Many of us have heard about what happened in Altona on November 17th, 1990, but a new documentary is seeking to shed a more humanistic light on the events of that evening and poses the question - can you forgive what you'll never forget?
The Affolter brothers; Heath, Jon, Nathan and Thomas, along with executive producer, Craig Langdon, began working on "Altona" about 10 years ago after one of the brothers heard Tyler Pelke tell his story of survival. After years of interviews and production, the film debuted this past weekend at the Whistler Film Festival.
"We weren't even sure if it was going to be a documentary, or a scripted narrative piece. We weren't sure what format the film would take, really, and then it eventually sort of evolved over the years into us believing it should be a documentary, just because the story is so incredible, for better or worse, and making it something that was scripted or narrative content might actually take away from the power, and sort of the visceral nature of all the humanity on display," explained the brothers.
Initially, the plan was to just tell Pelke's miraculous story of survival, but as the team began interviewing people, the more they realized the story was more about the town, with Pelke as the central figure in the film.
"There's a reason why the film is called "Altona", and that's because the impact of the story really was felt throughout the entire community. We found there was still, 30 years later, a lot of people that felt like it happened yesterday, and the impact was still just right there underneath the surface, understandably so. We felt like we wanted to do justice to the town, and do justice to the community, and do justice to the story."
The further the brothers dug into the story, the more it continued to grow and eventually, morphed beyond forgiveness and into trauma recovery.
"We were very attracted to the story because of the forgiveness angle, and because of the trauma recovery, and especially because of the hope that was inherent in the town's sort of unquenchable spirit of moving forward. I think everyone's familiar with this story now. There's a lot of darkness, and a lot of very, very heavy, intense subject matter, but we really tried to go about it, telling a story that leaves people feeling like there is hope, and that you can still move forward, and that by relying on the love and camaraderie of your community or of your family, or even just of your friends, you can move forward in the face of something that seems unthinkably dark. We're big fans of stories that have a kernel of hope, even if they're very dark overall, and we certainly found that in the story of 'Altona'."
In order to try and understand this, and to not sensationalize the story, the group not only interviewed members of the Pelke and Klassen families, or people in the community they say had a front row seat to that night in 1990, but they also spoke with trauma therapists and experts, giving a grounded, empathetic view of trauma recovery and forgiveness and the varying degrees to that.
"Some people we spoke to had total forgiveness. You know, Tyler is someone who feels like he's achieved total forgiveness towards Earl (Giesbrecht). But there were other people that we spoke to that didn't necessarily have that forgiveness and weren't necessarily looking for it. We, as film makers, certainly didn't want to take an approach that was qualitative, as in this is right or this is good, or this is bad or that's wrong. We just wanted to show there is a myriad of different ways you can react to an incident, and judgment free. Who's to say what's better or worse, or what's right and what's wrong? Humans are complex and different, and have different reactions to traumatic incidents like this, but still everyone does still have a reaction, and by exploring that and looking at people's journeys, I think there's a lot of very interesting, fascinating and hopefully, optimistic or a positive prism through which you can view everything."
Included in the array of perspectives presented in the film is Earl Giesbrecht's, the perpetrator in that night's attack on Pelke and Curtis Klassen. Producer, Craig Langdon, was the one to connect with Giesbrecht. Giesbrecht does not appear on camera in the film, but is heard on a phone call (with his voice changed) with Langdon. Giesbrecht provided a letter for use in the film, and that letter is read by an actor in one of the scenes.
"His perspective matters in this as well and we were curious to learn what that was, and so we went about trying to meet with him," he explained. "It took almost a year for us to be able to sit down with him, and that was done through the help of some people that were close to him, and people that had learned of what we were doing, learned the humanistic side of this film."
The two met over what Langdon thought would be a short cup of coffee and turned into a three-hour dinner.
"We obviously got into details of the night, what led up to it, the post, everything, and a lot of which we can't share, because that's his request and that's something we'll respect," added Langdon. "All I had was the description of what you have in the press from 30 years ago, and basically I was going into this meeting thinking I was going to meet a monster, and he is nothing like that. So, I came away from that now wanting to share that perspective of what he's really like."
The hope among the Affolter brothers and Langdon is that people who choose to watch the film will do so with an open mind.
"[...and just look at this as a story about human beings, and not a story about something that is black and white. We realize some people will hate the film. Some people will love it. But you know, our sort of promise as storytellers is we did try to tell it from a place of integrity. We did try to bring some dignity to a story that otherwise, in the hands of others, especially big studios and pop culture and big media might have been turned into something that was exploitative, and we really tried not to do that. We did truly try to tell a story that we think is important. These themes about how you recover from trauma, and how you forgive others, we think, are as relevant and topical, as any themes for today's world with where society is at. We feel like all of this, even though it was a harrowing journey for us, was worth it in the context of this being a story that deserves to be told."
Listen to the full interview above or at podcastville.ca.
On Sunday, "Altona" was named the 2023 World Documentary at the Whistler Film Festival.
It is now available to watch online on the Whistler Film Festival web site.
Check out the trailer below.
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