Thursday, 04 December 2014 06:36

Heartfelt mini-doc on YouTube about former Val Marie PFRA worker hits home

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On April 17, 1935, a federal parliamentary act created the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration. November, 2014 Jim Commodore one of the early workers for the PFRA near the community of Val Marie, is the subject of a documentary The Last Cowboy which has been a hit on YouTube.


The documentary was a school project for Kaitlyn Van De Woestyne and Megan Lacelle, two University of Regina journalism school students.
“Our title The Last Cowboy meant to represent how Jim is the last of his kind. He’s a true cowboy and a true gentleman — we’re so grateful he agreed to do this project with us,” explains Lacelle.
Telling the story of Commodore meant a lot to Lacelle who grew up in Cadillac which is about 30 minutes north of Val Marie. Her mom grew up in Val Marie and her grandparents still ranch there. Lacelle says that her mom worked with the PFRA when she was younger before Megan was born. While Megan was growing up, she heard a lot about the PFRA from her parents and grandparents. 
“I started working for my dad at his gas station when I was 13 and that’s when I started to meet the men and women who worked for the PFRA, among them was Jim Commodore. Jim used to stop for gas or coffee while I was working and I was always entranced by his stories,” explains Lacelle. “I always found him so humble, interesting and well-spoken that I knew when I got into journalism school that I would love to tell his story. When I heard about the decisions to shut the PFRAs in 2012, I knew I wanted to shine a spotlight on the people and culture surrounding them. This year, we were able to do a mini-doc assignment on anything we chose. I asked Kaitlyn about doing it on this and she agreed.”
Lacelle phoned Commodore and asked if he was willing to be videotaped. They went to Val Marie on the Remembrance Day weekend and filmed him and the background footage in one day. Van De Woestyne’s expertise is video editing and and as a videographer so with the combined talents equated to a well-done product.
“The editing took the longest. We struggled narrowing down the content to less than seven minutes because it’s hard to sum up so much of someone’s life in such a short amount of time, but ultimately we thought the story would be more powerful if it was concise,” adds Van De Woestyne. “We shot everything in one day except the time lapse in the beginning, which we shot the night before. We were planning on shooting the next day, but that night it snowed a lot and for consistency’s sake we decided not to include any footage with snow. We were so lucky in that we shot enough before it snowed. I don’t think the film would have had the same effect otherwise.”
Van De Woestyne says her experience was a lot different than Lacelle’s. There wasn’t that emotional tie for her as opposed to Lacelle’s, but as the interview went on, she came to appreciate what Lacelle felt so passionate about.
“I’m originally from Estevan. I had some knowledge of the PFRA before starting the project, but it was pretty limited,” Van De Woestyne explains. “Going to Val Marie, meeting Jimmy and learning about the PFRA was so interesting. I had no idea what it meant to people in the community or what affect its closure would have. I think that it was beneficial for the film to have myself with little knowledge learning about it for the first time and Megan who grew up so close to it. I think with both of our perspectives we told a more complete and compelling story.”
The viewer is not inundated with the politics of why the PFRA shut down or the battles in Ottawa. A history of the PFRA in the documentary is mentioned, but limited. It is all about Commodore and is compelling.
Lacelle was thrilled with the final product because it was her opportunity to pay tribute to the area in which she grew up.
“We had considered bringing in other voices, but ultimately decided we wanted to focus on Jim. He’s interesting, well-spoken, humble and a real expert on the topic. He was both the expert and the effected person. We didn’t want to make a political piece — we just wanted to tell his story and provide some images that would allow people to understand what the culture surrounding the PFRAs was like,” explains Lacelle. “I love the area, the people and the culture in the southwest rural corner of the province. I got into journalism to shed a spotlight on incredible ‘everyday’ people and this gave us a great opportunity to tell Jim’s story as well as tie into a greater story about the loss of the PFRAs and what that means to the area, people and culture. Often times people get caught up in statistics and big figures and forget to talk to people who know the topic best. I knew Jim would be a great resource and a way to make a historical document. His father worked PFs before him and so he’d always known what they meant to the area. He’s an amazing person. He, like my grandparents, I believe are the last of a breed of cowgirls and cowboys who understood the importance of people, community and the environment.
“I’m probably more sympathetic to the PFRA than Kaitlyn because I know so many people involved with it. But I didn’t asked Jim questions that I thought would give me a certain answer, I asked him questions about himself and through that many people were able to relate to him. I think Kaitlyn and I set out to create something that told a beautiful, relatable story that would be a testament to an era gone by.”
 Lacelle, who has done a lot of print work says the documentary took a lot of hours to complete in a two-week span. With the beautiful landscape in the area and the shots of Commodore thoroughly enjoyable to view, and being at ease telling his story, it is a piece of work.
Van De Woestyne says video allowed the pair to incorporate the natural beauty of the area, which was critical in portraying the importance of the land to Commodore and the people who live there.
“I think it’s different than print journalism because with video you can show the emotion of a story much more effectively. People watching the video aren’t relying on me to tell them what is happening or being said, they’re watching it,” says Van DeWoestyne.
“I would love to do another one. Honestly, Kaitlyn and I never expected it to get this popular. It has 5,000 views in four days and more than 700 shares on Facebook which really shocked us. Someone asked me why so many people shared it and my guess was that people could relate to Jim. He talks calmly and honestly and doesn’t preach to the audience. He doesn’t have an agenda and doesn’t want to get people fired up. He just explains where the PFRA came from, what it meant and what it still means to him,” adds Lacelle. “It was important for me to get it up on social media because I was really proud of it. I have multiple friends who know Jim and multiple others who know the area and the PFRA.I knew they would appreciate a spotlight on someone so deserving, humble and amicable.”

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