Documentary brings filmmaker home to Sask.

Filmmaker Kenton Vaughan grew up in the Saltcoats area, although he moved to Ontario in 1987 after graduating high school in Yorkton.

While he has remained in Ontario in the years since, Vaughan said he has always had a desire to make a film in Saskatchewan.

"I had been looking for a number of years to make a film in Saskatchewan because that is where I'm from," said the filmmaker who has literally been around the world including shooting a documentary on bonobo apes in the Republic of Congo of Africa. That film; The Ghosts of Lomako appeared on the Nature of Things in October 2003.

Vaughan said his search took a more earnest approach in the spring of 2009 when he was simply looking for a new project to turn his camera on.

It was at that time when a friend suggested a visit to the Grasslands National Park in southern Saskatchewan.

"I'd always been looking for a reason to go there," admitted Vaughan, who added he began "sniffing around" for a story idea which might tie back to the reintroduction of the bison to the native Prairie in 2005.

But, instead of finding a story on bison Vaughan said he found something different which immediately piqued his interest.
Plans were under way to reintroduce the black-footed ferret to the park.

Vaughan said he knew very little about the animal, but was intrigued.

"I had no idea they were North America's only ferret I had no idea they were once thought to be extinct," he said.

It didn't take long for Vaughan to realize there was a compelling story to be told by following the reintroduction of the ferret, and he quickly agreed to do a film.

Then he said he realized exactly what he was up against technically in making the film.

"I realized I had agreed to make a film about nocturnal animals that live in holes," he said.

The actual shooting of the film was a challenge, which Vaughan said was overcome with some "cutting edge technology" including light amplification gear which enhanced what natural light was available on night shoots.

"I had an idea it was out there (the technology), but I didn't know what it was," he said.

Compounding the challenge was the tight timeframe from when Vaughan learned about the impending release, and when he had to have cameras rolling.

"It came about very, very quickly," he said. " It did all fall into place quickly."

In most instances it takes months to put together a financing package for a documentary film, but Vaughan didn't have that kind of time. What he did do was pitch the idea to the Nature of Things which had used his film on the bonobo apes.

"They approved the project without me doing all the research, or figuring out how we were going to do it," he said.

It helped Vaughan was dealing with Caroline Underwood with the Nature of Things.

"She knew all about ferrets," he said, explaining she had thought of including a segment on the animals in a film which never did get off the ground. "So she was already up on the story of the black-footed ferret."

Within a few short months of being told of the ferret program, Vaughan was at the Grasslands Park shooting film. He said they took their first footage in October 2009, and shot periodically over the next year.

"We shot every season," he said, adding the final segment was done in September 2010 as they "released the second batch of ferrets."
Vaughan said they had little idea what they would be catching on film, adding there is relatively little known about the black-footed ferret in a wild setting.

"They're so rare I believe they haven't been studied very much," he said.

The ferret is so rare "by the end of the 1960s they thought the last ones were extinct," said Vaughan.

In the case of Saskatchewan it was in the 1930s the ferret was listed as extinct locally.

Then in the 1980s "a ranch dog in Wyoming brought one in," said Vaughan, which led to the discovery of an isolated wild population.
"It was a second chance to save them," he said.

However, fate seemed against the ferret as canine distemper and sylvatic plague decimated the Wyoming colony.

Naturalists finally stepped in and live trapped the last 18 wild ferrets, and began a captive breeding program to save the ferret.
"When there was only 18 they were probably the rarest animal in the world," said Vaughn.

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While captive breeding proved a major challenge, it did work.

"It doesn't breed easily in captivity. It's really, really complicated," said Vaughan. "

Breeding them is much more difficult in captivity than it is the wild.

Today there are several breeding centres across the United States, and at the Toronto Zoo, the only Canadian location. The combined effort has led to releases back to the wild in numerous locations, including the Grasslands Park.

"There's now probably about 1,000 in the wild," said Vaughan.

While the black-footed ferret is obviously a cute little critter, Vaughan said cute can't carry an hour-long documentary film.

"That was one of the challenges when doing the edit, deciding what we wanted to say," he said, adding an obvious question is "why should we care" about the black-footed ferret.

Vaughan said it's not a case where the ferret is likely to be the source of a cure for cancer, but there is the broader idea that as human beings "we shouldn't let species go extinct on our watch."

While there is a story behind the release, such as the captive breeding program, Vaughan said they kept their cameras strictly on the park, telling that part of the ferret story.

That decision led to some compelling moments for the film crew, which actually discovered the first litter of wild ferrets at the park.
"We found the first litter of ferrets in Saskatchewan probably in 70-years," said Vaughan. "It made some headlines."

So where does a film made in his native province sit on the list of accomplishments for Vaughan? He said films are very much like children and you end up loving them all, although for differing reasons.

For example, Vaughan said The Ghosts of Lomako "was a fascinating film because of the war, because of the location." He said it was a film of conflict.

With Return of the Prairie Bandit the attraction was being home in Saskatchewan and telling what is basically a success story.

That said, he reiterated, "I would definitely say it was the most technically challenging film I have done."

Vaughan said spending time in Val Marie over the course of the shooting was a great experience for both he and the film crew.
"The people were really warm and friendly and helpful to us," he said, adding they will return to the community to screen the film in the coming weeks.

The Return of the Prairie Bandit will air on CBC's The Nature of Things Thursday (Feb. 10).
Vaughan said the film in also entered in this year's Yorkton Film Festival.

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