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A moving tribute to filmmaking in Labrador

JOAN SULLIVAN @Stjohnstelegram Joan Sullivan is editor of Newfoundland Quarterly magazine. She reviews both fiction and non-fiction for The Telegram.

“Labrador Cinema”

By Mark David Turner and Morgen Mills

Brock and Brine

$40; 188 pages

“This is a book about Labrador’s relationship with moving imagery,” Mark David Turner and Morgen Mills write.

“We have written it for the people of Labrador first of all, and also for other readers interested in cinema and the North.”

Explaining their parameters, they quote English art critic John Berger’s prescriptive that “Every image embodies a way of seeing,” with “three points: the viewer, the photographer, and the subject. Our focus here is principally on Labrador’s role as subject.”

Not, then, a simple inventory. Labrador is a place of mind and identity, as well as geography; it’s big, multilingual and isolated. Cinema, too, “is difficult to define” or set within tight, impenetrable borders. The authors have followed “Canadian film critic Jerry White’s concept of ‘any form of moving image arts,’” and have incorporated works from television, film, videotape and computer screens.

By simple cartographic arrangement, Labrador’s “exoticism” brings “a stylistic consequence.” Most of its cinema is documentary.

“Of the nearly two hundred productions we record in our filmography — this tally does not include individual television episodes — there are only a handful that do not chronicle some expedition, event, individual, or point of interest. At the time of this writing there remains, to our knowledge, no emerging tradition of narrative filmmaking.”

Alongside filmmaking, they consider film-watching. These include attendance at “purpose-built theatres” in Happy Valley-goose Bay, as well as occasional, travelling movie-picture shows, dating from the late 1920s, and movies screened for the entertainment of American and Canadian troops during the second World war, to which locals were invited.

The contents are ordered chronologically in 13 chapters, by decade, from the 1900s to the 2020s, each concisely contextualized.

The ensuing catalogue is visually balanced between text and imagery, the latter often, but not entirely, black and white. The configuration is easy to take in and fascinating. In an early example, several Inuit were employed in the U.S. as “ethnographic performers,” including Nancy Columbia, who was born at the 1892 Chicago World Fair.

Beyond this, Columbia and another family member, Esther Eneutseak, had their own successful film careers stateside. The initial images present frame enlargements, flyers and promotional images from, for example, “The Way of the Eskimo” (1911) and “Through Eskimo Land” (1914). The 1920s introduces such figures as Varick Frissell, whose “three surviving films are defined by imagery both perilous and sublime.” There’s even a shot of the director on location, “likely in southern Labrador,” perhaps in production for “White Thunder,” the project that would claim his life.

In the 1930s, we meet Miriam Look Macmillan, possibly the first female filmmaker in Labrador, who shot and screened several reels along the coast.

Colour seeps in with the 1940s, and the 1950s “saw an explosion of filmmaking in Labrador, both in quantity and diversity of form.” Richard Leacock, for one, was “a pioneer of a type of documentary film called direct cinema” and ambitiously pursuing his own ends, even as official entities like the National Film Board of Canada were making industrial films in Labrador West and Churchill Falls.

The 1960s “was a pivotal decade.” Among other advancements, Memorial University Extension Services was now on the scene with Atlantic Films and the CBC. Indigenous self-governance in the 1970s extended into filmmaking, concurrent to such home-grown productions as “Land & Sea.”

The 1980s, “another bumper decade,” was particularly marked by the release of Nigel Markham and Anne Budgell’s “The Last Days of Okak” (1985), personal stories of survival from the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic, which proved to have an influential, even global, reach.

Twentieth-century technological changes impacted Labrador filmmaking with “the ubiquity of video technology and its ease of integration with social media.” Youtube and Facebook democratized film creation and facilitated disseminating biographies and happenings. At the same time, groups like the St. John’s International Women’s Film Festival and the Nickel Independent Film Festival were making fruitful outreaches. These chronicles of recent releases also include lovely work from Echo Henoche’s “Shaman,” one of Labrador’s “rare” examples of animation. Modern precedents also cite several reality shows, such as “Survivorman” (Les Stroud, 2007), “Last Stop Garage” (Discovery Channel Canada, 2017), and “Alone” (The History Channel, 2022).

It’s all organized in a nifty square format with a beautifully toned cover. The unusual, insightful illustrations inside include one of “Labrador’s geography, drawing on spatial perspectives suggested by the cinema.” There is a filmography and index and the authors note that many of tbese films can be viewed at Memorial University’s Labrador Campus in Happy Valley-goose Bay.

Altogether a unique and leading work of multi-faceted appeal.





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