Star-studded Fort McMurray short film aims to help with mental health after disasters

·3 min read
Back Home Again explores the story of the 2016 Horse River wildfire through the voices of woodland creatures.  (Back Home Again Movie - image credit)
Back Home Again explores the story of the 2016 Horse River wildfire through the voices of woodland creatures. (Back Home Again Movie - image credit)

A Fort McMurray filmmaker is hoping a star-studded animated film featuring the voices of Catharine O'Hara and Michael J. Fox that explores the impacts of the 2016 Horse River wildfire disaster will help people to heal.

The 30-minute film, Back Home Again, which begins streaming this fall, shows the impact of the fire through anecdotes from woodland animals living in the community.

Michael Mankowski, director and creator from Fort McMurray, said he recorded more than 200 testimonials after the wildfire in and around the Rural Municipality of Wood Buffalo in northern Alberta and used those as inspiration.

"I think it's an opportunity for us to shine some positive light on the community… really focus on how we came together," Mankowski said at a press conference last week.

He started writing the first draft for the script shortly after the fire destroyed 2,400 structures and caused almost $9 billion in damages.

The fire started on May 1, 2016 and swept through the community, forcing more than 80,000 people to flee their homes on May 3.

"It's been an emotional journey, but a lot of healing too," said Mankowski. "I cry all the time."

Mankowski said he, like many in the region, was affected heavily by the fire.

Submitted by Angela Sullivan
Submitted by Angela Sullivan

"My problems didn't seem as big when you're talking to a family who lost their home. And a young child is talking about his bedroom and the toys he doesn't have," Mankowski said.

"Teachers are gutting the classroom and throwing out the belongings of all the children."

Mankowski said when he started working on the project he didn't picture it with all the stars that ended up being involved. But every single celebrity they asked to be involved said yes and donated their time and talent.

Mankowski said he put a lot of his own personal money into the project, costing "well under" $200,000 to produce the film.

He partnered with the Wood Buffalo Economic Development Corporation, the Red Cross and the Canadian Mental Health Association.

When producer John Schneider became involved in the project he started reaching out to friends including those he knew producing Schitt's Creek, and building a "great cadre of cast."

As well as O'Hara and Fox, the cast also includes Eugene Levy, Martin Short, Bill Burr, Jeremy Renner and Kim Basinger.

Submitted by Angela Sullivan
Submitted by Angela Sullivan

The movie is intended to help families bridge the gap and open up difficult conversations addressing mental health, Schneider said.

The entire project was vetted by mental health professionals, including 19 professionals looking at the script.

"I could feel Michael's emotional tug all the time throughout this," said Schneider.

"The only way to be able to heal from this is to have a conversation, to recognize you're affected by this and to confront it and overcome it."

The film is expected to be used as a tool to help people talk about living through disasters, especially with children.

Mankowski has also submitted it to over 30 film festivals and is hoping the debut will be at the Toronto International Film Festival.

He added he secured funding to get subtitles made in Cree and Dene for the film.

Wood Buffalo Economic Development Corporation president Kevin Weidlich said the group provided about $180,000 in marketing costs for the film.

Weidlich said it was an excellent way to present Fort McMurray to the world.

"As much as the wildfire was a traumatic event… there are many very positive stories of community, of how people come together to help each other and the fact that there is a strong, diverse and caring community."

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