NFB Tour: Edmonton
I’m not usually a huge fan of talking/writing about the weather, but I believe it bears mentioning it was -29 degrees Edmonton yesterday. Good morning! I had come prepared, though, fishing up my parka and shearling-lined boots from the back of the closet, items I hadn’t seen or worn since last March, when I went on a wild dog-sledding expedition in Interior Alaska.
Coming out of the airport, in Edmonton, I soon realized I’d left a crucial part of my always-prepared-never-complaining-it’s-cold getup at home: long johns. The cold was like a slap in the face – or in my case, the knees – dry, gusty and unrelenting. My legs, feeling silly and frostbite-curious under one flimsy layer of turquoise denim, soon got very jealous of my upper body (6 layers) and head (one hat, two hoodies.) Friend tip: long johns aren’t a luxury in these Albertan regions – they’re a prerequisite to leaving the house.
At the hotel, the lobby was abuzz with Grey Cup talk. For those of you not too familiar with Canadian football (join the club), the Grey Cup is like the Stanley Cup, but for football. From what I understand, someone will win it next Sunday (Nov. 28) at a game in Edmonton, and that will be either the Montreal Alouettes or the Saskatchewan Roughriders.
In Edmonton, many hotels were already fully booked, almost a whole week before the game, so you can imagine the hullabaloo. There were also many people with cars that wouldn’t start, some of them even having gone to the trouble of plugging them in overnight. “I don’t even know if I have a hair blow-dryer with me” one woman said, at wits’ end. “I really need to get going here.”
At a bar where I went to thaw my thighs after attempting to walk around town and snap a couple pictures (a short-lived endeavour) the bartender told me he was as shocked as anyone at the cold and hadn’t it been for his kids, who were super stoked to go play in the snow and shovel the driveway, he would’ve been pretty sour about the whole “January in November” deal. “I was golfing at the beginning of the month!” he said, “in short-sleeves!”
His boss, a South Asian man with a smartly trimmed beard and the last name Singh switched the conversation back from football to hockey, and told me about the horrors of being a Calgary Flames fan, a condition he said had afflicted him since youth. A game pitting Calgary against the New York Rangers played on the flat screen above the bar and as we spoke, he stole glances, sighed and shook his head. “The nice thing about the Flames is they find a different way of losing every night,” he said with a half-smirk. Just the other day they were winning 4-2 with 9 minutes to go in the third period,” he said. “They lost in overtime.”
Tom’s presentation, that night, was held at the TransAlta Arts Barns, a modern space in the Old Strathcona’s Theatre District, right next to a park with a gazebo that I imagine is a very nice place to hang out in, in July. The presentation itself was different from the one Tom gave in Ontario. Many of the film excerpts shown were pulled from films telling stories specific to the Prairies. I was especially pleased to see excerpts of Circle of the Sun, Colin Low’s film about the Blood Indians of Alberta. (I had a 6-hour lunch at Colin Low’s house a couple months ago and I’ve been a super fan since. What a man.)
Despite the fact it was a Monday night, and -41 degrees (with the nefarious “windchill factor”), the turnout was more than decent. The crowd was a mix of local filmmakers, lovely ladies from the NFB Edmonton office (hi Bonnie and Kelly and Faye!), newcomers to Canada (including an Iranian couple who celebrated the possibility of telling stories period, something they said didn’t fly so well in their home country), Franco-Albertans, students and interfaith dialogue apologists.
After the presentation, a French-speaking man who wore a very precisely upturned grey mustache spoke of his wider project of creating more links between “youngsters” and seniors in Edmonton. “What sorts of things can unite younger and older generations?” he asked. “I myself am amazed by the projects we can initiate through film,” he answered. He also said he was very excited (“tickled pink” are the words that came to mind as I listened to him), about seeing the clip Tom presented of the Edmonton-based francophone choir called la Chorale St-Jean. “I was a member of that choir,” he said, beaming with pride. “I’m moved.”
A woman who said she had moved to England but come back to Canada because “she missed it too much – honest to God” – said that the NFB had very much been part of her cultural tapestry as a young girl. Recently, she’d gone to the library and rented a collection of NFB animations, and fallen in love with the stories all over again.
“I saw that man dancing on a log, and The Street, and I was freeaaking out! My boyfriend, who’s British, totally didn’t get it,” she said. “You know the first time I saw The Street I was this rebellious 17 year-old, raging hormones and all. It changed my life. I decided to move to Montreal. I decided I wanted to become an artist.”
In another corner of the room, a woman who said she worked with at-risk youth said she was extremely indebted to the NFB Edmonton office staff who always had their doors open for her and the kids she works with. She said it was her policy to let the youths choose what activities they wanted to participate in, and that films were always a favourite. “Stories are key in developing identities,” she said, mentioning the popularity of films such as Carts of Darkness and the Playing it Safe series. “The NFB has always been there for me, whatever the time, however short the notice,” she said.
When Tom asked the audience about local specificity, about stories that were particular to Edmonton, a women said she felt that given its very diverse population, the city had the potential to give voice to dialogues affecting Canada as a whole, both in terms of multicultural and multi-religious conversations. “The whole world is here,” she said.
Echoing that sentiment, a woman who said she worked with refugees in the Edmonton area said she’d just heard a story very similar to Tom’s – who arrived in Canada as a 4 year-old refugee from Hungary – from a 3-and-a-half year-old from Eritrea that day.
From her seat in the front row, a very straight-backed older woman with grey hair and a long grey jacket with girlish, puffed shoulders, praised the quality of the films shown and said they had made her so proud to be Canadian. “I’ve taught NFB films in class when I was a teacher, teaching history, and I’ve taught NFB films in foreign countries, teaching art,” she said. “Nothing compares to the quality of NFB films,” she said. “And I’ve seen many documentaries from many countries,” she said. “They are not just noise and action,” she said.
Switching to a somewhat more somber, pleading tone, she said there was an urgency to record our own history, the story of the settling of the West, the story of the French colonisation of the lands now called Calgary and Edmonton. “There is a story to be written,” she said. “There is a hurry! No one will be left to tell if we don’t act now,” she said. She said it was imperative that we put that and other stories in pictures, on the television. “These days if it’s not on the television,” she said, ‘it doesn’t exist.”