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Spotlight on Hinchinbrook

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

HinchinbrookPhoto courtesy of Tell Tale Productions Inc., Kevin Fraser D.O.P.

Hinchinbrook is a Nova Scotia film telling the story of a 62 year-old disabled maverick named Patty McGill and her “tribe”: the unique universe of special needs children who come to her farm, Hinchinbrook Farm, for her unconventional brand of horse therapy. We interviewed the production’s writer and director, Jackie Torrens, and co-producer Erin Oakes to hear about their thoughts and experiences so far as they learn about life on this very special farm.

Q. Tell us about yourselves and how you’re involved in the production.
JACKIE: I’m the director and writer for Hichinbrook. I’m also a writer and actor. I started doing documentaries about 8 years ago because I love people and I’m curious about what makes them tick. My taste in documentary stories tends toward the offbeat, probably because I’m a bit offbeat myself. I’ve done stories on miniaturists, a young poet in jail for murder, what it’s like to live on welfare, east coast subcultures, a junk junkie who stumbled on an important piece of 20th century art, and more. I like to take subjects that people tend to judge or stereotype and then dig deeper into that subject to surprise the viewer.
ERIN: Along with Edward Peill, I am the co-producer for Hinchinbrook. I’ve worked in film and television in a variety of capacities but it was documentary filmmaking that first drew me to the industry. As a former programmer for the Atlantic Film Festival I have watched thousands of documentaries but I’ve always been most drawn to the ones that find inspiration in unlikely people. Like Jackie, I’m drawn to the offbeat. For me, Hinchinbrook is the ideal project to produce; it’s a marriage between a labour of love on one hand and on a more pragmatic note, it’s a film that is sure to find an audience because it’s been commissioned for primetime television.

Photo courtesy of Tell Tale Productions Inc., Kevin Fraser D.O.P.

Q. Why did you choose Hinchinbrook as the subject for this documentary?
ERIN: I started hearing about this “amazing” woman Patty McGill when I moved to the Blockhouse area a couple of years ago. I kept running into people with ‘Patty stories’. She was helping out a lot of folks and she is known as a bit of a renegade locally. When I finally got to meet her it turned out her larger-than-live reputation was well-deserved. At that time she had just taken in two small kids who had lost their legal guardian, and she had two rescue horses that had arrived in very bad physical condition. So here is this 60-year-old woman looking after two orphaned children and two orphaned horses and that’s in addition to running a farm and a full time job giving therapeutic riding programs to kids with Autism Spectrum Disorder and other special needs. It was pretty obvious she was a force of a nature. In the back of my mind I had been looking for a story that could portray life with a neurological difference in an honest way – the good and the bad. So once I met Patty, it just made sense to dive into her story. 
JACKIE: Usually, when I do documentaries, the idea generates from me – a character I’ve come across, an issue I’m taken with…in this case, Erin approached me about telling a story about the unique universe of Hinchinbrook, a horse farm in rural Nova Scotia. Erin’s passion for what has been happening at this place led me to do some investigating and I was immediately intrigued. I am drawn to non-conformists – and Patty McGill, the 62-year-old disabled woman who created and runs Hinchinbrook, fits that bill. To me, Hinchinbrook is the story of an outsider and her “family”: the diverse group of children with special needs who come to her farm for her love, her acceptance and her highly unconventional brand of horse therapy.

Q. Why do you think it’s important to tell this story through film?
JACKIE: Hinchinbrook is a place where many forms of unusual communication are occurring: between Patty and the children, between the children and the animals, between the animals and Patty. Due a range of social, intellectual and physical disabilities, the kids that go to Hinchinbrook are atypical communicators who often have difficulty being understood in the mainstream world. Many of these kids also battle sensory processing disorders where even the slightest shift in light, sound, temperature and location can be traumatizing. Hinchinbrook is designed to adapt to how these kids see the world, so in telling this story we want to visually and auditorily depict their unique point of view. The medium of film of course is perfect for this.

Patty McGillPhoto courtesy of Jackie Torrens

Q. Tell us more about Patty McGill, owner and operator of Hinchinbrook Farm.
JACKIE: Patty is a maverick on a mission. Her disability is a neurological condition called reflex sympatic dystrophy. Despite the constant pain it causes her, she refers to this condition as the best thing that could have ever happened to her. It gives her a profound empathy and insight needed to relate to the children who come to her farm. Hinchinbrook would not exist without her. Everyday she pushes herself past the pain and the poverty she often lives in to keep Hinchinbrook going.

Q. What do you hope this documentary will accomplish?
JACKIE: For those who consider ourselves ‘typical communicators,’ there is much to learn from those who communicate differently. You know the old idiom, “a square peg doesn’t fit in a round hole”? As a society, we tend to throw the square pegs away rather then think about reshaping things. Many innovations and inventions have sprung from the imaginative minds of unconventional communicators: Einstein, Emily Dickinson, Darwin, Temple Grandin, Bill Gates – to name just a few. If we choose to ignore what we don’t consider ‘typical’ and we stunt their potential through inaction and ignorance, then what gifts might society at large be losing? 
ERIN: The last thing we want is for viewers to walk away from this film feeling sympathy for our subjects. We want them to be blown away by the strength that a person living with a sensory processing disorder demonstrates every single day of their life. The kids and families that go to Hinchinbrook have an inner strength that most of us would envy. More than anything, I hope Hinchinbrook helps spread the word that being considered “normal” isn’t a prerequisite for a good life and it certainly isn’t an indicator of a person’s value.

Photo courtesy of Tell Tale Productions Inc., Kevin Fraser D.O.P.

Q. And on a personal note, what’s your favorite thing about this project? 
JACKIE: One of the kids who goes to Hichinbrook is a girl with autism named Roze. One of the traits of her particular autism is obsessional thinking. It is an extremely intense form of focus. Obsessional thinking is what led reknown animal scientist (and autistic) Temple Grandin to invent the humane slaughter house. Roze is obsessed with horses – to the point where she thinks, eats and trots like a horse. She has a profound relationship with Patty and her horses. Patty believes Roze’s connection with animals, if properly channeled, can lead her to greatness. Another kid that goes to Patty’s farm is a young man named Kirkland, who is totally non-verbal and constantly flaps and twitches, except when he is on one of Patty’s horses. Unlike many in the medical world, Patty believes Kirkland is “in there”, that he is not intellectually incapacitated. She has vowed that he will talk one day. The connection between Patty and these children and the animals is a three point triangle that fascinates me. 
ERIN: My favourite thing about this project is just getting to be in Patty’s world; spending time with her, the kids, hanging out on the Farm. There is something special happening at Hinchinbrook, it’s hard to describe in words but with this film we can bring viewers to this extraordinary place.

Hinchinbrook will premiere winter 2017 on CBC Television’s Firsthand series. In the meantime, learn more about Hinchinbrook Farm on the farm’s website and join the conversation on the farm’s Facebook page.


Hinchinbrook is qualified to receive funding through the Nova Scotia Film & Television Production Incentive Fund. To learn more about filming in Nova Scotia and accessing the Nova Scotia Film & Television Production Incentive Fund please visit NSBI.ca/filmapplication

Use our Film Fund Estimator tool to estimate funding available for your Nova Scotia production.