by Josh Pearlman
In 1919, the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) commissioned two intrepid filmmakers to capture silent film footage of Canada’s North and life around the fur trade posts that operated there. Their nine months of effort, propelled over 2,000 miles by icebreaker, canoe and dog sled, resulted in eight hours of unprecedented historical footage.
Edited down to a two-hour silent film The Romance of the Far Fur Country, was released as part of HBC’s 250th Anniversary celebrations in 1920. Largely documentary in nature while incorporating some staged scenes, the footage functions both as a record of history and of how history was recorded. Romance was screened across Western Canada and London before fading from view, the original footage and a shortened cut of the film found a home in a London archive where they remained for decades; the original cut of the film was lost.
Enter Kevin Nikkel, principal director of Winnipeg’s Five Door Films, who was captivated by the critical importance of the footage to Canadian Northern history. For two years, Nikkel, along with the Hudson’s Bay Archive in Winnipeg worked with the British Film Institute to have the footage returned to Canada nearly a century after it was created. With the film now in Winnipeg, Nikkel and a team have set to work on Return of the Far Fur Country, an ambitious project that, when completed, will see the original version of Romance resurrected. With hints provided by journal entries and a copy of an alternate version, the formidable task of recreating a film cut that no longer exists could take another year to complete.
In the mean time, Nikkel and Five Door Films have begun work on a companion project; a documentary feature that seeks to explore the contemporary relevance of the footage. This task is centred on the repatriation of footage back to the Northern communities where it was shot. Holding local townhall screenings, the filmmakers hope to collect reaction and input from audience members in the form of stories and memories of the people and places featured.
Although new relevance surfaces at every screening, Nikkel can’t help but recognize a major parallel between the Northern fur trade era and the current stampede of companies reaching for resources from an increasingly accessible Northern landscape. It’s a parallel that he says most audiences identify with as well. Five Door Films will be holding public screenings of the footage in Iqaluit on September 17 and in Kimmirut between September 18 and 20. For further information on the projects and screening times visit, www.returnfarfurcountry.ca