Nature in focus

Social Sciences

- Anne MacLaurin

Filmmaker and UVic alumnus Trevor Dixon Bennett draws inspiration for his work from his Environmental Studies degree. Photo Kingtide Films

UVic Environmental Studies alumnus Trevor Dixon Bennett (ES ’12) explores the cultural connection to environment through his production company, Kingtide Films.

When Trevor Dixon Bennett was growing up in Vankleek Hill, a small town in Eastern Ontario, his father and other family members would create slideshows to watch together. Making fun videos of trips was a common pastime for Bennett. Eventually, he would turn that hobby into a career—which came with its own challenges.

“I started at ground zero when I launched Kingtide Films,” says Bennett. The craft film-production company focuses on cinematic storytelling at the intersection of culture and environment. “My focus is on those unique relationships with place and the cultural connection to place,” he adds. “I also love mountain and ocean, ski and surf cultures.”

The skill set in running a production company is quite eclectic, explains Bennett. You are part business person, a camera and technology specialist, sound engineer, as well as having to be a gifted storyteller. For Bennett, film is about bringing sound and visual imagery together in a unique way that transports people to a new and fascinating place.

Bennett earned a degree in Environmental Studies at UVic in 2012. The program had a direct impact on his path towards filmmaking. “I did my Masters in Arts in ethnoecology with Dr. Trevor Lantz and a small group of nine or so students,” says Bennett, over an afternoon coffee. He remembers his fellow grad students as a small, adaptable team.

There was a lot of freedom to experiment in the program. There was a sense of choose your own adventure. It started an entire new career for me.”

— Environmental studies grad and founder of Kingtide Films Trevor Dixon Bennett

Bennett’s interest in ethnoecology—the cultural connection to and relationships with surrounding environments—led him to finding culturally appropriate research methods through collaborations with Indigenous communities to document their Traditional Knowledge and observations of environmental change.

“My ethnoecology work led to using photos, video and stories as a way to engage with elders and youth out on the land, as a research method,” says Bennett. The experience of using a visual medium to tell stories is what eventually led Bennett toward film. “My first video was shot on a phone and I got paid in pottery.”

Growing a film

His cohort included UVic PhD candidate, Styawat/Leigh Joseph, a Sḵwxw̱ú7mesh Nation ethnobotanist who would later be featured in Bennett’s award-winning film, Walking with Plants. “Leigh and I became friends during our program and stayed in touch after graduation,” says Bennett.

“After Leigh was accepted into the PhD program at UVic’s School in Environmental Studies, we started filming some of the work she was doing as a way to communicate her research—this eventually led to the making of the film, Walking with Plants.”

The project was a unique opportunity for Bennett to collaborate with Styawat/Leigh Joseph and do research with Indigenous communities.

 “I had seen a short film Trevor had done for one of the Indigenous communities on southern Vancouver Island, and I loved his approach. The imagery was beautiful and powerful, but there was also a distinct element of letting the images and people being filmed tell the story without narration or outside commentary,” says Joseph.

Joseph reached out to Bennett and asked if he would be interested in collaborating in some way. After agreeing to the project, Joseph and Bennett co-applied to Telus Storyhive and secured a grant to make a short documentary film together. Joseph would be co-director.

The film is cinematic and intimate as the viewer learns about Indigenous plant relationships alongside ethnobotanist Styawat/Leigh Joseph in the territory of the Sḵwxw̱ú7mesh Nation. The connection to place is evident as the viewer sees mountain ranges, sweeping estuaries and underwater scenes. Bennett was acutely aware during filming of his role as a settler telling a story about an Indigenous woman. “I had a lot communication with Leigh on how to tell the story— a story her community would be proud of,” says Bennett.

“It was such a unique collaboration and Leigh’s community connections were totally essential and critical to that storytelling and that area,” adds Bennett. He is proud of the result. “It is a film that came together in a special way.”

Walking with Plants premiered at Hot Docs in June 2020 and won international accolades and continues to be screened at film festivals and events. “It was particularly special to have Leigh and her family attend two of the in-person screenings at film festivals in Whistler and Vancouver,” says Bennett. “It is such an intimate film that dives into her story and family. It was powerful to have them in the audience.”

Leigh’s sister, Salia Joseph, appears in the film, and also worked on the project as a cultural consultant, an Indigenous language expert and as a musician.

“Due to the timing of the film release and the pandemic, many of the film premieres were virtual, but I was able to watch the film with my family and hear my kids gasp with excitement when they came on the screen. Seeing the plants displayed in such a beautiful way was very special for me,” says Joseph.

A business is born

It took Bennett a few years of consulting work before launching Kingtide Films in 2015. He says his supportive family and friends made his success possible. “I think being adaptable and having a huge amount of tenacity is a prerequisite for this kind of career,” explains Bennett. It’s not always easy—and there has been no shortage of hard lessons. 

Bennett is modest about his success, but it is clear that Kingtide Films is gaining momentum in the industry. Projects are getting bigger and more exciting. “I have worked super hard and have been a bit lucky,” he reflects.

He has been also clear from the start about his values and the kind of stories he wants to tell. “I have been surrounded by strong, talented, kind and supportive people with excellent skills and good intentions.”

Moving forward, Bennett says he wants to direct more creative film projects and try new things. “I want to push myself creatively, raise awareness of important issues and have fun.”


In this story

Keywords: alumni, film, environmental studies

People: Trevor Dixon Bennett, Styawat Leigh Joseph

Publication: The Torch

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