Monty Bassett

🕔Apr 07, 2011

“Making films is something I seem to have a talent for, but it’s not my life’s ambition.”

These words might be surprising coming from another accomplished filmmaker, but not from Bulkley Valley-based documentarian Monty Bassett. After spending a short afternoon with him at his home near Smithers, it’s obvious he strives for more than great cinematography in his work and his life.

To date, Bassett’s films have focused mainly on wildlife and environmental activism in the North. He’s won several awards, including Best Science Documentary at Hot Docs, North America’s largest documentary festival, for Life On The Vertical, one of his and cameraman Cas Sowa’s first films. The movie was also runner-up to David Suzuki’s film Sacred Balance at the Gemini Awards, which honours Canadian television’s best.

“I attribute my success to not watching TV, or I’d follow every cliché in the book,” he says, half joking. “I try to avoid topics I think anyone could do. They have to have an edge.”

Most of Bassett’s work appears on notable stations such as the Knowledge Network and Discovery Channel. But during our interview, the director doesn’t care to reflect on former achievements or even basic facts such as movie dates and titles. Instead, he wants to tell stories.

He talks passionately about the strength and beauty of his subjects—people, animals and places—and tells stories of how he managed to capture their stories. He also touches on the serendipity of how every film seems to come together exactly as it should. “The story will tell you how it should be told,” he says.

Having just returned from working in the Yukon, Bassett’s latest tales involve a mighty caribou standing its ground on the highway, and a tree full of ravens and one lone eagle waiting patiently in the lunch line as they watch two pine martens feasting on a carcass below.

“I find I’m truest to myself when I’m in nature,” he explains. “After a certain time, we lose our egos. I think the animals pick up on this. It has to do with being on their level, rather than being humans trying to think like them.”

Bassett strives for certain standards in his work. “I’m opposed to sensationalism for sensationalism’s sake.” Rather than blatantly promote an environmental cause, “I try to give people a sense of what’s at stake,” he says. And when it comes to nature footage, the former biologist aims to be as scientific as possible.

Power of the visual
As a child growing up on a farm in Wyoming, his grandfather would say to him, “See what is there, not what you think you see.” Bassett still keeps these words close to his heart.

“When I do wildlife films, I set the objective that I want to come up with new science so people that are in the field will watch the films.”

Until the early 90s, Bassett worked as the director of a biological research foundation. “I got into film because a friend and I were trying to stop logging in the boreal forest,” he says. David Suzuki suggested that a movie could draw attention to the issue, so Bassett and his friend, still-photographer Myron Kozak, went about making one. Kozak died in a plane crash, however, while documenting forestry practices on Vancouver Island.

With no experience, but with the help of a Vancouver studio, Bassett carried on and produced Cassiar at the Crossroads with the footage he and Kozak had already shot. “This film became a powerful, powerful tool. That’s when I realized that, although you can do so much with the written word, you can do even more with the visual.”

Some of Bassett’s duties as a biologist, such as collaring caribou while literally hanging from a helicopter, were dangerous. After another friend died in the field, he decided it was time for a change. “I didn’t want to become a statistic, so I started looking for ways to reinvent myself.” Making more films was a natural step.

Now “qualified as an elder,” though, Bassett is at another turning point in his career. “You achieve a certain level in your field. There’s no point in staying there and trying to re-achieve, re-achieve, re-achieve…”

He’s not giving up on films yet. Projects he’s working on at the moment include a piece on Yukon artist Ted Harrison, a wildlife series called Exotics that looks at how habitat affects animals, and another series called Unlikely Warriors. The latter showcases unlikely citizens around the world who have fought to save their communities. The first show in this series will focus on northwest BC’s Tahltan First Nation and its successful struggle against Shell Canada’s Coalbed Methane plans in the Klappan. Another will profile African grandmothers raising any number of grandchildren whose parents have died of AIDS.

Nature and God
But Bassett is definitely pondering his future. He has already published one book—Slim, The Guide—and a second is coming out soon, but he isn’t necessarily interested in writing more. Politics interests him but he swore to himself at a young age that he’d never get involved.

Happily married, and with five grown daughters between the ages of 24 and 36, he and his wife own a place in the West Indies, though he’s reluctant to move there. “When life is too easy, that too is the kiss of death. I love the challenge of living in the North, and my God, living in the North is a challenge!”

Bassett is convinced the planet is undergoing major changes. “That’s what I’d like to focus on,” he says, adding, “I think people are getting tired of hell-in-a-handbasket. We need to start focusing on success stories.”

Bassett’s pure love of the natural world is apparent in his everyday surroundings. Beautiful timbers grace his geothermal-heated home. His wife Pashan’s colourful nature paintings lighten each and every wall. And his three pets—two dogs that love belly-rubs and a cuddly tabby-cat—are a big part of what makes the household so warm and inviting.

Yet small but obvious touches of spirituality are also obvious. The driveway is adorned by Tibetan prayer flags flapping in the wind. A silver Buddha sits peacefully along the front-room window ledge. And Bassett and his wife host meditation retreats regularly on their property.

Throughout the day it’s become more and more clear that Bassett is looking to connect his work to his spiritual beliefs, a form of Pantheism. According to Wikipedia, Pantheism is “the view that the universe (nature) and God are identical.” Famous Pantheists include Albert Einstein, photographer Ansel Adams and author Margaret Atwood.

“I’m not religious, but I’m very, very spiritual. It’s something that sustains me a lot. I see the hand of God in everything. My life has just had too many events that are otherwise unexplainable.”

“I strongly believe that we can be masters of our destiny,” he continues. “Part of that mastery is pushing yourself, and part of it is recognizing your fears and going beyond them.”

What the future holds for Bassett and his audiences is unclear. Whatever it may be, it will surely be told—in whatever medium—beautifully.