Skip to content

From artistic lovers to war canoes

Though the audience size was smaller than expected, the organizers of the first Canadian Heritage Film Festival held last weekend in Gibsons say they are more than satisfied with the four-day run of vintage movies.

Though the audience size was smaller than expected, the organizers of the first Canadian Heritage Film Festival held last weekend in Gibsons say they are more than satisfied with the four-day run of vintage movies. "If it's had an impact on even a few people's lives, it's worth it," said co-coordinator Francine Lucas.

She also spoke of her own personal moment of satisfaction: watching a wide-eyed tot who was having her first cinematic experience at the Sunday morning animated flicks.

Keynote speaker Colin Browne, representing the federal heritage department that funded the festival, was impressed with the quality of the selection and more so by the courage to initiate so large a festival in a rural community.

Film buffs look to festivals such as this to find forgotten gems. Sunday night's presentation of a film directed by artist Joyce Wieland, The Far Shore, proved to be one such nugget, in my opinion. Set in the 1920s, it is a fiction based on the strange disappearance and drowning of famous Canadian painter Tom Thomson in Ontario's back country.

The film posits a fictional love affair between the artist and the musical wife of his patron, in which the jilted husband and a dastardly colleague paddle into the lake country in hot pursuit of the runaway couple. On the way to its astounding conclusion, the film makes observations about art that are relevant today. For example, the owner of a Toronto art gallery refuses an exhibition to Thomson because he is not commercial enough. "I know what people will buy," harrumphs the owner. Thomson's paintings are now priceless.

The Far Shore was followed by Artist on Fire, a short documentary about Joyce Wieland made by Dr. Kay Armatage who was present at the screening to answer questions. The Far Shore was panned in 1975 when it was shown, much to the heartbreak of director Wieland, who had been noted for making shorter avant-garde, statement films.

The irony is that her earlier films (viewed in brief clips during Artist on Fire) now seem dated, the artist trying too hard to make a surreal or political statement from, for example, the image of cats playing with mice. The Far Shore, with its slow-moving, romantic narrative, now seems timeless.

The closing night gala drew a full house on official Heritage Day, Monday, Feb. 21. Bea Jackson, manager and curator of the S.C. Museum and Archives, joined the Film Society in creating a First Nations experience. Jackson baked bannock, smoked her own salmon and offered cups of Labrador tea to the guests. These included artist Leonard Williams of the Kwakiutl Nation, now living on the Coast.

Thematically, the two films, Skana and In the Land of the War Canoes, were linked as much by past misconceptions as by the First Nations theme. Coast resident Shendra Hanney was on hand to introduce her late husband Collin Hanney's film Skana, made in 1971 before too much was known about whales in captivity. The film was remarkable for its scenes of the flourishing killer whale pen at Garden Bay in 1968 where the creatures were confined and trained prior to being airlifted to the Vancouver Aquarium.

Williams, who carries the killer whale emblem in his family crest, introduced the 1914 film In the Land of the War Canoes, formerly called by the edgier title of In the Land of the Headhunters.

It was made by photographer Edward S. Curtis, who spent three years with the Kwakiutl people of Vancouver Island documenting their dances, costumes, traditions and vision quests. The film opens with an astoundingly realistic scene of war canoes arriving on a West Coast beach, a costumed thunderbird in the prow simulating flight.

Over this documentary footage, the director has re-told a narrative tale of love and revenge in which the various tribes feast and fight, primarily over a woman. In 1972, a soundtrack was dubbed onto the film using the voices of descendants of some of the original performers. The evening closed with a brief appearance from the five-member Paul Family Singers of the Sechelt Nation who drummed a rousing song.

Audience festival favourites proved to be the opening night ambience with its gala showing of a silent movie about Canadian heroine Nell Shipman, the Saturday movie, Drylanders, which was shown again on Tuesday morning by popular request, and the visually stunning film The Viking that took early filmmakers onto the ice floes of Newfoundland.

"The sight made the audience gasp," said organizer Judith Hammill.

In other activities, moving image archivist Emily Staresina conducted a kind of antique film road show to explain to participants how to conserve their home movies, while visitor Marj Knive described how she had transferred her precious family memories to the medium of today, DVD. But attempts to run the older films bogged down in dealing with the outdated equipment of 8mm and super 8 projectors.