Sport and self-identity at the heart of Cassie De Colling documentary

Spencer O'Brien. Photo: Peter Morning.

Canadian snowboarder Spencer O’Brien’s journey to uncover her Indigenous heritage is the subject of the first feature documentary from Aussie director Cassie De Colling.

Production is underway in Vancouver on Precious Leader Woman, which chronicles how the sportswoman managed to reconnect with her First Nations community following a tough result at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympic Games.

After discovering the world of her heritage and Western ideals are not mutually exclusive, O’Brien, who was diagnosed with Rheumatoid arthritis only a couple of months before the Games, returns to the mountains, balancing the peace of mind that comes with snowboarding in the backcountry with the rigors of competitive winter sports.

Written by Kainai First Nation actor/producer/filmmaker Elle Máijá Tailfeathers, the film is being produced by Hayley Morin and Mack Stannard for Kiddo Production Company, with Leah Nelson and Michael Grand on board as executive producers.

The creative team also includes cinematographer Leo Hoorn and editor Dakota Morton.

Precious Leader Woman, which is being funded by Telus Originals, is expected to head into post-production in May ahead of an August completion.

It’s not the first time De Colling has documented the world of snowboarding, with her 2011 film Line of Control about Kashmir’s first female snowboarder winning her the World Nomads Travel Documentary Scholarship.

Travel has since become a hallmark of her work, which has included short films Allie and Ai’s Journey, the latter of which toured with the World Ocean Film Festival through cinemas in Europe.

Having signed with LA production company A Common Thread, she regularly travels between Melbourne, Canada, and the US for requested commercial projects.

The director said her interest in O’Brien had spanned two decades.

“I started out in the snowboarding industry, so this is my dream project,” she told IF.

“Spencer was one of the world’s biggest snowboarders when I was a teenager and I had those aspirations.

“I feel like that has manifested into now having the skills and being gifted the opportunity to tell that story.”

De Colling conducted pre-interviews via Zoom to determine the “heavy hitters” within O’Brien’s life, speaking to snowboarding industry leaders, Native family members/descendants, and top-tier athletes, as well as her coaches and mentors.

The non-interview segments will be shot in the back-country mountains of British Columbia, with live-action sequences and re-enactments being used to illustrate pivotal moments in the snowboarder’s life.

The director said COVID and working remotely had so far proven the biggest challenges for the film.

“There’s always this feeling in the back of our heads that if one of us goes down (with COVID) for two weeks, then it will be harder to fit filming within the closing window of the winter season,” she said.

“We have those prep weeks which are all conducted in the office via Zoom and then we get together to do the shoot but you still have to maintain safe distancing.

“You almost need double the time because you don’t have that instantaneous connection.”

Precious Leader Woman will screen on Canadian broadcaster Telus Optik TV as part of an open licensing deal which will allow the film to be shown across other outlets.

De Colling said she would love to bring O’Brien’s story to audiences in her home country.

“It’s a documentary about a snowboarder, so I’m not sure how it will go in Australia,” she said.

“But I think the theme of her rediscovering her native identity in her mid-twenties is quite universal.”