Published in the Summer 2022 edition of North Dakota Horizons magazine
Over a thousand years ago, a Native American carved symbols into the rocks at what is now Writing Rock Historic Site in Divide County. These were not random symbols; each had purpose, meaning, and told a story.
Humans have built their cultures, preserved and passed on knowledge, communicated ideas, and entertained with storytelling since the beginning of their existence. What began as oral tradition, evolved to stories written, acted and, in the modern world, also presented on film.
Canticle Productions, a North Dakota-based film and theater production company, showcases stories that are as personal to North Dakota as the preserved rock carvings. “We tell powerful stories of sacrifice, faith and perseverance that honor the land, history and people of North Dakota,” says Daniel Bielinski, the force behind the company.
Bielinski, who moved to North Dakota in 2015, grew up in Wisconsin, went to college in Florida majoring in English literature. While in college, he discovered acting and wanted to pursue it as his career. He moved to New York and got his master’s in fine arts in acting from Columbia University.
He worked in film, television and theater and landed a role in the acclaimed HBO series, “The Leftovers.” “After a number of years living and working in New York, I grew tired of schlepping kids up and down subways and the constant moral battle between work and values,” says Bielinski.
In 2015, he was offered the opportunity to lead the Theater Department at the University of Mary. As he made his home in North Dakota, he came to know the beauty and history of the state. “I found North Dakota rich with great stories: stories that celebrated the culture, and and values of the people of North Dakota,” he says.
After Bielinski first moved to North Dakota he wrote, produced and acted in a few short films to stay creative in his craft. In 2017, he wrote, produced and starred in the short film “The Badlands Girl.”This motivated him to start Canticle Productions in 2018 and paved the way for the three feature films that followed.
Bielinski’s stories are gritty, thoughtful, entertaining, and real. “I look for stories that tell something beautiful or powerful about the human condition,” he says. “We learn a lot about ourselves and our place in the universe through storytelling. It is important to me to discover a voice in the work that not only honors North Dakota history, but honors God, but not in a way that punches you in the face with a message. My goal is excellent storytelling.”
Canticle Production’s full-length film, “End of the Rope,” is premiering this fall. The film is based on the infamous story of Charles Bannon in early 1930s McKenzie County. At a screening of his short film “The Badlands Girl” in Watford City, Bielinski met a woman who had grown up hearing the Bannon story. She sent Bielinski an article about it, and he immediately felt it was a story that needed to be told on film. “I went to Watford City and met with Dennis Johnson who had heard the story told in ‘hushed tones’ from family members and friends for decades,” says Bielinski.
Johnson’s love of local history and fascination with the Bannon story led to 40 years of meticulous research and the writing of the book, “End of the Rope: The True Story of North Dakotas Last Lynching.” Johnson, who sadly passed away in November 2021, was an expert in North Dakota history and a skilled storyteller, kept his audience engrossed. He served as a much-valued consultant in the creation of the screenplay for the film.
Since arriving in North Dakota, Bielinski has numerous projects in post-production and more in development for theater, television and film.
Bielinski knew he had found another story to tell after reading North Dakota historian and author Linda Slaughter’s “From Fortress to Farm.” He created “A Heart Like Water,” a 2021 film, based on the book’s poignant and heart-breaking line, “On New Year’s Day, 1872, our baby died, but so intense was the cold that it could not be buried.”
“The story of an early North Dakota pioneer family struck at my heart and begins ‘A Heart Like Water’ story of the struggles on the frontier, for faith, hope and survival, and how it was all linked,” says Bielinski.
The film was screened in more than 20 theaters through March 2022 and was very well received, and in April 2022, the film became available online.
Some stories Bielinski develops from his own ideas. “Sanctified,” also being released this fall, is a “Clint Eastwood-style” western like those Bielinski loved as a kid. “It’s a redemptive story told through the unlikely friendship that develops between an outlaw and a nun traveling together through the North Dakota Badlands,” says Bielinski.
”I love true stories. Powerful true stories about perseverance, courage, overcoming obstacles and how we confront suffering in our lives,” says Bielinski. “I’m open to any genre as long as it’s a good story that conveys a beautiful truth.”
A project currently in development for 2023 is “Hazel,” based on the true story of Hazel Miner, a 15-year-old schoolgirl who died while saving her brother and sister from a spring blizzard in 1920. Her story also inspired a folk ballad and March 16, 2020, was proclaimed by Governor Burgum as “Hazel Miner day.” “This is a beautiful story that is close to the heart of Canticle Productions,” says Bielinski.
In addition to filmmaking, Bielinski is the chair of the Dramatic Arts Program at the University of Mary. He develops original theater productions with his students and they have developed a “Voices” series, which includes “Voices of the Great War,” “Voices of Dakota Prairie,” and “Voices of the Badlands,” all based on firsthand accounts of early Dakota Settlers. “Working closely with the college’s history program, the plays tell the stories of the settlers who first arrived in the area weaving dance, song and poetry throughout the dramatic scenes,” says Bielinski. “’Voices of Dakota Prairie’ was able to take its production on a tour of the state in 2021. The students especially enjoyed bringing their work to small towns.”
The production is a unique experience which allows students to add their own personal touch. “All these different early settlers, we actually say their own words, we can actually portray them using their own language,” says Jonathan Hagen, student and actor. “It is not something you often see in a lot of theater and plays like this.”
In addition to theater and film, television is also in Bielinski’s sights. He is currently exploring a comedy series based on Theodore Roosevelt. Some of Bielinski’s past films have also been chosen for film festivals, but that is not his goal. “Canticle Productions was not what I envisioned when I started in school or at the beginning of my career,” says Bielinski. “Life and circumstances led me along a different path. God’s plans are always better than our plans.”
Bielinski hopes his films will not only entertain, but also inspire people. “Canticle Productions is built around telling North Dakota stories. There are so many great ones in North Dakota’s relatively short, recorded history. I don’t have any goals beyond continuing to tell these kinds of stories. That will keep me busy for quite a long time,” says Bielinski.
More information on Canticle Productions is available at: www.canticle-productions.com/, www.facebook.com/canticleproductions, www.aheartlikewater.com/, www.facebook.com/EndoftheRopeFilmND/, and www.sanctifiedfilm.com/.
More information on the Charles Brannon story is available at writinforthebrand.com/murderer-lynched-a-frontier-communitys-wrath/.
The article published on North Dakota Horizons magazine was an abridged virion of the original article. Included in that original format were the following thoughts from Tiffany Cornwell.
Tiffany Cornwell who appears in three of Canticle’s productions loves her craft and wants to be “part of telling stories of the people before us, exalting the ordinary people.” She first met Bielinksi at a call back after her audition for the movie Sanctified. She remembers the feel and the buzz in the audition room that, “Oh, this one is special” feeling. The “truthfulness and pain”, the “bare hearted lament and bravery” of the characters and their stories is what attracted her to the films she was a part of. Working with Canticle Productions was an incredible experience for her. Cornwell explained how much being a part of Canticle’s story telling resonates deeply within her, “We’re the continuation of a long line of humanity gathered around fireplaces and family tables telling the tales of those who came before. Not some fairy tale or fantasy – real stories about the people who made our world and about those who continue to make it.”
Photos courtesy of Canticle Productions