"I guess I try to do stories on people who really need a voice, and need to tell their story," says Halifax photographer/filmmaker Nance Ackerman, the director of 2006's Cottonland, a story of addiction and struggle in Cape Breton. Her new NFB-produced film, Four Feet Up, features eight-year-old Isaiah and his family living well below the poverty line in the Annapolis Valley. It screens nationally in six cities on November 24, marking the 20th anniversary of the federal government's pledge to eliminate child poverty.
The film also serves as the inspiration for Ackerman's Anniversary Project (theanniversaryproject.com), also launching on the 24th, an exploration of poverty-stricken neighbourhoods and people all across Canada, produced through her Heartstring Productions.
Ackerman and her partner, Jamie Alcorn, travelled across the country talking to and recording the people and places in the dire straits of poverty. Getting people on camera was rarely a problem. "I said, 'I'm interested in lending a voice and a face to people who are struggling unnecessarily in this country,'" says Ackerman, "and most people responded with 'Well, yeah, right! I am struggling and there's no reason for it.'"
She gave her camera to her subjects, and the finished product reflects whatever they showed her. "Mostly what people wanted to do was show the place that was helping them," Ackerman says. "We went to the Boys and Girls Club in Scarborough, we went to St. Mary's Outreach Community Home in Ottawa, we went to a drop-in centre in Vancouver. In Dans la Rue in Montreal, this girl just went all through the building, showing all the rooms. The littler kids always wanted to show off their mom or dad."
If there was any reluctance to appear, it was quelled by the chance to use the camera. Ackerman says, "I think what scares people when they have a camera shoved in their face is people think, 'Uh oh, I've lost control of my image, I've lost control of who I am.' God knows, you put a picture of anybody and say anything underneath. So the minute you give them the camera, it's empowering."
The website is multi-faceted. One portion is a resource of all the centres and community groups Ackerman visited on her travels, and another page is full of the individual stories her subjects showed her, like Nerosh, who lives in Vancouver.
"He was one of the last six families living in public units, Little Mountain Housing, that were being razed, completely bulldozed, for a few new housing units and then the rest was being developed and sold for condos. And then there was a part that was going to be a parking lot for the Olympics. It was like these last six families were making a stand."
The Anniversary Project is Ackerman's attempt to further explore and highlight those in desperate need. It is also a reapplication of some of the stylistic tricks utilized in Four Feet Up, where Ackerman often turns over her camera to Isaiah, the bright and curious protagonist of the story. And it is a natural extension of a career that has focused on subjects in circumstances outside their control.
"I think using art as activism, as a message, as a vehicle to heal or to get yourself out of circumstances that are beyond your control is a great way to do it."