“54 Hours”: writing the Newfoundland sealing disaster
This is a guest post written by Michael Crummey. Michael is a Canadian poet and writer whose work often draws on the history and landscape of Newfoundland and Labrador. His debut novel, River Thieves (2001), was shortlisted for the Giller Prize. His poetry collections include Arguments with Gravity (1996), Hard Light (1998) and Under the Keel (2013). Michael is the writer of the forthcoming NFB short animated film 54 Hours, a vivid account of a 1914 tragedy in which 132 men were stranded on the ice during a severe snowstorm off the coast of Newfoundland.
NFB producer Annette Clarke first talked to me about a documentary on the 1914 Newfoundland sealing disaster at a St. John’s coffee shop called Gracie Joe’s. We were sitting directly across the street from Her Majesty’s Penitentiary. A generation ago, Gracie Joe’s had been a funeral parlour.
“What do you think? Annette asked.
The sealing disaster is one of the most iconic, and complicated, events in Newfoundland history. A voice in my head was already repeating, “say no, say no, say no.”
“Tell me more,” I said.
The documentary was to mark the 100th anniversary of the disaster. Among many other things, it involves a bloody (and controversial) industry; the exploitative working conditions of pre-industrial capitalism; a sealing crew caught on the ice during a once-in-a-generation storm; fateful bad luck and casual stupidity and callous disregard; acts of perseverance and sacrifice that beggar description; and the deaths of 78 men over the course of a 54-hour ordeal.
The film idea was pitched to Annette by Paton Francis, who has family connections to the disaster.
“The film is going to be 10 minutes long,” Annette said. “It’s going to be animated.”
“Say no,” the voice in my head said. “Say no, say no!”
Cassie Brown’s Death on the Ice is one of the reasons this event continues to occupy a central place in the psyche of Newfoundlanders. Without her book’s exhaustive investigation of the disaster and the people who suffered through it, most of us would know nothing about it today.
“I really want Cassie to be part of this,” Annette told me “She deserves a place in the film.”
And after letting it all sit a moment, she said: “So? Interested in writing the script?”
“Please,” the voice was begging me. “Please say no.”
“Sure,” I said. “I’ll take a shot at it.”
In the weeks that followed, it seemed obvious I’d made a huge mistake.
I re-read Death on the Ice, Paton and I trolled through transcripts of the official inquiry at The Rooms , and dug up Cassie Brown’s original interview recordings at the Centre for Newfoundland Studies. There was enough material to sink a sealing ship to the gunwales and only the tiniest fraction of it could be included in such a short film. Within the constraints of a short, animated documentary it seemed impossible to do more than trivialize the story.
But even before I left that first meeting with Annette, I’d begun toying with the idea of writing the script as an interview, a woman talking to someone who had lived through the disaster, years after the fact. It was a way of acknowledging Cassie’s work and it provided the perfect entry into the story. The first-person account forced me to focus on the experience of the men on the ice, leaving most of the tangly debate about causes and blame to one side.
Most importantly, it made 54 Hours a story about survival as much as it is about suffering and loss. And survival, for me, has always been at the heart of the sealing disaster’s enduring significance.
54 Hours will premiere on NFB.ca and stream for free in Canada starting on Monday, March 31st for a limited time. Click here to watch clips from the film before March 31st and the whole film on March 31st and afterwards.
 The Rooms are a cultural facility housing the Provincial Archives in St. John’s. For more information, visit http://www.therooms.ca/