Arctic Canada caught on 1919 silent film
- 21 January 2012
- From the section Magazine
One of the world's early documentaries featured unique footage of the lives of Arctic fur trappers in 1919. After long being forgotten, it's now been restored for modern audiences in Canada, including communities descended from those featured in the silent film.
In July 1919, the RMS Nascopie departed Montreal. It carried supplies bound for Arctic fur trade posts.
But the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC) ice-breaker had extra cargo on its annual trip. A film crew was on board.
The ship headed north. As they travelled, a cameraman filmed the Nascopie crashing through ice floes.
When the ship anchored, he went overboard, trudging across the ice with a tripod cradled in his arms. A second camera rolled from the deck, recording it all.
The film crew had orders from the HBC headquarters in London. They were to make a film capturing the company's workings and commercial land holdings, holdings that once covered one twelfth of the earth's surface.
But the HBC wanted rid of the land, and were looking for people to settle on it.
And thus a memo from HBC executives - the film should be "advertising the Company and incidentally its lands, without appearing to do so".
The silent film was eventually called The Romance of the Far Fur Country. It was used to commemorate the 250th anniversary of the historic company in 1920.
Over the course of six months, the film crew crossed Canada. They captured extraordinary footage in the most inhospitable conditions imaginable.
In northern Alberta, they travelled by dogsled over a frozen river. The camera caught a sled tipping, with crates of film equipment thrown into the snow.
On the Abitibi River, in northern Ontario, they filmed from canoes. They ran rapids, portaged hills with canoes on their shoulders and camped in the wilderness. They played with silhouettes against the flowing river, one camera filming the other.
At Lake Harbour, on Baffin Island, one of the most memorable scenes unfolded. An Inuit man named Inqmilayuk sat around a campfire, talking. A white man, who is in fact the captain of the Nascopie, Edmund Mack, listened intently, puffing on a pipe.
"I was but a youth when I learned to hunt, as my fathers did before me", the title reads. It is followed by a cut-away of a man throwing a harpoon.
"She told me that she loved me", reads another title, introducing Inqmilayuk's budding romance with a woman named Innotseak. In the final scene, the lovebirds walk into the horizon, backs to the camera. The screen goes to black like in a Charlie Chaplin comedy, the iris closing in around the characters.
According to Canadian visual historian Peter Geller, these scenes can place The Romance of the Far Fur Country in the context of the history of documentary film, a history dominated by Robert Flaherty, who British film icon John Grierson hailed as the father of documentary.
"Robert Flaherty's Nanook of the North (1922) is seen as a pivotal moment in the history of non-fiction film," Peter says. But he adds a caveat.
"What has been forgotten is that the HBC film shot in 1919 used many of the filmic and narrative techniques to tell its 'Life Story of the Eskimo' that Flaherty would later employ in his film. And outdoing Flaherty, the HBC film used titles in the Inuit language."
Nanook of the North would become a classic of early film. Commercial spin-offs like the "Nanook Fizz" soft-drink, and "Igloo" refrigeration units cashed in on its popularity.
This same iconic status cannot be said of The Romance of the Far Fur Country. When the completed film premiered across Western Canada and in London, it was accompanied by a live orchestra. It played to packed houses. One Canadian newspaper said the film showed "Scenes Never Shown Anywhere Before".
But then the film faded from view. By the mid-1950s, the footage - more than 20 reels in mismatched order - was given to the National Film Archive, what would become the British Film Institute Archive, for safe keeping. In the 1980s, a safety print was made but the footage had only been watched by a handful of people.
It wasn't until Peter Geller went to London to see the footage in the 1990s - and was able to assess its real worth - that The Romance of the Far Fur Country began its long journey back to the screen.
"What is remarkable is that this unique footage has survived into the 21st Century," says Geller, "especially as no comparable motion picture was made during this period in Canada."
And this is where the Hudson's Bay Company Archives in Winnipeg entered the story.
The HBC collection holds documents from the company's start in 1670. It's included in the Unesco Memory of the World registry because of its historic value. It is "probably the best-documented institution in the world, next to the Vatican", wrote Peter C Newman in his three-volume history of the HBC.
The HBC Archives always knew the footage was in England, but it wasn't until 2011 that a transfer took place.
"Bringing these films back to Canada provides a window to the past," says Maureen Dolyniuk, the keeper at the HBC Archives, "not only for researchers and filmmakers, but for the residents of the communities captured in the films".
And bringing it back to these communities is exactly what is happening. On Saturday, footage from The Romance of the Far Fur Country will play again, in Edmonton.
"It will be special to see it back on screen," says Kevin Nikkel, a filmmaker who has chronicled the footage's journey back to Canada and is organising the film tour. "But the real premiere will happen when we go north."
The HBC film crew arrived in Fort Chipewyan, in northern Alberta, in late November 1919. They filmed Aboriginal trappers on the trap-line, travelling by dogsled in frozen conditions.
The film's return journey to Fort Chipewyan will be made by vehicle, up winter roads open for just a few months every year.
Among the descendants of the aboriginal fur trappers and Scottish fur traders captured in The Romance of the Far Fur Country, a true premiere will take place, and only 93 years late.
Chris Nikkel is a documentary screenwriter with Five Door Films