Tales from Planet Earth: Finn Ryan on belief and community in digital media

Fred Ackley, Jr. and the importance of ricing are the subject of 'Manoomin,' playing as part of this weekend's Tales from Planet Earth

“Visual storytelling is so good at sharing personal experience and passion”

If there’s a connective tissue between Manoomin and Clan Mother, two of director Finn Ryan’s short films playing at this weekend’s Tales from Planet Earth Festival, it’s respect. Manoomin is named for the wild rice of northeastern Wisconsin’s Mole Lake, with Fred Ackley, Jr. intoning the importance of ricing in the Sakaogan Chippewa Community. And as a clan mother in the Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Mohicans, Molly Miller externalizes the anger and frustration within her community, with the camera watching in silence as she transforms a whirlwind of hugs and good vibes into tight-knit change with her tribe.

The docu-shorts, which play in front of features In the Light of Reverence  and Arctic Mosque respectively this weekend, let their American Indian subjects do the talking. They’re part of a larger series on the state’s tribal culture by Wisconsin Media Lab, a sweeping and ambitious undertaking hidden by their individual bite-sized pieces. Finn Ryan, who directed every one of the films featured in “The Ways,” has a strong interest in the intersection between environmental awareness, filmmaking and educational media. The Madison-based producer and director talked with me via email ahead of Tales:

Judging from your online portfolio, I’d guess that you’re maybe a little interested in environmental awareness with your filmmaking. What came first for you?

Finn: I have always been interested in environmental awareness. I spent a lot of time outdoors growing up and a lot of friends do environmental work. I went deep into climate change with a large project I produced called Climate Wisconsin. This was my first chance to bring my environmental awareness together with my passion for telling stories.

Is there anything unique about using visual storytelling for environmental awareness?

Finn: Storytelling in general is a great way to engage people around issues that may seem complex or even irrelevant, like climate change. Visual storytelling is so good at sharing personal experience and passion. So when you hear from Fred Ackley Jr. why manoomin or wild rice is so important to his community, you gain awareness, and with that, you begin to care about the protection of manoomin and the continuation of the harvest tradition.

After looking through Wisconsin Media Lab’s website, you’re actually behind all of their stories for “The Ways.” How did you get involved in this project specifically and, maybe, educational media in general?

Finn: After college, I was in high school special education working in inner city Minneapolis. I struggled to really engage the students I was working with because their school experience was largely irrelevant to much of their everyday lives. So I went to grad school here in Madison and studied culturally relevant education, or put simply, how to engage the students I had taught. I rekindled an early passion for filmmaking and had the opportunity to produce educational media with Wisconsin Media Lab (WML). After Climate Wisconsin, which won an Emmy, and The Ways, which was nominated alongside series from VICE and ESPN for a Webby, I went down to half time with WML so I could work on other projects. This past summer almost the entire budget was cut for WML and the public educational media we were producing so my position was terminated. Since then, I’ve been working on a project called We Are Healers, and I just started a project with the Center for Healthy Minds.

There are so many different subjects in “The Ways,” from high school basketball to spearfishing to the Ho-Chunk language. What was the process for finding these stories? And were you involved in sourcing anything?

Finn: I was in charge of finding all the stories, but we had a lot of help from our project advisors and groups like the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission. Finding a good story is only half of the challenge because we don’t use outside narrators so the person has to be able to tell their story well. We also tried to represent every Tribal community in Wisconsin. It was challenging, but when you look at the collection as a whole, it turned out really well.

How did these two shorts become a part of this year’s festival?

Finn: I’ve worked with [Tales from Planet Earth founder] Gregg Mittman and [programming director] Peter Borger in the past, and I produced the trailer for the festival. They approached me and asked if they could screen these two stories. I was excited because they are two of my favorites.

Manoomin is about the tradition and importance of ricing. You’re letting Fred do the talking, but your camera is entirely focused on the ricing and how that process plays out visually. Do you see any connections between that cultural tradition and Tales’ theme this year: belief?

Finn: I do. Fred’s statement about how the manoomin tradition makes the world continue is all about belief. All of Fred’s beliefs acted on become tradition, and these traditions are his world. Within this narrative, you see how important manoomin is to his community. We don’t go into it in the film, but Fred was actually very involved in defending Rice Lake from the proposed Crandon Mine.

Clan Mother seems to have a clearer connection with this idea of belief. Molly wants to strengthen community relationships with cultural leaders and grass roots education. And there’s a faith in this idea that simple, small gestures can have a beneficial ripple effect.

Finn: Yes, I really like Molly’s story. What she does with her community seems simple on the surface, but as you begin to understand historical trauma and the layers of challenges faced by her community, you realize that her simple gestures are quite amazing and impactful. Her gestures are an extension of her beliefs formed through the experiences and beauty of her life.

Have you seen either of the films, In the Light of Reverence or Arctic Mosque, that play after your shorts? How do you think they’ll pair together?

Finn: I have not. I’m excited to though!

You’ve worked a lot with short-form digital stories. Anything longish in your future?

Finn: Yes, actually. I’m really excited to try something longer. The short form is great for a series, but you don’t have as great of an opportunity to go in depth into one particular story. I’m beginning to work on a longer film on treaty rights in our area.

  • Clan Mother plays Sat Nov 7 at 7:00p while Manoomin precedes a screening of In the Light of Reverence on Sun Nov 8 at 1:00p. Both are in the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art. See nelson.wisc.edu for complete schedule information.