Canadian landscape inspires a journey into the meaning of happiness with new short film The ___ Place

Winnipeg filmmaker Tyler Funk and dancer Emily Solstice Tait joined together with Halifax poet Michelle Elrick and musician Michael Belyea to create The ___ Place, a short film that explores the idea of creating joy during the pandemic.

New film for CBC's Creator Network combines talents of filmmaker, dancer, poet and musician

How poetry, dance and nature unlock internal bliss

3 years ago
Duration 3:13
A dancer, poet, filmmaker, and musician come together to explore happiness.Their muse? The Canadian landscape. Dance video credits: Tyler Funk, Emily Solstice Tait, Michelle Elrick, Micheal Belyea, Ryan Hanson and Micheal Feuerstack

Over the course of several months, 28 artists and storyellers from the East Coast, Manitoba and Saskatchewan have imagined their own happy places as a creative antidote to the pandemic. The projects, produced by CBC's Creator Network — which works with independent producers to tell their stories — have included audio essays, illustrations, videos, photos and this final short film by Tyler Funk, dancer Emily Solstice Tait, poet and singer Michelle Elrick, and musician Michael Belyea.

Check out the 16 other projects by clicking this link:

For Halifax poet and writer Michelle Elrick, happiness used to be child's play.

When she was young, her parents would play a game with her when company came over. 

"They would say, 'OK, Michelle, do your happy face,' and I would do this happy face with a big smile. And then they'd say, 'OK, now do your sad face.' … 'What about surprised face?'"

That experience helped shape the poem and video collaboration for The ___ Place

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'In between awake and asleep, while ruminating on the theme of “Happy Place” for the new @cbc_eastcoast poetry film project I’ve been working on, I heard this echoey refrain rippling through my brain,' Halifax poet and writer Michelle Elrick wrote on Instagram. (Michelle Elrick)

"I wanted to try to complicate that idea and sort of acknowledge that happiness isn't simple: it's not an either-or thing between happy and sad," Elrick said. "Happiness is ... more subtle and experienced-based, I think, than that."

Through the writing process, she realized her happy place comes from within and is connected to solace, contentment, security and safety. 

"It's more a state of mind — a sense of being awake and engaged with the experience of being alive," Elrick said. "But nature often brings me there."

Winnipeg filmmaker Tyler Funk first pitched the potential collaboration to Elrick. He wanted to do a visual take on the theme involving nature, but also wanted to include words. 

He worked with Elrick in the past when she lived in Winnipeg, and the two won an award for best cinematography at the Suffolk International Film Festival. So Funk knew who to go to. 

"And she's like, 'Well, I don't really do poems about happy things,'" he said with a laugh. 

That sparked a conversation, and a plan deeply rooted in nature. Their co-directed project started small and expanded to include original sound by Halifax musician Michael Belyea (with an audio mix by Michael Feuerstack), lighting and camera assistance from Ryan Hanson, and contemporary dance by Emily Solstice Tait.

Funk wasn't looking for full choreography with a story arc. He wanted to splice up the movements, playing on the emotions. He'd filmed dance before, but never directed. 

Solstice Tait was up for the task. 

"What she brought to the project is a whole other level," Funk said. 

Tyler Funk filmed the video in Winnipeg this winter. (Tyler Funk for CBC)

Video chats bridged the distance and creative visions. Elrick gave notes on the emotions involved in parts of the poem. Solstice Tait experimented with that, and found outfits that would fit the movement and the cold, then filmed potential movements. Funk found three locations for filming during winter in Manitoba: a stand of trees, Lake Winnipeg and a winding creek. 

They filmed in one day. 

"It felt like three different streams were moving all at once, and then on the day ... it was a meeting point for all those streams," said Solstice Tait.

She practised ahead of time, but left room to interact with the environment. 

"You can't push something on nature," said Solstice Tait. "We do that already in our spaces."

The natural environment heavily influenced Elrick's writing, too.

She wrote part of the poem in a spruce grove near her home in Purcells Cove, N.S. There's a spot there where the roots of spruce trees wrap around a large granite boulder. Overtop, there's a layer of spruce needles and moss. 

Elrick's poem is influenced by nature. She wrote some of the piece in a spruce grove near her home in Purcells Cove, N.S. (Submitted by Michelle Elrick )

"When I sit on this little root shelf and lean against the boulder, it's a wonderful thing because if the wind blows, I can feel actually the wind moving the trees, and moving the tree roots and the tree against the boulder — sort of lift and shift," she said.

"It's like being rocked almost in a tree cradle."

When Elrick is present in the moment, taking in nature, something shifts. 

"I can feel close to the world in a way that often I struggle to get to in regular life, with all of the stress and anxiety that regular life brings along."

The Creative Team

The dancer

Emily Solstice Tait is a contemporary dancer whose work crosses into theatre, choreography and stage management. (Miguel Fortier )

Emily Solstice Tait's practice is rooted in contemporary dance. Her work crosses into theatre, choreography and stage management. She was raised in Winnipeg and is of mixed settler and Ojibway ancestry (Berens River First Nation). Her dances have enlivened spaces like The Manitoba Museum and The Forks National Historic Site, and have found their way into indie film and theatre productions in Treaty 1 territory and beyond.

For Solstice Tait, happiness is a bit elusive. Where we find joy can surprise us, or maybe we can't find it where we used to, she says.

"Happiness seems to come from the outside into your body," she said. "That is, for me, definitely an expanse of nature, like when we were on the lake. That was incredible. But usually for me, it's when I'm, like, with an animal."

The filmmaker

Tyler Funk is an award-winning cinematographer from Winnipeg. (Carmen Ponto)

Tyler Funk is an award-winning cinematographer from Winnipeg. His goal is to work on emotionally charged, socially conscious and challenging content, while pushing himself to deliver visually striking images.

"When I am out filming and fully consumed by the creative process, and specifically in nature with a camera, that is honestly my happy place," Funk said.

"It's almost as if getting this project going, and getting the opportunity to collaborate with Michelle and Emily, and having the opportunity to spend an entire day out in nature and film beautiful dance with beautiful lighting and beautiful locations, that really is [a] happy place for me — to be in that moment, creating." 

The poet

Michelle Elrick is a poet living in Halifax. (Nicola Davison)

Michelle Elrick is an award-winning Canadian author. Her second collection of poetry, Then/Again, was released in 2017 to critical acclaim. In addition to her published work, she also writes and directs poetry films and performs as a spoken word artist with River of Diamonds. She is happiest in the woods, with time to kill. Find her on Instagram @michelle.elrick.

"It's just a wonder to me how much a project can really grow beyond itself, or grow beyond the initial concept of itself, when really talented collaborators are involved, and when everyone is given a chance to really see their personal artistic vision to fruition," she said.

The musician

Michael Belyea is a drummer, composer and producer. (Nicola Davison)

Michael Belyea is a drummer, composer and producer. Drawing on his extensive experience as an international touring musician and a session drummer in Montreal, Berlin and Halifax, Michael now primarily works out of his own studio, The Pentagong. (Note: this is also one of his happy places!)

Elrick and Belyea are married, and marry their poetry and music in the band River of Diamonds. Belyea has watched the The ___ Place evolve on the page, and on the screen.

"It's like watching something sprout from the ground," he said.