Early on in the documentary film Two Museums, Carl Siemens, a farmer from Rush Lake, Sask., pays a visit to his mother Selma, who still lives on the farm where he and his siblings were raised.
He’s brought her a pail of strawberries and the two of them stand in her farmyard, talking about the strawberries, grasshoppers and gophers.
When it’s time for Carl to leave, she watches him walk to his truck and then turns to look directly at the camera and says, “You come on in for a cold drink if you like.”
Selma isn’t talking to the viewers; she’s probably not even thinking about viewers. Instead, she’s doing what comes natural; she’s being a grandmother for her granddaughter, Lea Nakonechny, the director of Two Museums.
It’s at that moment that viewers realize there is more to this film than just its rural subjects from southwestern Saskatchewan. While she never appears on camera, Nakonechny is always nearby, whether she is asking questions or being invited to get out of the heat.
Filmed by Nakonechny and her husband Simon between the fall of 2002 and January 2004, the 53-minute-long film takes a fresh look at the Prairies and the people who live there. It played in small-town theatres across Saskatchewan this summer during the province’s centennial year.
The idea for the film came to Nakonechny while she was studying film in Montreal after graduating from high school in Rush Lake in 2000. Among her memories were those of the museum in Morse, Sask., 28 kilometres east of Rush Lake on the Trans-Canada Highway, where she had worked one summer and met Allison Sambrook, the museum’s young curator.
While in Montreal, Nakonechny kept thinking about these two women: her grandmother on her farm and Sambrook in her museum.
“It was an instinctive need that I felt to compare the museum to the farming lifestyle,” she said.
“There’s the official version of history, which is kind of like the museum, and then there’s the living history, which is my grandma and the stories that she carries with her. And that was basically what I built the film around and what I was investigating while I was following these two people around.”
Nakonechny soon realized she would need to move back to Saskatchewan to make her film and that she couldn’t wait until graduation.
“We were doing pretty well in Montreal and having a good time there, but there’s something so powerful about the Prairies and the story that was in this film, and I just didn’t want to wait because I thought things might change. For example, my grandma might have a fall and have to sell her house and I wouldn’t get a chance to make it, so I really wanted to get it done.”
Simon Nakonechny, who had grown up in Swift Current, Sask., and was studying music in Montreal, agreed to return home with her. Once back in Saskatchewan, Nakon-echny finished her film degree at the University of Regina, married Simon and began filming the documentary, eventually filling six hours of film.
While Sambrook and Nakonechny’s grandmother are the stars of the film, the two women share the spotlight with the Morse Museum, which Nakonechny said is only fitting, considering that museums have become the social and cultural hubs of shrinking towns across the Prairies.
Besides giving rural residents something to do, Nakonechny said museums also validate an aging population’s past.
“They don’t really care as much about the historical significance of things,” she said. “They really want to see the cream separators that they used. They want to be able to feel like the stuff that they used wasn’t just thrown in the trash or forgotten about.”
While Nakonechny grew up in an agricultural community, it was only when she began filming her farmer relatives that she noticed the similarities between farming and filmmaking.
“You’re always depending on things outside your control, it’s very emotional and it takes a lot of hard work.”
This similarity can be found in a scene in Two Museums where Nakonechny’s Uncle Carl and Aunt Hollyce are trying to repair a broken combine in the field during harvest. Hollyce is studying a large manual while Carl wriggles into the guts of the combine.
“Supposed to be 16 and seven-eighths,” Hollyce says, taking another look at the manual. “Well, why wouldn’t it work?”
“Why would it?” comes her husband’s dry reply from inside the combine.
Nakonechny said it was 38 C the day that scene was shot and the Siemens weren’t the only ones experiencing equipment failure. The heat was playing havoc with the Nakonechnys’ camera batteries and the camera was off more than it was on.
“We were lucky to get that footage,” she said.
The Nakonechnys now live in Swift Current and with their business partner, Adam Budd, have set up two companies to produce and distribute their film: Arid Sea Films and Chinook Releasing. This spring they rented small-town movie theatres across the province and went looking for an audience.
After taking a break this summer, they will screen the film in Regina and Saskatoon in September and hope to embark on another small-town theatre tour in the fall.
While Nakonechny said revenue from the film tour hasn’t paid expenses, let alone cover the cost of making the film, she hopes that broadcast licences will eventually recoup their costs.
In the meantime, to pay the bills, she has been working at a museum in Swift Current while Simon works as a professional musician. She is already thinking about her next project: a fictional short film.
Audience reviews for Two Museums have been generally favourable, especially among older crowds, she said, although younger viewers have sometimes been harder to please.
“There have been matinees where the teachers have had to try pretty hard to keep them quiet,” she said.
“I’m hoping that maybe, in the whole theatre full of kids, there will be one kid that sees it and the light goes on in their head and they think, ‘oh, this is a representation of my reality, this is pretty weird,’ and maybe open their eyes a bit to that. I’m hoping that that’s what comes of it. You never know, though.”