Highway recently and he skiied right past a black bear curled up under a tree. Apparently black bears don’t always winter in conventional bear dens. The bear came to but then looked as if it went back to sleep. Where else in the world can you have this kind of experience?

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