Back to the Roots Interview with Damien Gillis

damien-gillis-headshot-2_400x600Back to the Roots Interview with Damien Gillis

Damien is a Vancouver-based documentary filmmaker and environmental journalist, with a focus on water and energy issues. He is the co-director and co-producer of the documentary Fractured Land and the publisher of the online journal The Common Sense Canadian.

I spoke to Damien to talk about his new film Primeval: Enter the Incomappleux and how to help protect the area. The 20-minute short documentary was filmed on location deep in the heart of BCs Selkirk Mountains, and tells the story of the majesty, magic and endurance of one of the worlds last truly intact temperate rainforests - the incomparable Incomappleux.

This will be the World Festival Premiere of Primeval: Enter the Incomappleux! Are you excited to have the VIMFF be the first Festival to screen this film?

Absolutely, it’s a terrific Festival and I’ve been involved in VIMFF evenings before that have brought to life the Great Bear Rainforest and other places in BC that are both the kind of places that adventurers love to go to take in the wilderness but that also happen to be under threat by industrial development. That’s very much the case with this very unique place called The Incomappleux that I had the chance to film so it’s a great privilege to be able to launch it to a Vancouver audience through VIMFF.

primeval-forest-still_s_800x533What makes The Incomappleux so unique?

It’s really a place that’s larger than life and there’s no trace or evidence of any contact by people once you get into it. We are talking about a place that probably would’ve been already logged if it wasn’t for Mother Nature intervening and washing out bridges and roads that prevented logging equipment from getting in there. Thanks to the hard work of a few defenders and the ups and downs of the forestry economy this unique place is still standing. To wander through the Incomappleux is to get lost in nature and there’s just so few places in the world where you can do that. It has a profound effect on anybody that experiences it and I hope that the audience can share in the experience in some small way through the film.

You worked with the Valhalla Wilderness Society and conservationist Craig Pettitt on this film. How did that partnership come to be?

I had done some work a number of years ago in the Kootenays and came to know some of the Directors of Valhalla and they really felt strongly that this place needed to be captured on film because of its incredible wilderness and ecosystem value. They had also developed the Selkirk Mountain Park Caribou Park Proposal in an effort to protect the area and really wanted to have it documented. The Incomappleux is only one portion, roughly a fifth of the total park proposal area, but it is really the jewel, the heart of it.

On the Valhalla Wilderness Society website, they describe the making of Primeval as a Herculean filmmaking expedition, why is that?

It was tremendous logistical feat. We debated various ways of getting into the Incomappleux, each presenting risks and challenges, so ultimately we ended up hiking in. We had the help of incredible volunteers who made the trails accessible ahead of time by clearing old brush and then helping us carry our equipment in but even with that, I was a one-man filmmaking operation. I hauled in a couple of cameras, a bag full of lenses and a drone and basically just did the best I could in the time that we had. It was a very narrow window - the whole trip was 6 days and we only had 4 days inside the forest. It was raining on and off, therefore lighting was a challenge but we did get just the right window of opportunity to capture the forest in its glory. The toughest thing was to try to do justice to this place. I feel like we came as close as one could expected to under the circumstances and I look forward to playing it on the big screen.

incomappleux-river_800x450Where did the title Primeval: Enter the Incomappleux, come from?

The word Primeval - which means “of or resembling the earliest ages in the history of the world” -came up from a number of people trying to describe this place. It suited the Incomappleux because it refers to a time more than a place and that is how I experienced the forest. It is almost like going back in time to a period before we started putting our human imprint on everything.


What was it like to be surrounded by 2,000-year-old trees? That must have been an incredible experience.

The thing that’s so unique about one of these very rare ecosystems is the circle of life, death and rebirth that you see. The commercial forestry industry or government would refer to a forest like this as “decadent”, which is essentially self-indulgent, meaning it doesn’t have the right to exist anymore because it’s way beyond the point of being commercially viable - there’s not a lot of merchantable timber inside of old trees. But what the industry doesn’t see is that this incredible forest has so many other functions within its ecosystem. The natural thing for it to do is to keel over at some point and give up its nutrients to the forest floor and enable small trees to start growing on top of what are called nursery logs. That is what you see in one of these rare forests – old trees, dead trees, new trees growing out of them, all these mosses, lichens and fungi and other life forms that become part of this cycle. It’s a completely different experience than being in a managed forest in a tree lot. The forestry industry tries to mould nature to our needs by knocking forests down and planting a monoculture in nice neat rows so 80 years later they can come again and harvest them. That is remaking nature in humans’ image and not in terms of its own natural way of functioning. That is something I didn’t fully appreciate until I experienced it for myself.

craig-by-river-2Can you tell me more about the Science Team that is a part of this film and the work they are doing in the Incomappleux Valley?

This expedition was all about continuing that process of researching and documenting for posterity. We had with us a couple of lichen experts, an entomologist (insect expert), and a longtime conservationist, so we each brought our own perspective to observing this place. That was part of what I was documenting - not just the place but also the people who have really worked to study it and bring to light the important ecological values so that it can be protected.

Youve now documented stories from the Great Bear Rainforest to BCs northeast to the BC Selkirk Mountains. Initially, what sparked your interest in environmental and social justice issues?

I have one aunt who was the president of the Alberta Wilderness Association for years and as a kid she got me subscriptions to Owl Magazine – which is like a junior National Geographic. When I was 10 or 11, she got me into a campaign to protect a place called Carmanah Valley on Vancouver Island where I took the petition to my school. I remember I had this poster on my wall of these 4 big Sitka Spruce and that made me feel very peaceful but it wasn’t until my 20’s that I took my camera in to the Eagle Ridge Bluffs which were on the chopping block for the highway to Whistler during the Olympics. Something struck a chord with me there and I started to shift some of film work to covering these issues that I didn’t think were being properly covered in the media. Before I knew it I was getting all these environmental stories passed onto me. All of these issues are part and parcel of being a British Columbian and most of my films have been about the conflict between our inherently resource economy and protecting this incredible natural heritage that we have.

Where can someone find more information on the Selkirk Mountain Park Caribou Park Proposal?

Visit for more information on the Park Proposal.

I am sure many people are wondering how they can get involved. So what can we do?

clearcut_800x450When I see a place like the Incomappleux, I think this one is a no brainer – there’s an easy solution here that wouldn’t cost anyone. Part of the issue is that the government is prepared to offer discounts on the stumpage fees to make it easier for a company to log a place that would normally not be economical. So as long as that possibility is there, anything could happen and over the years they have come close. We are already seeing some road building activity by the Duncan Lake area, which is also in the Park Proposal, that could unfortunately soon be logged. I think there is a tremendous opportunity here for the Liberal government in an election year to do something that would be universally appreciated. The logging company could be compensated for its tenures, and I think gladly go and spend those resources somewhere else. Again, the Incomappleux is not an easy place to log and there’s very little timber value to it, yet there’s such a tremendous upside to protecting it that I think it would be great legacy for everybody. 

The petition is calling on both levels of government – federal and provincial - to work together and protect this place. Get involved, sign the petition and write to your local government asking to protect the places that matter.

Sign the Petition here!

Catch Damien Gillis, Craig Pettitt, a few members of the Science Team and the World Festival Premiere of Primeval: Enter the Incomappleux at the Back to the Roots Show on Wed, Nov 23! Tickets available here.


Interview by Maja Kostanski | Images provided by Damien Gillis