The story of serial killer Robert Pickton and the devastation he wrought on the Downtown Eastside is a complicated one to tell. More than a decade after Pickton’s arrest, a new film takes on the difficult story in order to give voice to its victims.
Pickton is part of the story, but he’s not the whole story. His Port Coquitlam pig farm of horrors is part of the story, too, as is the sum total of women he murdered and dismembered: 49 is what he told an undercover officer.
Those are the elements of the story that are easily recalled, but the serial killer (who was convicted in 2007 of the second-degree murders of six women; the DNA of 27 more were found on his property), his pig farm, and the cold statistics are fractions of a larger story about sexism, racism, addiction, systemic prejudice, and police indifference – and that larger and infinitely more nuanced story is the one that has gone mostly untold.
Investigative journalist Stevie Cameron pieced together that labyrinthine tale in her 2010 national bestselling book, On the Farm: Robert William Pickton and the Tragic Story of Vancouver’s Missing Women. Cameron introduced her readers to the vulnerable women – the majority of whom were survival sex trade workers, First Nations, and addicts – Pickton targeted, and painted a portrait of a climate in which vulnerable women were dehumanized and the police establishment refused to acknowledge the existence of a serial killer in the DTES.
Cameron’s 700-page tome was subsequently optioned by Vancouver producer Rupert Harvey, who – along with screenwriter Dennis Foon – shaped the difficult story into On the Farm, a feature-length film that screens at VIFF’s Vancity Theatre on July 17 before its broadcast premiere on CBC Television on July 23. In June, On the Farm won three Leo Awards, including Best Television Movie.
The film stars Maija Tailfeathers (The Guard; Rebel) as Nikki Taylor, a fictionalized composite of many of Pickton’s victims. Nikki – who works in the survival sex trade – struggles with addiction and watches helplessly as her friends disappear without a trace or any action from the authorities, until her own violent confrontation with the killer.
Sara Canning (Eadweard; Remedy) co-stars as a beat cop determined to get her department to take an interest in the growing stack of missing persons’ reports, and Sarah Strange portrays an equally determined coordinator at a DTES women’s drop-in centre.
At the helm of On The Farm is veteran director Rachel Talalay (whose numerous credits include Tank Girl, Doctor Who, and an episode in the upcoming season of BBC’s Sherlock).
It almost wasn’t to be. Talalay wasn’t keen to watch, let alone direct, what could easily be a salacious and exploitative MOW about Pickton’s crimes, and she had a hard time understanding why Harvey (her husband) optioned the book in the first place – until she actually read the book.
“It’s really not the Pickton story,” she says over tea in Kitsilano. “It’s so easy to say, ‘I’m not going to watch that film about those awful murders.’ But that’s not why Stevie wrote the book, and it’s not why Rupert set out to make the film, and we communicated that from beginning to end, which is why everyone wanted to be involved.”
Tailfeathers had that same first reaction when she cracked open the script and realized she was auditioning for a role in a film about the murders.
“I got this sick feeling in my stomach. I had that initial response of, ‘Oh god, really? Why? Why are they doing this? Who wants to tell this story?’ But then I was, ‘Well, why would Rachel be involved? Why would she be doing this if that was the approach that they were taking?’” says Tailfeathers, seated beside Talalay.
Then she read the entire script, and realized that the story is humanizing and ethical. It focuses on the innumerable challenges faced by the women in their daily lives – as well as their relationships and burdens – and hands the power back to the victims.
“It was a huge responsibility to tell this story in the right way, and do justice to the families, who are living with that trauma and that reality every day,” says Tailfeathers.
Filming occurred over four weeks in 2015 at locations in Vancouver, Langley, and Abbotsford. Both Talalay and Tailfeathers describe the shoot as emotionally charged and inspiring. “There was always the thought of the importance of what you’re doing at all times,” says Talalay.
“It was very clear that a lot of people took pay cuts to be on the show, and they did it because they cared,” says Tailfeathers. “There was a very sort of communal feeling of responsibility.”
Numerous family members of Pickton’s victims were present on set as background performers, including in a highly emotional courtroom scene and another shot on location in the Downtown Eastside.
As for the character of the killer, Pickton (portrayed by Ben Cotton) functions mainly on the periphery. “This film isn’t about the serial killer, or the crimes,” says Talalay. “It’s about the bigger story.” Thus, Cotton’s Pickton remains silent and mainly out of focus, and in the shadows. “[Before shooting began], I had a talk with [Cotton] about how the evil presence has to be there, but we have to make sure there’s no glamour to anything to do with him,” says Talalay.
Last week, the filmmakers screened On the Farm for the victims’ families. Many were invited to the screening (which was bookended by words and songs from a medicine man), and at least 10 chose to attend, as did the community liaison from VPD victim services.
Family, cast, and crew shed tears together before, during, and after the screening. Talalay says the family members “came and thanked us, and they’d seen exactly what we’d wanted them to see, which was the big story,” says Talalay. “That was my first moment of relief.”
On the Farm’s credit list reads like a who’s who of the local acting scene: besides Tailfeathers, Canning, Cotton, and Strange, there’s Patrick Gallagher, Patrick Sabongui, Marci T. House, April Telek, Jonathon Young, Paul McGillion, Viv Leacock, Tantoo Cardinal, Kevin McNulty, Brittney Wilson, Olivia Steele Falconer, Brendan Penny, Tony Pantages, Serge Houde, and many more.
Talalay is grateful to casting director Jackie Lind, who took home the Leo Award for Best Casting in a Television Movie for On the Farm. “Jackie Lind went frequently with actors who had the response that all of us had at first, which was, ‘Why would I want to do this?’ She went to all of the agents and she went to all of the actors that she knew and said, ‘This is the real thing, this project is the real thing, and we need this kind of substantive acting to pull it off.’”
Tailfeathers hopes On the Farm will inspire reflection and change in its audiences – especially because “not a whole lot has changed since . Pickton is a serial killer, but there are still women who are going missing, particularly Indigenous women, and women who are working in the survival sex trade,” she says. “Homelessness rates are up, and people living with addictions are still marginalized and criminalized. It’s an ugly place, but there is beauty and richness to that community.”
On the Farm’s Vancity Theatre July 17 screening will be followed by a panel discussion. Tickets at VIFF.org.