“Slighe Agnais – A Journey for Agnes”

by Jan 16, 2019

Today we’re looking at Gaelic filmmaking in Nova Scotia, through an interview with Jenny MacKenzie, the writer, director, and producer of the 2018 Gaelic language short film “Slighe Agnais – A Journey for Agnes.”

Prior to 2018, two Gaelic-language short films were made in Nova Scotia by director Marc Almon: “Faire Chaluim MhicLeòid / The Wake of Calum MacLeod” (2009) and “Ruidhle an Fhìdhleir / The Fiddler’s Reel” (2011).

Jenny MacKenzie now brings another perspective to Nova Scotia Gaelic filmmaking. Before getting involved with filmmaking, Jenny was already involved with Gaelic culture through dance performance and teaching. She has taught dance at the Gaelic College and has worked as a professional Highland dancer and Cape Breton step dancer since 2005, touring and performing in musical theatre productions throughout Canada, the US and the UK. She is co-founder of Change of Step Highland Dance Company and co-producer of the company’s theatre production, East Coast Celtic. Jenny lives in Mabou, Cape Breton, where she owns and operates Dannsair Fitness and Wellness.

Jenny MacKenzie, Gaelic filmmaker

Jenny MacKenzie, Gaelic filmmaker

It might seem like a leap (pun intended!) from dance to filmmaking, but it is all under the umbrella of Gaelic performing arts. Jenny explains how she made her film through the Languages of Nova Scotia initiative:

“The Languages of Nova Scotia program, together with the Atlantic Filmmakers Cooperative, supported five language short films, all filmed in Nova Scotia – Gaelic, Farsi, Mi’kmaw, Maritime/American Sign Language, and French. I attended a film workshop weekend held by the program at Colaisde na Gàidhlig. The second phase of the program was to apply to gain support through workshops, mentorship and funding to create your own film from the ground up – ‘Slighe Agnais’ is a result of that.”

The film, which is about 5 minutes long, is the story of a young woman and her grandfather in Cape Breton:

“Slighe Agnais - A Journey for Agnes“ film poster

“Slighe Agnais – A Journey for Agnes“ film poster

Here’s the official description:

A’ fuireach còmhla ri seanair nach bruidhneas sian ach Gàidhlig, agus a’ strì le iomagain is dubhachas, ’s e samhradh fada, di-mhisneachail a th’ air thoiseach air Agnas, ann am baile beag ann an Alba Nuadh. A’ dh’aindeoin sin, le gaol, co-fhaireachdainn, agus eólas bho ’n chànan ’s bho ’n chultar aice fhéin, gabhaidh i rathad na firinne, gu féin-dearbhadh.

Living with a grandfather who will speak only Gaelic to her, and battling anxiety and addiction, twenty-year-old Agnes is destined for a long, frustrating summer in rural Nova Scotia. Despite their differences, she learns that acceptance, love, and the knowledge she finds in her language and culture will lead her on a path toward self discovery.”

We hope to be able to watch the film online soon. In the meantime, learn more about the film and stay up-to-date with news and events by following “Slighe Agnais – A Journey for Agnes” on Facebook. There’s a behind-the-scenes video about the making of the film on the Facebook page as well.

I interviewed Jenny MacKenzie to find about more about her own slighe with Gaelic and filmmaking:

EM: How did you first get interested in Gaelic?

JM: I had a connection with Gaelic as a language since a young age, but I only started learning about seven years ago. My grandfather, Angus Macquarrie was the last to speak it in my family. Gaelic is now the language of my home. My husband Kenneth MacKenzie and I are raising our twin toddlers with Gaelic as a first language.

EM: How did you get interested in filmmaking, and what have been your influences as a filmmaker?

JM: Storytelling is a part of the Gaelic culture that I love: how stories are passed down from one generation to the next, whether visiting with an elder or friend, or shared at a community event. Telling a story about Gaelic experience in Nova Scotia from the perspective of Agnes’s generation has been something I’ve wanted to do for quite some time but I didn’t have the means to bring a story to the screen. The Languages of Nova Scotia program was the perfect opportunity to do this.

A still from “Slighe Agnais” featuring Sarah MacInnis

A still from “Slighe Agnais” featuring Sarah MacInnis

EM: How did you get the idea for “Slighe Agnais”?

JM: The idea for “Slighe Agnais” came from my own experience with Gaelic. Growing up, I was connected to parts of the culture and had little pieces of Gaelic here and there but I was missing the language. Agnes’s character was inspired by that life experience. The story of Agnes and her grandfather speaks to the struggle to keep Gaelic alive within a family and also the healing that can come from finding identity in language and culture. I think stories like this – especially for Gaels and those in Nova Scotia who have experienced loss of language and culture – are relevant and relatable. They serve as a reminder of how it is possible to re-connect and take hold of our native languages and cultures.

EM: That’s a wonderful story in itself! How long did the film take to create?

JM: This film took the better part of 2018 to create from the beginning to end. I became involved with the Languages of Nova Scotia program in May of 2018. We had two days to shoot the film in August and after a few months of post-production we premiered on November 29, 2018.

EM: The premiere was a great evening, there was so much love and support in the Halifax Central Library auditorium for all the short films. In your production, would you say that you wore a lot of “different hats,” in the sense of playing a lot of different roles in the project?

JM: It was an enriching experience learning to write, direct and produce a film. Although I wore many hats, it was easy to stay motivated because I was surrounded by people who were committed to the story and brought their professionalism and talent to the project.

EM:What kinds of expertise did you draw on in the Nova Scotia Gaelic community as you made the film?

JM: My mentor Nona MacDermid, who produced “Faire Chaluim MhicLeòid / The Wake of Calum MacLeod,” provided me with valuable insight from the beginning of the project. My husband, who is a native Gaelic speaker, was my script translator and worked closely with me through each stage of the project from the writing of the script to filming and editing. We also consulted with Margie Beaton, who is also a native Gaelic speaker, and she was very insightful and helped with the dialogue.

Behind the scenes: Sarah and Angus on the set of “Slighe Agnais”

Behind the scenes: Sarah and Angus on the set of “Slighe Agnais”

EM: What kinds of future projects do you have in mind for Gaelic and/or filmmaking?

JM: I have some ideas in mind for more Gaelic films and theatre productions.

EM: That’s exciting to hear, since there was a tradition of Gaelic theatre in Cape Breton at one time. How do you feel the performing and visual arts could play a role in revitalizing and promoting Gaelic in Nova Scotia?

JM: I truly believe that having Gaelic content is supportive to continued growth in Gaelic language. Having Gaelic children’s programs has been very helpful for myself and my children in keeping our language in Gaelic in the home. It keeps people engaged and interested and brings new people into the community.

EM: What would you offer as words of encouragement to anyone wishing to learn Gaelic?

JM: Find support within the Gaelic community and ask questions. There are always people willing to support you on your Gaelic journey.

EM: Mòran taing Jenny!

This post will be updated with a link when “Slighe Agnais – A Journey for Agnes” is available to view online.

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