'Where are your parents from?': Filmmaker sisters find out in Bayline

Filmmaker sisters Justina and JJ Neepin learn more about the place where their father grew up — near the Hudson Bay rail line in northern Manitoba — in Bayline, a short documentary that's screening at the Gimli Film Festival this week.

JJ and Justina Neepin's father grew up along the Hudson Bay rail line in northern Manitoba

Justina Neepin, left, and her sister JJ Neepin, right, walk on the Bayline tracks in northern Manitoba. (Daniel Jebb)

"'Where are your parents from?' — a question I was asked when I was young and still get asked today," narrates JJ Neepin in the opening sequence of her latest film, Bayline.

"Every time my parents told me, I would forget because it wasn't a very decipherable place I could point on a map. Today, I can tell you where they are from."

Bayline is a 15-minute documentary, co-produced by sisters Justina and JJ Neepin, that takes place over a three-day camping trip with their parents to the community where their father grew up.

JJ Neepin was the writer and director, while Justina produced this personal journey.

It started off as an idea from their father but quickly turned into something bigger. JJ and Justina Neepin decided to document their family camping trip along the Hudson Bay rail line, also known as the "Bayline."

"Bayline is short form for the Hudson Bay railway between The Pas and Churchill," JJ said.

"They wanted to show us a part of the Bayline where my dad grew up," she added. "My dad basically told us all his childhood stories and that's where he went in between residential school."

In the film, their mother, Maria Neepin, describes her favourite moment of the journey as "just being able to take a walk [down the tracks] … and just being out there, it allowed you to think … we thought of a lot of things and it just made you take a step back … wow, this is the kind of life that we had lived."

A new perspective

JJ and Justina's parents always told them stories about growing up when they were little, but through this experience, they finally have context for it.

Their father grew up on the Bayline up to his mid-teens, when he wasn't in residential school.

Through the documentary, JJ and her sister discovered a loss that their father experienced that had never been told before.

Justina Neepin, left, produced Bayline, while sister JJ Neepin, right, wrote and directed the film. (Daniel Jebb)

"I knew my dad had siblings that didn't make it into adulthood," JJ says in the film. "I always thought they were born before he was. I never knew about his little sister."

In the film, JJ's father tells the story of his sister, Eleanor, who passed away from illness when he was a child.

They weren't able to visit the site where she is buried during this trip, but they hope to return someday to pay their respects at her resting place.

Telling our stories

"I think the main thing I learned was there are so many stories within our communities, within our own province that are so unique," said JJ.

She added that there is a huge branch of history out there that still has yet to be told.

"Once all [of] our elders go, all those stories will be gone," she said. "Believe me, all [of] the older ones want to share those stories — they really do."

Young indigenous filmmakers and storytellers have the opportunity to keep their history alive, she said. There are many resources out there for young storytellers to reach out and get started. JJ suggests joining the Winnipeg Film Group, getting internships on sets, or even taking a course.

When asked what young aspiring Indigenous filmmakers in particular should do, JJ said, "Start talking to people — just don't be shy to learn about it."

Bayline will be screening at the Gimli Film Festival on July 27 at 12:30 p.m. at the Lady of the Lake Theatre and on July 29 at 3:30 p.m. at Gimli Theatre.