T6W Chats With Amazing Filmmaker Mitch St. Pierre (UnRestricted) About Being Good at Life
By Ariel Nishli
Keeping Mitch St. Pierre on topic can prove to be an arduous task. That’s because there are clearly more important things to discuss. I spoke with Mitch over a crackly Skype call to Cambodia about his life’s journey, a true adventure that’s earned him titles of world traveler, filmmaker, and hotelier. His latest passions are political. Mitch is intent on heightening awareness for social ills in third world countries, and like a shrewd politician, he steers our conversation toward his cause when the opportunity presents itself.
In KoldCast TV’s riveting travel-adventure series UnRestricted, Mitch and his team of close friends cum documentary filmmakers bring audiences to the true hidden treasures of our planet. The first episode follows their trek through the magical country of Cambodia. They hunt down ancient ruins, chaotic bazaars, bamboo trains and floating villages, encountering sharp surprises along the way. A routine stop for some fruit becomes a fried tarantula-eating contest. A group of six-year-olds huddled on the street are revealed to be gambling with real cash.
Travelling the far reaches of the world is simply Mitch St. Pierre’s hobby. He goes about each exhaustive adventure with ease, the way most people treat a round of golf or an evening spent cooking. The man has visited over 40 countries by his ripe old age of 28. In an attempt to grasp the special ingredient that allows someone to do so much in such little time, I came to realize the strongest motivator is often what you lack. In Mitch’s case, it’s the use of his legs.
THE SIXTH WALL (T6W): Let’s start at the beginning of your filmmaking career. You have so many different areas of focus, from advocacy, to politics, to travelling. When did you start to put it on camera, and why?
MITCH ST. PIERRE: Ever since I was a kid in elementary school, I’ve always been fascinated by cameras. I remember going around with one of those huge rented school cameras you could pop a VHS tape into and making home movies with my brother and our friends. The real first film we made was Await the Freight. The three of us who are in KoldCast’s Unrestricted hopped a freight train in Canada.
T6W: That’s you, Skot Sanderson, and Shawn Kazda?
MITCH: Yes that same crew. We decided to explore a hobo lifestyle, sleep under bridges and hitchhike. The big finale of the film is hopping a freight train boxcar with me in the wheelchair. We made it on successfully, but of course the conductor saw us do it, stopped the train, and called the police. It was a great adventure though. That aired on CBC back in 2006 and got me started in filmmaking. Since then I’ve done politically motivated stuff – Burma, Thailand, Venezuela, Cuba. We tried to do one in the Dominican –
T6W: Let’s get there in a moment. What inspired you to mimic a hobo’s life in the first place? Was the idea bent towards advocacy, or were you guys just having fun without realizing you were exposing people to part of society’s underbelly?
MITCH: Well Shawn is a train junky. He’s always talking about trains. Since day one he was telling me, you should hop a freight train with me one day. I always refused, but one day I said ok let’s go on an adventure. I’m the kind of guy who loves an adventure. I usually never refuse to go anywhere so I said let’s do it. We got the camera together and took off. It was quite the experience.
T6W: The climactic scene of you boarding the train is actually animated, in contrast to the rest of the film. Why did you end up doing it that way? Was it just too hard of a shot?
MITCH: Yeah. The thing is it was at nighttime and we had to be very sneaky. To evade security we couldn’t have lights on or the camera rolling. To get a wheelchair on the train was incredibly difficult too. We figured an animated sequence would add a bit more character.
T6W: So you do your own stunts.
MITCH: Of course!
T6W: With this movie under your belt, you then decided to get more involved in the political sphere and use filmmaking as an advocacy tool?
MITCH: When I watch documentaries that make it big, like Michael Moore’s films for example, it’s so inspiring. I’ve learned so much about the world from watching documentaries, and just figured I’d do it on my own and tell these stories myself.
T6W: There’s a common theme in your stories of visiting third world countries, interacting with impoverished people, and exposing their way of life. What have you found from going on these trips?
MITCH: I’ve travelled to so many places in the world. Anywhere I go, from a tiny country like Belize to a giant country like Brazil, there are so many fascinating people and stories. I’m in Cambodia, as we speak. I always thought about how great it is when people get outside of their own worlds and experience other people’s worlds.
T6W: How are you usually received? With open arms, or has there ever been some hostility?
MITCH: I’ve been robbed in dangerous places around the world and in safer places like my hometown of Ottawa. Because I’m a guy in a wheelchair, people are so interested in talking; about my life and how I got here. They want to have such long conversations. And the kids! They always swarm me. They’re looking at this wheelchair, which they probably think is a big toy, and they want to push me around. Sometimes I even give them my wheelchair to play around with. In certain countries, those with disabilities are disregarded.
T6W: You’re breaking their paradigms. Do you think you’ve changed people’s perceptions of what someone with a physical disability is capable of accomplishing?
MITCH: Oh for sure. It gives people a new perspective. You just don’t see wheelchairs like mine. It costs about $4,000 and was specially made in California. The governments in most of these countries won’t pay for a wheelchair. I always see people in these dilapidated things. I’ve been approached with requests for wheelchairs, for peoples’ grandparents or whoever. I have to tell them I bought mine in Canada. When they ask how much, I don’t say, because first of all the government pays for it, but it’s really sad too. I remember being at a marketplace in Lima, Peru and I saw this guy with no legs, rolling himself around on a skateboard. He’s looking at me thinking, where did he get this wheelchair? Why does he have one and I don’t? To me that’s a tough thing.
T6W: There must be a sense of heartbreak from always seeing people without. Are you constantly denying people’s requests, who you wish you could give to?
MITCH: Almost everyday. Especially when I go to the market, where you find many poor people. There was an experience I had a couple of weeks ago. I went to a club in the city and was refused entry because I was in a wheelchair. I thought to myself, this is like 1950’s discrimination in America. I wrote to the local newspaper about what happened. That spooked my staff because the nightclub owner is a very rich man. It’s not just about me getting into this club. Cambodia is the most disabled country per capita because of the war. The genocide that took place and the landmines hidden around the country are some of the very many reasons why people are disabled here. So things are still sort of backwards, but there’s not much you can do about it.
T6W: Do you find that your disability in one sense empowers you to go up against powerful people like this, serving as an armor of sorts?
MITCH: Yeah, for sure. Like I said, what I was trying to get across in this article was that it’s not just about me. It’s about this country. If people are going to discriminate against this large segment of the population, it’s just not allowing the country to move forward. That’s why I wanted to go ahead and print the story even though I was told not to. People really do need to advocate for these kinds of issues.
T6W: What was the story’s impact?
MITCH: Wow. I was scared. Everybody here was telling me this guy was going to shoot me. For a couple of days I stayed in my room wondering why I had such a big mouth.
T6W: Do you regret your decision?
MITCH: No, no. The journalist wrote me a couple of days later about what I was going through. He said don’t worry about it, that people get overly paranoid sometimes. It wasn’t even a big deal for the nightclub owner. He’s got all the money in the world compared to others here.
At this point our audio feed cuts out. I watch an episode of UnRestricted while I wait for it to restore. Young children run around amongst sessile crocodiles, wearing snakes as makeshift scarves. Mitch, Scot and Shawn rocket through a vast field on a rickety bamboo train – a few wooden planks nailed to an engine – that makes Coney Island’s Cyclone seem like a playground tire swing. Another clip shows them at a gun range operated by the military for fundraising. AK-47s and RPGs are on the menu. I think to myself, why on earth are these guys over there?
Click to watch a segment from UnRestricted, “Eating Tarantula’s”
T6W: You mentioned a staff. What have you hired them to do?
MITCH: Well, actually, from making the UnRestricted episode in Cambodia, we fell in love with the country and decided to come back and buy a hotel. So now we’re running it here in the city; a 36-bedroom hotel, with about 22 staff members for now.
T6W: That’s very interesting, and a lot of work! What compelled you to run a hotel?
MITCH: I love Cambodia. I’ve been here many times before and just thought, why not do something crazy that would allow me to stay?
T6W: What’s your clientele like?
MITCH: Mostly Europeans, some Canadians, Americans. We have a restaurant and a pool. It’s a really nice place.
T6W: How’s business?
MITCH: Great! We’re in the slow season right now and it’s still pretty good. The rainy season is coming up soon so that should be interesting. Our major attractions aren’t parasailing or jet skiing or anything like that. This location attracts more of the Indiana Jones or Tomb Raider tourists. Adventure-seekers. The tours that we sell at the hotel are for thousand-year old ancient temples, elephant treks through the jungle, or floating villages – all these adventures that you can go on.
T6W: Your journey from filmmaker to traveller to hotel owner seems to have developed pretty organically out of a love for what you do and where you happen to be. What’s next on your agenda?
MITCH: What I realized in the last couple of years is that if you keep an open mind and have this “just go with it” mentality, your life can change drastically within a moment. Who knows what’s next?
T6W: Maybe you’ll come to Hollywood.
T6W: How did you partner up with KoldCast? UnRestricted started off as an hour-length feature film before being broken up into individual episodes.
MITCH: We sold it to a Canadian broadcaster at first, but wanted a different avenue to sell it through in the United States. Someone recommended KoldCast and I thought the website was very interesting. David Samuels had some great ideas on how to showcase it, so that’s how the distribution model came about.
T6W: What has the response to the series been?
MITCH: It’s been amazing. We’ve had interviews with different papers and media outlets on UnRestricted. The footage is so incredibly foreign. Every time I show people, they’re just in awe of what they’re seeing. We worked with a cinematographer who I think is one of the best. It shows you how wild this country is. Hopefully it will make people want to come to Cambodia.
Click to watch a segment from UnRestricted, “The Bamboo Train”
T6W: As UnRestricted is a documentary, many of the series’ great moments are caught on tape. Were there any stories from filming that stand out, perhaps behind the scenes?
MITCH: Six of us came to Cambodia and all of us were good friends. It was hilarious and pretty wild at times. We like to have fun and to party. There was this typical cliché filmmaking story where Shawn and I got into a big fight at the end. I don’t even talk to him anymore. Scott’s still here at the hotel with me. It’s kind of a shame that something like that would happen. I don’t know if it’s inevitable.
T6W: The pressures of extreme situations create a ripe opportunity for a blowup. What was the falling out over?
MITCH: It was just arguments about small things that added up. The same sort of thing happened in Await the Freight. We didn’t talk for six months after that film. You’re traveling for a long time together and things like that can happen.
T6W: Was there ever a hierarchy established while filming UnRestricted as to who would make creative or logistical decisions?
MITCH: No, and I think that’s probably where the arguments started. One person gets a strong opinion and it starts from there.
T6W: People who are wheelchair bound, even in the United States, rarely take on this adventurous lifestyle you’ve created for yourself. You’ve also met with numbers of influential figures and celebrities to champion your causes. One can argue you’ve set a bar for disabled people. Do you see yourself as a figure that people could look up to in pursuit of their dreams?
MITCH: I’ve always been about getting people to constantly see more and do more. There are so many able-bodied people who don’t seem to care. They’re kind of schlumping about. That’s fine. People live their own lives and everyone’s different. There are also people I know who want to attain their passions though. I think it’s really important in life to have an attitude of doing whatever it takes. If people see our stories, maybe it will change their minds. Just the other day I was an ancient temple. I was dirty and sweating, waiting for my buddies to get back. This Korean woman stands in front of me, pulls out her purse, and hands me a one-dollar bill. It was the funniest thing in the world. She probably thought I was a poor Cambodian beggar.
T6W: That’s a big lesson on the power of perception. What you do and how you present yourself has an impact on people.
MITCH: It’s one of these life lessons. When you look at somebody at face value, you really have no idea. I look at people and prejudge them with an assumption of what is going on in their lives.
T6W: It’s human nature. Are you at the hotel right now?
MITCH: Yeah, I use one of the rooms here. The hotel is situated right outside the town. We’re in a very rich part of Cambodia and right nearby people are living in these huts, making $30 a month. We really try to get involved in the community and take part in different projects. Five minutes from our hotel is another hotel where Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt stay. It costs $1,000 a night at minimum. Five minutes down the road! Just outside the gates of that hotel are conditions in squalor. That’s the contrast of this country. You have such rich people and absolute poverty right next door.
T6W: It’s nice to know there are some people there trying to bridge the gap.
Ariel Nishli is the Editor-in-Chief of The Sixth Wall. He’s got a big apple in his heart but moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career in the entertainment industry. After graduating from Vanderbilt University in 2007, he worked in the motion picture literary department at ICM, then moved on to feature film development at Parkes MacDonald Productions. Ariel’s wardrobe has steadily devolved from designer suits to worn out slippers, as he now focuses on screenwriting and journalism when he’s not obsessing over this blog.