Shelley Chartier being interviewed for Indictment: The Crimes of Shelley Chartier | Image source: ImagineNative.org
Indictment: The Crimes of Shelley Chartier is a complex and fascinating true crime story that raises important questions about our justice system. Sensationalized in the international media as a high-profile catfishing scheme involving NBA all-star player, Chris Anderson and Paris Dunn, a 17 year old model whom he had an affair with and a reclusive Indigenous woman who catfished both of them making world wide headlines.
The one hour documentary weaves together interviews with Chartier, the people close to her, Dunn, psychologists, and legal experts in order to gain insight into the woman behind the crime. Co-directors, Shane Belcourt (Métis) and Lisa Jackson (Anishinaabe) dig deep into the roots of Chartier’s community shedding light on the impacts of colonialism in the way she grew up and the effects of intergenerational trauma. The filmmakers reveal the softer side of Chartier by exploring her relationship with her husband and the redemption journey she is still on. The documentary can be a tear-jerker at times as it looks to humanize someone who has been portrayed in a salacious manner by mainstream media- up until now.
MUSKRAT Magazine writer, Erica Commanda, spoke with both Belcourt and Jackson leading up to the film’s wolrd premiere at the ImagineNATIVE Film + Media Arts Festival about their collaborative work on the film.
MM: After producing so many films, in your opinion what makes a film/documentary great for you? Are there certain qualities that make a film better for you?
LJ: The number one thing for me that I appreciate about documentaries and films in general is when someone has a question that they are trying to answer when they make a film. There are a lot films that have a point to make and those can be really powerful. The films that make us think the most about issues and ultimately what it means to be human are ones that comes out of a deeper question filmmakers are trying to answer. It’s exploring something and trying to understand it as opposed to just telling you what I think about an issue.
MM: You and Lisa Jackson collaborated on this film. As are a collaborator, how would you describe your approach to co-directing such a complex film?
SB: A lot of stories in real life have multiple layers, angles and intersection. Real life is complicated, and this is a true crime story that involves the real life of Shelley Chartier. When Lisa and I began the discussion of the project as two friends talking, we talked about how this story was crazy. We had a lot of different angles but we were trying to think about the best angle in order to understand a court case in which we had no access to much of the material from the sentencing and investigation. What is the truth?
Because of that complexity and lack of clarity, we thought the only way to go into making this film is with this conversation where Lisa and I are constantly asking questions and debating opinions about what we think is true. I thought if we kept this going throughout the production, we’ll probably have the best approach to interviews and all the way to the edit to what the truth is that is so elusive.
MM: How did you get involved in making a film?
LJ: When this film came up as a possibility for me to direct it was one where there was interest that started in Winnipeg – where the production companies are. When I looked at all the media coverage on Shelley, I became interested because I thought there was a part of the story that hadn’t been told. The media coverage was salacious. It focused on the true crime stuff and there was a ton of stereotypes on Shelley and her community. Then I heard an audio interview that had been done with Shelley when she was in prison and I was immediately fascinated by her.
She is such an intelligent person. That’s what made me decide to do the film. I felt she deserved her fair share and to be treated properly to balance out a lot of the media coverage that didn’t give her a fair shake, used stereotypes, and focused on the most salacious parts of the case.
When I was thinking about the case and taking it on I reached out to Shane Belcourt who I have known for years. We admire each others work. I admire his ethics and the way he makes films. At first I asked his advice around it and used him as a sounding board to determine whether or not I wanted to go ahead with the project. When I decided to go ahead I said I wanted to co-direct it with him. That’s because all of the complexities of the story weren’t really easy to navigate and I wanted to have a second person there to work through all these challenging parts of the story. It was brilliant, it was amazing to have each other. We didn’t always have the same thoughts on everything, but were were exposed to the same information, challenges, questions and storytellers, so we could talk it out over and over again. I could not have done it without him.
MM: You had to interview quite a bit of people for this film, from Paris Dunn to Chartier’s boyfriend Rob, what was it like to interact with people who had so many different points of view about the situation and Shelley?
LJ: Connecting with Shelley and Rob was so crucial. One of the things that we did was we gave them a camera so they could make their own recordings, some of those are used in the film. Part of that was wanting for them to have the freedom to express what they wanted to express without anyone telling them how to do it. It was really insightful.
We didn’t just talk to the RCMP and the news reporter on the case- we talked to legal experts of all sorts, we talked to psychiatrists, we talked to Indigenous legal scholars, a lot of people gave their time to look through all of the materials, read about Shelley and her case and gave us a better idea, especially from the legal side of what was really appropriate and how her case was handled.
Once we had all that information there was the question of what do we think of Shelley, and for sure that’s part of the film. When we dug down to how her case was handled in the justice system there was a lot of questions that came up and they weren’t questions just about Shelley’s case, but how Indigenous people are treated in the justice system period. The story shines a light on ways the justice system can do better with Indigenous people and we touch on that in the film. Shelley was one of those people who could have had a better shake in the way that her case went through.
MM: While reading about this story in the media before watching the documentary, I read an article about how Chris Henderson and Paris Dunn thought she got off easy. What are your thoughts on their opinions?
SB: I try to be empathic and put myself in their shoes. When you suffer something that was unfair and unwarranted, no amount of punishment is ever going to take away the pain. I also think it speaks to the unresolved nature of a crime that is faceless. It’s almost like when the US had their housing and banking crisis. It was a faceless institution that took people’s savings away. In Shelley’s case, she was this person on the internet they will never meet. There was no trial in the US, no court and they didn’t get to see the judge say anything to her.
If you look at the kind of time that people do for the crime she committed, at the dollar value she committed it at, you are going to be hard pressed to find anybody who would do time like that. Would you find that surprising because she was an Indigenous person; which is the part I bristle against. I just reference the banks – did anyone from Goldman Sachs do time for swindling millions of dollars. Zero. She did a crime worth of $5000 and she got 18 months.
I hope that if they ever watch this film they see a side of Shelley and the story that they didn’t understand, and see someone who feels remorse for what she did and is still redeeming herself. She was aware of the pain she caused and I think in someway it would relieve their desire to seek retribution.
LJ: Chris and Paris are entitled to the opinion that they think she should have gotten more time.
A lot people may agree with them. I talked to people who are knowledgeable about our justice system and the truth is Shelly got a very strict sentence for what she did within the context of the Canadian legal system.
In the film we bring up the Gladue principles and process in Canada. What that basically means is that the Canadian justice system has to take into account the colonial impacts on Indigenous people at all steps in the justice process, especially in sentencing. You don’t just look at the person and facts of the crime, but for any offender, especially Indigenous ones, you have to look at their life circumstances and the way that their situation has been the result of colonial practices and all the ways that their lives have been disadvantaged through government policies. There have been great strides made in Canada about rehabilitative sentencing. It’s not getting rid of the punishment, but looking at how can we give sentences that both punish and address the root causes in order to prevent more crime in the future.
MM: What would you like audiences to take away from the story?
SB: When Lisa and I first spoke about the project, I remember this one element of the story is all of that judgemental energy: well there’s this freak! OMG look at this person here on the Internet who climbed out from underneath her troll bridge! We want to vilify people, but in many people’s cases there is a context for how that happened. Our analogy for the film was we are going to start the film as a fish bowl and as we break down the layers people are not going to the fishbowl anymore, but a mirror in which they can see themselves.
LJ: I hope this film will show audiences that Shelley is a lot more than what she is made out to be in the media. Well first and foremost, you can see in the film that Shelley is a human like any of us. She said herself, that she committed these crimes, she was lonely, she was bored, she was reaching out for human connection and she manipulated people. But she’s a human and had her life had been different and that there was support in different ways when she was growing up this wouldn’t have happened. This the perspective we need to take in general when we are quick to condemn people like Shelley for the crimes they committed.
Indictment: The True Crimes of Shelley Chartier makes its world premier this Saturday, October, 21 at 8:30pm at the TIFF Lightbox.
Lisa Jackson Bio: With a background in documentary, including acclaimed short SUCKERFISH, RESERVATION SOLDIERS for CTV, and the CBC-broadcast HOW A PEOPLE LIVE, Lisa Jackson expanded into fiction with SAVAGE, which won a 2010 Genie award for Best Short Film. Her cross-genre work includes current affairs, animation, performance art film, and a musical. Playback Magazine named her one of 10 to Watch in 2012, the ReelWorld Festival named her a Trailblazer, and her work has played at festivals internationally, including Berlinale, Hot Docs, SXSW, Margaret Mead, and London BFI, as well as airing on many networks in Canada.
Shane Belcourt Bio: Shane Belcourt is a Métis award-winning and CSA-nominated director, writer, and cinematographer whose work often explores the Aboriginal experience. He grew up in Ottawa the son of a prominent Aboriginal rights leader (Tony Belcourt) in a home of artistic siblings (Christi & Suzanne Belcourt). In 2007, with the release of his debut feature film, Tkaronto, Shane was a TIFF Talent Lab participant, an IFC Mentorship Award Winner, and in 2010 a Filmmaker in Residence at the Winnipeg Film Group. His short films and documentaries have played at imagineNATIVE, Telefilm Canada’s Perspectives Program at Cannes, Whistler Film Festival, Air Canada, CBC, APTN, The Comedy Network, the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, the Museum for the American Indian, TIFF Bell Lightbox Indigenous Cinema Retrospective, and many others