Monty Bassett, a biologist by training, became a filmmaker as a result of unfortunate serendipity, but he has certainly left his mark.
Bassett, who spent time on the Galapagos during his doctoral studies, arrived in the Bulkley Valley in 1976 to serve as the Executive Director of the Spatsizi Association for Biological Research during which time he conducted a radio-telemetry monitoring program on mountain caribou.
“Mountains everywhere and great people,” Bassett said of the draw to Smithers.
“It was a community and it still is, people are here by choice.”
Growing up on a farm in Laramie, Wyoming, gave Bassett plenty of occasion to develop his eye for nature. His eye for the natural world and later as a film maker was given particular insight by advice from his grandfather.
“See what is there, not what you think you see,” Bassett recalled with fondness the advice his grandfather gave him.
Those words not only spurred his interest in biology, but later became the underlying thread in his films.
“My biology has never been as encompassing as when I got into film, because it allows you to see patterns,” he explained.
Bassett’s decision to become a filmmaker, a storyteller, was not by design and certainly not part of a long term plan.
As a caribou biologist, Bassett often found himself hanging from a helicopter, risking life and limb despite the news that colleagues had their lives cut short when the perished in helicopter crashes or plane crashes.
The last straw, Bassett said, came with a plane crash that took the life of Mel Mellison, a pilot he often worked with on the caribou radio-telemetry project.
“The plane just disappeared,” he explained.
Bassett decided, with a nudge from his wife Pashan, there had to be a safer way to study and promote the conservation of nature.
As fate would have it, Bassett had earlier been part of a production team filming Hell and High Water in the grand canyon of the Stikine River.
As a biologist, Bassett was fascinated by the mountain goats and watched them during breaks in filming .
Later he wrote an article for Nature Canada on the mountain goats and shortly after the article was published, Bassett received a call from the Discovery Channel asking him to produce a short film on the goats of the Stikine Canyon.
Bassett countered with a proposal to do a 30-min. documentary and Discovery Channel accepted.
With the help of Cas Sowa, a still-life photographer from the Bulkley Valley, Bassett spent a year filming the goats for the film Life on the Vertical.
The film later earned several nominations and awards, including first place at the Canadian International Documentary Festival in the best scientific film category.
With that, Bassett’s career as a filmmaker was born.
“Soon we were doing more movies for Discovery, Animal Planet and National Geographic,” Bassett said.
“I realized I could find something that interested me and pitch that.”
Bassett’s interests have led to films about what satellites are telling us about our changing planet, the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, the Tahltan people’s fight against resource development and most recently a film on the life of Scottish-born Canadian artist Ted Harrison, Land of the Chartreuse Moose: the Life and Legacy of Ted Harrison.
With his films on nature and First Nations struggles, Bassett said the reward is not in the accomplishment or completion of the film, but rather in the communication of the story, knowing the story has touched someone.
“Even better when they become advocates,” he added.
Despite the success, Bassett does not see film making as a life career, although there is no doubt he has enjoyed every moment thus far.
For now, Bassett’s story is centred on his family and film making and as far as he’s concerned is still unfolding.
However the story unfolds, Bassett is ready to tell the story in whatever form it may take with one guiding principle of storytelling.
“It’s all in the story, the story will tell you how it should be told,” Bassett said.