Best Atlantic Short Documentary: 'Songs of Unama'ki' shines at Atlantic International Film Festival

MEMBERTOU — The Atlantic International Film Festival recently honoured "Songs of Unama'ki" with the Best Atlantic Short Documentary Award.

Directed by Membertou's Dawn Wells in collaboration with Jeff Miller, this film takes viewers on a journey to Cape Breton, also known as Unama'ki (which means the "land of the fog" in the Mi'kmaq language) where the traditions of the Mi'kmaq people come to life through their music.

"Songs of Unama'ki" ties the island's recorded history of Mi'kmaq music to modern artists creating Mi'kmaq music for today's audiences, from legendary Mi'kmaw artists like Lee Cremo to the contemporary musicians they inspire, like Morgan Toney.

The film examines records of music kept by prominent Nova Scotia folklorist Helen Creighton. Recordings, which Wells says, were essential to the continued existence of culture in the region.

"It goes back to Helen Creighton and all of her recordings from back in the past. If she didn't do that, a lot of those songs would be gone. Not just for Mi'kmaq people but for other people as well," said Wells.

"She didn't only collect music, but everything from the Maritimes — folklore, superstitions, other types of music like Gaelic music. She's the main person who collected culture here. She's a big player in our historic preservation."

Directed by Wells and Jeff Miller, the film brings together a dedicated crew, including screenwriters Wells and Donna Davies, producers Davies, Ann Bernier, and Victoria Germain, cinematographer Charlie Benoit and editor Dennis Bradley and a talented cast of musicians, featuring Sons of Membertou, Toney, Mary Beth Carty, Michael R. Denny and the Eskasoni Women's Drum Group.


Wells says she's honoured the film and its subjects got recognition in this way.

"It feels pretty good, considering I used to work for a radio station for many years and worked with many Mi'kmaq artists at events and things. I knew most of them anyway. Some of them I was related to," said Wells.

"It was fun to contribute to this kind of project. It's not like you have to talk to someone about anything tragic or terrible.

“There is a little tragedy but not really. It's more of the loss of traditional music but the doc is really about how they're trying to preserve it."

Music history wasn't the only thing uncovered by “Songs of Unama'ki.” Wells says in the filming process, she found something out about her own family history that she didn't even know.

"During this project, I found records of my grandfather,” said Wells. “I'm Mi'kmaq but my father's mother married a guy from England and he was so into our native culture that he was one of the main people trying to bring it back in the 60s and 70s with Eddie Kabatay, and I didn't know anything about it.

"It was cool. I saw that outsiders looked at our culture, Mi'kmaw traditions, and said you know this is nice. We should bring it back. And it's funny. His name is Donald Wells and I'm Dawn Wells."

“Songs of Unama'ki” is available to watch in Atlantic Canada on the Atlantic International Film Festival website.

Mitchell Ferguson is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter covering Indigenous affairs for Cape Breton Post.

Mitchell Ferguson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Cape Breton Post