Documentary shares ‘significance’ of the Cowichan sweater, gets nod at Canadian Screen Awards

Documentary shares 'significance' of the Cowichan sweater, gets nod at Canadian Screen Awards
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The poster for the documentary film is shown.

A filmmaker from Vancouver Island is being lauded for her latest documentary, which takes viewers to a First Nation and tells the story of the Cowichan sweater — the iconic, distinct knitted garment weaved with history.

“It’s exciting,” said Mary Galloway, the director behind the film The Cowichan Sweater: Our Knitted Legacy, as she gets ready to head to Toronto, Ont., for the 2024 Canadian Screen Awards, where her project is nominated.

“It’s like a whole week thing. I’m bringing my mother along with me from the Island, she’s very excited. As well as the film’s producer, Tiffany Joseph, and my partner,” she told CHEK News in an interview. “We’re making a big trip.”

The 44-minute feature got a nod in the “Best Documentary Program” category and previously aired on CBC last fall after being in development for several years.

“I attached myself a couple years ago. It’s been a few years in the making. We filmed it in, I think, April of last year,” said Galloway on Tuesday.

“The filming and the edit has actually been within the last year or so, but prior to that, we were developing it for about a year before that.”

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The subject matter, the Cowichan sweater, dates back decades and has deep meaning for Galloway, especially given her family history. Her late grandfather, Dennis Alphonse, was Chief of the Cowichan Tribe and often sported one.

“Cowichan sweaters have been around for over 100 years. They’re a huge part of the Cowichan Nation. They have really been integral for our Nation’s livelihood for many years, at least through until the ’80s, maybe the ’90s. It literally means food on the table. It has meant that for families for decades,” said Galloway.

“There’s a lot of significance behind each knitter’s designs and where they got their patterns from. It’s usually passed down through generations. Knitting as a whole was at risk of extinction, but I think it made a comeback.”

She says she’s noticed a resurgence of knitters and is thanking organizations like Baaad Anna’s, a Vancouver-based yarn store that has donated wool to the Cowichan community since the film’s release. Galloway calls the feat “fantastic.”

‘It was meant to be’

The film’s synopsis on the Screen Awards’ website says it “weaves together the rich history of the authentic Cowichan Sweater, who knits them, and how and why they became the beautiful, strong, icon of the Coast Salish Peoples.”

Several locals were interviewed and featured in the film, which had a “tiny crew” of eight or nine people, notes Galloway. For her, this team was special because all of them were Indigenous, and most were from Cowichan.

“A first time for me. I’m usually the sole Cowichan person on any given set,” she explained. “That meant a lot to me.”

Galloway currently lives in Winnipeg, MB, but was born and raised in Qualicum Beach and was happy to return to the Island, this time in the director’s seat for a project she’s passionate about.

“About five years ago, I moved to Winnipeg, but before that, I lived in Vancouver for nine years,” she recalled. “I did acting school there and learned to write and direct. Then I moved to L.A. for two years and Toronto for a summer.”

Galloway recalls how the film came to be and thanks those who helped fund it, including CBC, Rogers and the Indigenous Screen Office.

A few years ago, she got an Instagram message from someone who said they were producing a doc on Cowichan sweaters and were looking for filmmakers.

“And my name came up,” she said.

Ron Rice with the Victoria Native Friendship Centre was the visionary behind it all. Initially, he planned to make a commercial to boost Cowichan sweater sales, but then it morphed into the doc that’s getting all this buzz.

“We were looking to do a bit of disruption in the sector that relates to the retail sales of Cowichan sweaters, trying to find a way to raise the profile of the garment and, therefore, the knitters more of a living raise,” Rice told CHEK News.

“One of the things that we thought about was buying and selling them ourselves, and we thought about making a commercial and putting it onto a website that might help. But it turned into a 44-minute film that aired on CBC.”

Galloway believes that everything happens for a reason.

“I met with Ron Rice and he’s the one who started the project. We hit it off,” she said.

“I showed him a picture of my late grandfather in a Cowichan sweater and he said, ‘Oh my gosh, you’re Dennis’ granddaughter? We worked together for many years.’ It was meant to be, and I signed onto the project and added in my story with my grandfather and his sweater.”

Their hard work is paying off, and now people are watching the film that tells a story “for the community from the community,” said Galloway.

“It’s been fantastic. Well received from the knitting community as well,” she added.

“It’s done a few festivals. It’s also aired on CBC Television, they had such a good response…It was just B.C. and Alberta at first, but they got such a good response they sent it out across the country.

“I had an old teacher reach out. She’s a principal now, and she wants to include it in the curriculum for the social studies class.”

Feeling ‘blessed’

Rice never thought he’d get to work on a film.

“It was a very interesting process. It was great to work with creative people and to see something be so well received. It’s certainly an honour (to be nominated), and I think that the stories being told, the truth being told by these knitters as to why they did it, what I meant to them then, what it means to them now, I think is something that people will admire,” he said.

“I think Mary and the creative job at collecting those stories.”

Now, with just days to go until the awards, the film’s momentum isn’t slowing down as Galloway gears up to potentially add another trophy to her resume.

“This is definitely the most culturally significant piece I’ve ever been blessed to work on and honour to tell and to carry this story for my Nation, and I feel very, very privileged that I got to and very excited for the awards next week,” she said.

“I’m keeping my fingers crossed.”

The film is available for streaming via CBC Gem, while a five-minute trailer narrated by Galloway can be found on YouTube. Rice says people can visit the website to purchase a Cowichan sweater.

The 12th Canadian Screen Awards final gala ceremony will be broadcast in a CBC Television special on May 31.

Watch the trailer below:

Ethan MorneauEthan Morneau

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