5 Questions with ‘Mennosploitation Filmmaker’ Andrew Wall

Andrew Wall stumbled into the world of film and television by creating corporate video part-time. In 2003, newly married to Johanna and working out of their apartment, Andrew discovered an aptitude for storytelling and editing. He eventually found himself gainfully employed editing documentaries and reality series as an editor for Kyle Bornais at Farpoint Films. As their professional friendship grew, so did Andrew’s resume as he began writing and directing his own projects, with a focus on meaningful stories and inspiring subjects. Along the way, he has become an accomplished editor and director with his award-winning films screening across Canada and throughout the world. See what’s next at http://www.refuge31.com/

1. Refuge 31 Films creates exclusively documentaries, right? Is this a deliberate choice, or has this resulted from simply chasing what fascinates you?

We’ve definitely been on a run of documentary projects. In fact since our inception it’s been all documentary with the exception of a few small commercial projects. That being being said, there are stories we’ve been developing that we do think would be best told through a dramatic scripted format. While R31 doesn’t officially have experience as a company in the dramatic genre, many of us who make up R31 do. Including myself. I have past experience in editing a dramatic comedy series and was recently involved as an editor on an award-winning feature film From the Vine (an Italian/Canadian co-pro film currently on Amazon). I’ve also done numerous short dramatic projects and my producer partner Kyle has produced too many dramatic features to count. It may just be a matter of time before the right story rises to the top of our things in development and R31 finally takes the plunge. Of course finding the broadcaster or funder to get behind it is vital.

That being said… 2021 is once again busy with documentary projects well into 2022.

2. The documentaries you create often feature interviews with people who had been right there when these historical moments took place. You’re asking your subjects questions that perhaps not too many people are asking right now… and may not think to ask until it’s too late. Is that part of what drives or inspires you?

It’s a combination of being inspired and the pressure knowing that time is running out.

The Last Objectors and Volendam were projects that really were just that. Both were about people who had a really unique perspective on the Second World War which, for the most part, hadn’t been told on camera. I always thought it was important to hear their stories and perspectives with their voices and faces before it’s too late. Especially for The Last Objectors, time was running out.

I’ve been on other projects, engaging subjects that may have suffered post-traumatic stress, so I was always careful. Especially when talking about events back in Russia, for the Volendam film, which were dreadful experiences for those I interviewed. In the end it was simply rather me saying: ‘What would you like to talk about?’ I also usually had a friend or family member present as many of the subjects had never been in front of a camera or even shared their stories beyond their family dinner table.

What I found was that there was a consistent need expressed by subjects to remember their fathers, mothers, siblings, and all the other family/community members that had perished or suffered along the way. They not only brought up the hard topics themselves but insisted on it. Yes, there were tears but this was their way of making things right and not forgetting what everyone went through to get here today.

Of course there’s the more complicated question about the German occupation of Ukraine or, more bluntly, when Nazis took over during the war and essentially liberated the Mennonites from Stalin. Everyone was pretty straightforward about what they experienced and their excitement that quickly turned to the awkward realization that being under the Nazis was more complicated and life wasn’t going back to the way it was before communism. The film touches on uncomfortable reality that some Mennonites did engage in Nazi doctrine and a few even in the Holocaust. A topic that really shouldn’t be avoided but has definitely been in the past by Mennonite circles and organizations. That’s where frank assessments from academics like Aileen Friesen and Ted Regehr who are spending time properly researching and untangling archival materials, really helps. At the same time the perspective of the people that lived through it are absolutely vital. Nothing is simple in history but making it grey or avoiding it makes it worse.

As for The Last Objectors, which was clearly a very different storyline, it was important to get some of bigger questions answered about their decision to be a Conscientious Objector (or CO) during the Second World War. The end of the film looks at that, as several of the Objectors interviewed addressed the question as to whether it was the right thing to do. In the context of Hitler and the Nazis, along with the grim reality of what they had done in Europe, it did give pause to most of the COs. I think they do a great job of answering that and, once again, they were the ones that really brought that topic into the conversation without me asking.

My favourite line of The Last Objectors, aside from the final line which managed to get the Sermon on the Mount as the final word, is by Mr. David Schroeder. He points out that the bigger question is, in the aftermath of the war, how much responsibility did the church bear in not doing enough towards peace in the lead up to it. Mr. Schroeder, who spent his life as an academic at a Bible college and thought long and hard about this, saw that question as the motivator for the church moving forward. To work towards peace not just during war but to work to prevent it. That’s a big question which I think is vital to the entire story. Mr. Schroeder passed away before we officially even began making the film but I had decided to film him as a test subject years before. Underscoring the importance in capturing these voices before it’s too late.

Many of the COs have passed since we made The Last Objectors film in 2017 and even a few of those in Volendam too. So, yes, it’s a combination of finding these fascinating stories that haven’t been told and asking the questions that really need to discussed by the people that lived it. That and the fear that our subjects really are the “last” ones left to share these perspectives. I could also go on about the changes within the Mennonite community that has allowed them to feel more free to answer and address these topics as well… but I’ve already given a rambling essay.

3. I first became aware of Refuge 31 Films with The Last Objectors, which my husband and I watched at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. It made an impression on us, particularly because my grandpa had been a Conscientious Objector but I knew very little about it. Next, your film Volendam: A Refugee Story was a fascinating look into the fraught journey of Mennonites from war-torn Europe to South America in 1947. Both these films have garnered attention and awards. How do you decide which stories to tell?

There’s always been three things that push R31 into production: The first being whether we find it interesting. Do we find it interesting enough to spend six months, a year or even more working on it? Does it keep me up at night reading, Googling and emailing strangers asking if they’d be interested in doing an interview? Are archival materials available to visually tell this? The second one is whether my producer partner Kyle likes it. He’s not Mennonite and has produced lots of film and television so if catches his interest that’s a really good thing. Even better if he comes back, usually when I’m bugging him late at night with the next exciting thing, with “okay, that’s a story”. Finally we ask if there is a good chance that we can get a broadcaster or some kind of funding body on board to make this happen. The last two are totally essential. Otherwise it just sits in my development folder waiting for some more compelling piece of the story to come our way and push it back into play. I’ve got everything from Winnipeg’s connection to the JFK assassination to a thriller script based off of a few lines in the Book of James.

In the case of The Last Objectors, they were a pretty small group that was still around to tell the story as most of the men I interviewed were in their late teens from 1942-1945. A group in their eighties or older whose numbers were shrinking every week that went by and this became really apparent during production that we really were just in time to get enough of a group perspective. They truly were the last of the Objectors and almost half of the group that I interviewed is now passed. Two, Mr. Schroeder being one of them, before we even finished the film.

So the time pressure made us take The Last Objectors concept seriously but this was also combined with a unique fund that the federal government created: The World War Commemoration Fund. While we knew there was a chance that pitching an anti-war/Conscientious Objector story could be quickly dismissed, we also thought whoever makes the decisions might just see it as an outlier. A unique perspective on the Second World War that hasn’t been told. I jokingly called it the other-other side of the war that hadn’t been told and apparently the people in Ottawa also thought there was merit. We were happily surprised they funded it and in the end it really turned out to be a unique film that has garnered all kinds of awards and attention well beyond the Mennonite world.

It is important I mention Conrad Stoesz and Korey Dyck at The Mennonite Heritage Archives when we talk about The Last Objectors. Conrad was a huge part behind the film as he had diligently collected so much of the stories and materials over the years. He really felt the window was closing on something he really felt passionate about. Korey was the director of MHA at the time and saw a bigger role for the archives by telling stories through the medium of film/television. MTS Stories From Home participated in its making and later CBC jumped in as it was broadcast many times coast-to-coast with fantastic response.

My initial thought, back when we were thinking about making The Last Objectors, was that it was just guys cutting down trees in the forest during the war. I didn’t quite understand that there was a far more complex and interesting story. I also wasn’t sure if anyone wanted to hear a bunch of “old guys” on screen tell non-war stories for an hour but in the end, thanks to Conrad and Korey’s perseverance, The Last Objectors is a really fascinating story about faith, conscience, and war with some really captivating “old guys”. Very loveable and endearing too. It’s also a film which ends with the Sermon on the Mount being quoted by one of the Objectors that a lot of secular film festivals screened and even gave it awards. It was a lesson to be learned on the power of documentary and letting subjects tell the story in their own words.

Volendam was another “this needs to be captured now” film but in a bit different way. Many of those in the story were children or young teenagers at the time of the war so it’s a fascinating perspective because they often were aware of the danger but really it was their parents that bore the brunt of the stress. So many of the subjects explained that “we were just kids” and the chaos and tension was “the normal” they had experienced growing up. The subjects were again in their eighties. It was interesting how pretty much all of them could talk so calmly about their experiences but were emotional once it came to sharing about their parents perspective. That’s when eyes watered and tears happened. When the subjects addressed their experiences of living under Stalin and fleeing during wartime, and what it did to their parents.

While the story of refugee parents who sacrificed everything to make sure their kids could have a better life is by no means unique, the Mennonite chapter of this was fading as the “Volendamers” already have begun to pass away. That combined with a treasure trove of old film and now accessible digital archives is what drove us to simply get this story told. Thankfully we had support from a variety of sources, including The DeFehr Foundation, to make this film.

4. Refuge31.com says that Refuge 31 Films is “providing a place for an audience to come and find strength and hope in the human experience”. Is there a story behind how you found this focus?

We’ve just come across unique stories that, for the most part haven’t been told, but also have had some pretty uplifting subjects that simply are making the world a better place. Of course these were subjects or stories that were near or already in our orbit and we new they had to be shared with an audience.

Suspended and the Art of Forgiveness is one of the films I’m most proud of but it is also one that has the most apprehension by audiences. Following Cliff Derksen, father of the murdered Candace Derksen, always seems to make people uneasy. So many people I thought would’ve attended the first screening but they didn’t as they had all kinds of concerns and assumptions. In the end, the film is not a dark murder doc like what’s out there on Netflix or Amazon. It’s a deeply spiritual story of a father who defies societal norms and instead makes the world a better place, despite the tragedy. I’ve had more than one secular film festival reach out and tell me about how much Suspended impacted their audiences. One festival director in Wisconsin said people kept talking about this “Cliff Derksen guy who forgave” for the rest of the festival. That’s fantastic.

5. What’s next for Refuge 31 Films?

R31’s 2021 is busy with documentary work again. We do a variety of projects that range from Mennonites to C.S. Lewis to an Indigenous music band. A really cool feature documentary project is underway that looks at the world of obsessive world of comic book collecting but we also have another Mennonite story that examines those that migrated to Mexico from Manitoba during the 1920s. I initially thought there wasn’t a story there but was persuaded to take a closer look. In the end it’s a fascinating tale of personal and religious freedoms clashing with government in post-First World War Canada.

I call myself a Mennosploitation filmmaker but of course there’s many other things, outside of Mennonite stories, always simmering away at R31. Along with a variety of dramatic projects and even a few series’ we’d like to see happen.

6. (bonus Q) How are you doing during the pandemic?

It’s been weird but very busy. After the initial lockdown, a week or two of binging on Netflix, learning about tigers and doing crafts with the kids, we had to figure out how to make films differently. R31 was forced to do a series of remote interviews for our film The Science Fiction Makers. We hired local crews abroad while I Zoomed in and interviewed the subjects from Winnipeg. I would make breakfast for the kids, get the girls logged into their classes, get my son off to school and then turn on my computer and interview people around the world. This without having to stress about flights, hotels, crew, baggage, or even setting up the camera. While I didn’t get to go to England or New York, the good news is that it turned out well and in the process we really made things more efficient in both time and money.

As for the home basement office during the pandemic, with my kids doing school upstairs, I felt like a short order cook, babysitter, and at times a police officer while trying to edit shows all at the same time. My wife, who’s a nurse educator, has been incredibly supportive of my career over the years but this was a moment in time where she needed to be at work and not be disturbed with all our texts and phone calls. Thankfully our eldest tutored our youngest and we somehow survived. The kids are all at school now but I’m still editing out of my basement and most probably will be doing a combination of remote and live interviews with travel down the road. So things have somewhat changed and most probably for the better in the long term. I definitely can’t complain.

To purchase Volendam or other films by Refuge 31, please visit the Mennonite Heritage Archives at https://www.mharchives.ca/resources/books/

Related posts: 

‘Volendam: A Refugee Story’ is Haunting, Yet Joyful

We’ve Seen ‘The Last Objectors’ 4 Times

On Moustache Grooming and Mennonite History: 5 Questions with Archivist Conrad Stoesz