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Furs traveled from the north via sled and bateau. Photos courtesy of the Hudson's Bay Company Archives
Furs traveled from the north via sled and bateau. Photos courtesy of the Hudson's Bay Company Archives

1919 film: "Treasures of the Far Fur Country"

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In 1919, two intrepid cameramen left New York City to trek across the Canadian North. Traveling by foot, canoe, dog sled and icebreaker they filmed scenes from Hudson's Bay Company communities for that sponsor's upcoming 250th anniversary.

The finished two-hour movie was seen in Canada the following year. But once "talkies" took hold, interest in silent film faded. The original footage ended up tucked away in England, largely forgotten.

A collaborative project has been working to recover the film's source material for Canadians and the world. Some of the best segments will be shown April 3rd in a screening booked at the Canadian Museum of Civilization.

To learn more, Lucy Martin reached filmmaker and event organizer Kevin Nikkel in Winnipeg.

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Trailer: Romance of the Far Fur Country

Interview with Kevin Nikkel:

Kevin Nikkel: “The film from 1919 – it was like a commercial, in a way, and a birthday party at the same time. Because the company was celebrating, in 1920 would be the 250th. And so we see a lot of scenes where the folks who are portraying company officials arriving at Lake Harbour in Nunavut. And there are a number of scenes that are clearly staged events, and lots of handshakes and lots of smiles. But at the same time, there's a lot of scenes where we really get in and it's how do they do trapping? You know? What's it like to live on the trap line? And what's it like to try and travel by dog sled?

Some of that facade, it quickly falls away as we enter in and we just watch this journey that the filmmakers of '19 are on. It quickly transcends that commercial aspect of it. It's very engaging as a documentary – even though the intent, when it was released in 1920, was very much a celebration of the company and very much 'let's try to use this film to get people into our stores.'

Lucy Martin: Set the stage for that: two cameramen from New York City, went up for nine months? Did they have wilderness experience?

Kevin Nikkel: Harold Wycoff had done some trips across Russia. So he had some expedition experience, but not a lot of really rugged frontier experience. And so what the Hudson's Bay Company did, they tapped some of the most experienced company men to be the chaperones and the escorts to take the cameramen across the country. And Bill Dare was the second.

It really is quite amazing, the journey that they went on. To really get a feel for the type of travel, and the type of trade and the type of work. Some of the most striking footage in the silent film that we're showing at the Museum of Civilization is the 'journey' footage. Just spectacular footage of traveling by canoe and on the dogs sleds – it's just wonderful stuff. The interesting thing is though, that the “Romance of the Far Fur Country”, the original two-hour film, doesn't exist as a complete title, because different versions were created. We have all the pieces, but we don't have the actual two hour print right now. But we're in the process of re-creating it from the elements.

Lucy Martin: And, as I understand, you're making a point of going back to some of those very same communities, with this film.

Kevin Nikkel: Yeah, part of the project I'm involved with is to assist the archives here, with the returning and the digitization. But then the project I'm really excited about is to take the film North to the communities, where the film was never screened. To hold community screenings and get reactions and gather oral histories from community members.

Lucy Martin: You've already had some showings, and a number of them have sold out. What are audiences saying about it?

Kevin Nikkel: Audiences are really, really excited. I think it's interesting to watch the types of audience members. And the ones that seem most animated are the people who have spent time up North. They're really excited to see themselves, in a way, to see themselves on the screen. And as I've traveled to Northern communities the audience gets even more excited and more animated because they're seeing – it's as if they're seeing a photo album that they've never got a chance to see, and recognizing some of their relatives in some of the footage as well.

Lucy Martin: Is there a lot to learn from seeing life in the 1920-range of Northern Canada?

Kevin Nikkel: Definitely, I think so. I think that's part of my reason for doing a documentary about this as well. This is a time capsule that we're opening. And I think it can speak to so many things that we're trying to figure out about Canadian identity, and our handling of resources. At the time, in 1919, this was a film about the fur trade. But there 's other trades and other companies now that are working in Canada. And we have our – still – issues around resource exploitation and resource use. So I think it's important to be able to look at it to understand more about contemporary times. I think it does speak to that.

Lucy Martin: Obviously, the audiences where it was filmed are going to have a strong interest. And, as you say, this sort of speaks to regional and national identity. Does it have universal themes as well that will be of interest to non-Canadians?

Kevin Nikkel: I think it does. I think the footage has an intimacy. As the filmmakers were traveling to northern communities and spending time with aboriginal families on the trap line, there's such an intimacy and a dignity that is evident in the picture of these trappers and these settlements that I think it can be very useful for more than just a Canadian audience. To audiences in other places that have lost aboriginal cultures and who are lacking this sort of visual documentation, I think it triggers some really interesting questions and discussions about colonialism and First Nations and aboriginal people. I think it's really dynamic in that way.

Lucy Martin: Will this get shown outside of Canada?

Kevin Nikkel: There's been a lot of interest. When I first began the tour in January, the BBC ran an article that launched a whole sea of responses. Right now, I'm taking the requests, hoping to find partners, to really take this film to more places. And I know the archives here in Winnipeg is really excited at the response as well. And are keen to try and get the film out to as many people as possible.

Lucy Martin: Why? Why are you doing it?

Kevin Nikkel: (rueful chuckle) Why am I doing it? I'm just really fascinated by the potential of history to speak to modern audiences. I think part of this connection is – you know I teach part-time – and so I'm very conscious of the possibilities of images speaking to people and providing an opportunity for people to learn and to grow, for transformation? I think that sounds quite grand, but I think it's connected to why I've gotten involved in film – film as a means to speak to audiences. And this footage is just so fantastic, there's so much potential there, for people to respond. That's why I'm doing this. I'm really excited about the audience response to the past.

Lucy Martin: Makes total sense. Thank you so much. And I look forward to seeing you April 3rd.

Kevin Nikkel: Great! Well, thanks, Lucy. I appreciate it!

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