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Berens River School students' video goes viral

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The video opens in the boreal wilderness and takes sharp focus with a teenage boy and girl sitting in a junk yard, a shocking image of poverty, immediately identifiable as a northern reserve in Canada.

He has a guitar. She taps out a rhythm on a rusty car hood with a plastic cup. Then she sings. A summer wind through northern pines.

The pair strolls out of the junkyard into the wilderness. And something magical happens.

No surprise then, that their YouTube Cup Song Berens River Canada went viral in hours.

The reaction startled the kids but the contrast between living conditions and stunning scenery was what their filmmaker and their music teacher hoped it would be.

The 3:38-minute video produced last month on a weeklong shoot on the Berens River First Nation starred the two teens and a cast of 300 covering Anna Kendrick’s version of the "Cup Song" from the 2012 movie Pitch Perfect.

By Wednesday, 48 hours after it was posted, the video racked up 10,000 hits, with feedback like "Way to go. Outstanding. Awesome. Wow." Again. And again.

"I didn’t think people would... I didn’t expect it to go viral. It’s a big surprise," said the video’s guitar player, Alex Semple, in a phone interview from Berens River School Wednesday.

He and singer Tatyanna Monkman, both 15, are in Grade 9 at Berens, a remote Ojibway First Nation located 270 kilometres north of Winnipeg. All week, they’ve been the focus on media interviews. And invitations to perform in person are following on the heels of all the attention.

Ask why the video captured them and you get a sense of what life’s like up north, with its tightly knit communities, its poverty and its unspoiled vastness.

It taps into a well of feeling as wide as the spirit of the north, Monkman said. Even performing the song was a challenge, she admitted.

"At first I was nervous, but then I felt comfortable," Monkman said.

The video and the choice of song were the brainchild of the school’s music teacher, Ken Davidson, who credited the school, its 300 kids, their parents and the community for making the video possible.

"This is a real collective project," said Davidson, a veteran teacher who wanted a video that showed the beauty of the north that outsiders could grasp.

He said the filmmaker brought the vision to life.

"What I wanted to do was to show a little bit about what the world thinks of these communities... And then absolutely blow it up and dispel that myth," Winnipeg filmmaker Randy Guest said.

He said his Tooz A Crowd Productions, with actor/screenwriter Leigh-Anne Kehler, has 300 student films and 10 years of school shoots to draw on for ideas.

"I have been up north a lot and there’s a lot of misconceptions that it’s all decay and it’s all lost up there", Guest said.

"But their world is beautiful. The message is you don’t have to leave. It’s beautiful right there."

The Cup Song’s been covered by other schools in the south but none like Berens. The lyrics — "You’ll miss me when I’m gone" — are the reality up north.

"The school only goes to Grade 9," Frontier School Division area superintendent Marti Ford said.

"What we wanted was to bring positive attention to the community and make the kids feel proud. For the video to go viral is absolutely amazing," Ford said.

Graduation rates are slowly rising but roughly one out of every two First Nation kids sent south still drops out.

Guitarist Semple said the video is powerful because it has to be: His class is counting on it to ease their loneliness next year in Winnipeg.

"We gave it all we could so we’d have something to reflect on," Semple said.


Updated on Wednesday, June 11, 2014 at 6:40 PM CDT: Updates with full write-thru.

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