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Plett plots doc on Mennonite roots

By: Jordan Ross

Posted: 05/20/2019 9:00 AM

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Filmmaker Paul Plett, seen here last April in his hometown of Landmark, announced plans this week for a new documentary about his Mennonite heritage that will take him to Ukraine and the Netherlands.

JORDAN ROSS | THE CARILLON Enlarge Image

Filmmaker Paul Plett, seen here last April in his hometown of Landmark, announced plans this week for a new documentary about his Mennonite heritage that will take him to Ukraine and the Netherlands.

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He’s crisscrossed Canada and the globe to talk to folk musicians and farmers, and filmed everything from science fiction to retellings of biblical parables.

But for his latest project, filmmaker Paul Plett is turning the lens on himself.

Plett, who grew up in Landmark and now resides in Winnipeg, announced plans this week for an autobiographical documentary that will delve into his Mennonite heritage and explore diversity and commonality among Mennonites today.

"Everyone has their own definition and their own idea of what it means to be a Mennonite. A documentary is an exciting way to spark that conversation," Plett, 33, said.

I Am A Mennonite will be released next summer, though supporters of the project can get a sneak peek of material early next year. Plett said the finished product will be at least 30 minutes in length.

By last Tuesday morning, the project’s Kickstarter webpage had already surpassed its initial $500 fundraising goal.

Plett has already begun interviewing Manitoba sources, including Royden Loewen, a Mennonite historian at the University of Winnipeg, and Sen. Don Plett, a Landmark resident who’s related to the filmmaker.

This fall, Plett will travel to Ukraine and the Netherlands to retrace his ancestors’ journey to Canada. If he can raise enough money, he may visit other countries as well. He’ll then return home to edit the footage over the winter.

"I think for me it’s about helping ground and focus my own point of view," he said of the trip.

While he’s overseas, Plett wants to hear from "people who don’t feel like they necessarily quite fit into the Mennonite mould." He also wants to try his hand at everything from ploughing to perogy-making.

"Mennonite history is really interesting to me personally, and doing a story that sort of has me as a character in it allows me to do some things creatively that I wouldn’t have otherwise been able to do."

Plett self-identifies as a Mennonite by faith and by ancestry, and traces his lineage back to the 1874 migration to Manitoba from Russia.

"For me, identifying as a Mennonite is something that really grounds me. This is a community that I’m really proud to be a part of," he said.

Two earlier projects motivated him to better understand how ethnic, religious, and cultural dimensions of Mennonite identity fit together across time and place.

The first, Seven Points on Earth, examined the enduring importance of agriculture to Mennonites in seven very different cultural contexts.

"I felt very much like I was getting in touch with a global Mennonite identity, and also a historical Mennonite identity, that I hadn’t been in touch with before, and that really spurred the idea to do something a bit more focused on myself," Plett said.

Those thoughts resurfaced again in the fall of 2017, when he filmed a trip across East Africa with his father, Menno Plett, who worked with farmers and refugees there during his time with Mennonite Central Committee.

"Doing the documentary with my dad was a chance to be more vulnerable and try to go to some more personal spaces," Plett explained.

With such big questions behind the project, he isn’t sure what answers he’ll find. But he hopes I Am A Mennonite will be enjoyed by Mennonites and non-Mennonites alike.

He also hopes to correct those who picture straw hats and suspenders when they hear the word "Mennonite."

What it means to be Mennonite is bound to evolve over time, but Plett said he hopes the word will always mean something distinct.

"There’s this ocean of information around us...I guess one of my hopes is that the community doesn’t dissipate or disappear."

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