One of the world's earliest documentaries has been restored and is getting a new screening.
By Chris Nikkel
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 is 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.
See also The Return of the Far Fur Country
The Return of the Far Fur Country is a collaborative project to resurrect a lost silent film called The Romance of the Far Fur Country. Produced by the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1920, the silent feature film has been shelved, stored in pieces and largely unseen in a British archive for the last half-century. This is a project to bring the 8 hours of film footage back to Canada, to reconstruct the original film, then to return these archival moving images to the communities of origin. Collaborating on the project are archivists, academics, filmmakers and community groups.
The goal of this project is to explore the contemporary meanings of these images through consultations with various stakeholders. This process includes the preservation of the nitrate film elements, the re-release of this historic film, and a revisiting of the route taken by the filmmakers in 1920 to host town-hall screenings for communities to contribute names and knowledge to this unique archival collection.
The end result of the project is the distribution of these images and stories to the public through a documentary film, web site, and traditional print publications; contributing to the ongoing discourse of Canada’s regional and national identity.
[...] See also NITRATE TREASURES: ACHIVAL HUDSON'S BAY COMPANY FILM
Wed Feb 15 at 7:00 PM
1920, 30 MIN, Silent, BW
* Q & A and reception to follow
The Manitoba Historical Society in partnership with the Hudson’s Bay Company Archives and Five Door Films will host an event to celebrate the return to Canada of rarely seen films documenting the Hudson Bay Company’s activities and first nations communities in the Canadian north in the early 20th century. The screening includes excerpts from the newly transferred nitrate film footage of The Romance of the Far Fur Country which premiered on May 23, 1920, at Winnipeg's illustrious Allen Theatre. The film was then released across Western Canada, and was eventually re-cut for a British version and screened in London. Less than a decade later, the film disappeared from public view; the canisters of nitrate film stock were packed away by the HBC in an archive in London for safe keeping — but lost to the world... until now.
The screening will be followed by presentations that will discuss the circumstances surrounding the return of the films as well as the projects that are underway to promote them to wider audiences and to the communities represented in the films.
This event is generously sponsored by the Hudson’s Bay Company Archives and the Manitoba Historical Society