January 31, 2012

Return of a Classic: The Romance of the Far Fur Country

It’s the kind of event that happens so rarely: an amazing story of survival against all odds that captures the imagination of everyone who hears it.And, in this case, sees it, too.


A recent news item on the BBC’s online Newsmagazine about a little-known film made by Hbc in 1919 went pretty much viral this past week. People on two continents were astonished to learn about this 93 year old bit of Hbc history – not to mention to be able to see bits of the original footage themselves.


In fact, many people familiar with the history of the Company knew about The Romance of the Far Fur Country, which was commissioned to celebrate the 250th anniversary in 1920. But it had also been known for some time that no print of the feature-length film had survived.


Back in the 1990s visual historian Peter Geller, conducting research into early film and photography of Canada’s north, came across the original footage of the film listed in the holdings of the British Film Institute in London. Further research revealed that HBC’s Archives Dept. had transferred the footage to BFI in the 1950s for safe-keeping – as it turned out, one of the best decisions they ever made. Geller went to BFI to see what he could see, but expected little. Silver nitrate film, the type used at the time, is notoriously unstable. Images deteriorate and fade quickly, leaving behind spools of blank frames – or tantalizing fragments that only hint at what might have been. Moreover, the film is highly flammable and can easily spontaneously combust.


Knowing the risks, Geller was amazed to find that the raw footage was in remarkable condition. He marvelled at both the quality of the images and the breadth of subject matter they depict. Further research at the Hbc Archives in Winnipeg led to an entire chapter about the film in his 2004 book Northern Exposures: Photographing and Filming the Canadian North, 1920-45.


Enter Winnipeg-based director and film maker Kevin Nikkel. Nikkel learned of Geller’s work and, as a fan of both Hbc history and Canada’s north, sought a way to bring the film to a wider audience. Nikkel went to London to see the footage and was blown away. Working with the Hbc Archives in Winnipeg a project began to take shape.HBCA and the BFI came to an agreement whereby BFI cleaned, restored and transferred the original film stock, frame by frame, to HD digital. Relying on their access to state of the art facilities this work was done in London. Upon completion the new HD version and fragile original reels were shipped to Canada last year.


Meanwhile Nikkel and his company Five Door Films, put together short 30 minute highlight reel of some of the best images from the original stock which they titled Return of the Far Fur Country. Nikkel’s other idea was to make sure that the film returned to the northern communities where it was originally shot, but never shown, where it could be shared with the people who live there today.


It is this short film, and Nikkel’s tour of some of these northern communities, that hit the news last week. The reaction has been more than anyone could have hoped. Nikkel and his team cannot keep up with the requests for screenings and these community events, followed by Q&A sessions, have electrified local audiences. People are thrilled to see their places, and in many cases their ancestors, immortalized on the big screen.


The one public screening currently scheduled for southern Canada, on Feb. 15th in Winnipeg, is already sold out. But plans are afoot to look at more of them as well as other ways to keep the project alive. The Bay is in discussions with Nikkel and the Hbc Archives to see just what opportunities this amazing property can offer.


For more on this remarkable story, including media interviews with Kevin Nikkel and Peter Geller, check out Five Door Films’ blog at www.returnfarfurcountry.ca.