Columnists

June Chua
Take a hike through The National Parks Project

| April 11, 2011
Discovery World HD, National Parks Project, Mingan Archipelago

Having just experienced the mountain wonders of Patagonia (in Chile and Argentina), I came home in March and was immediately reminded of the awesomeness lying in my own backyard: Canada's wonderland of parks.

This fact is not lost on Kevin McMahon, the veteran filmmaker behind 2009's WATERLIFE among many other productions. A self-described "topophiliac" (love for landscapes), McMahon took on the mammoth task of shepherding The National Parks Project, a 13-part series on Discovery World HD that pairs up 13 acclaimed filmmakers with teams of three musicians each to explore a national park and collaborate on a short film. The project coincides with the centenary of our national park service.

"The idea was: how can we get to the most spectacular parts of the country given our equipment, film crews and people. It was a logistical nightmare, " recalls McMahon, who executive-produced the project and himself shot the Nahanni park episode.

The inspiration for the project goes back to the Group of Seven, who brought the wondrous landscapes of Canada to life with their impressionistic images of Algonquin Park, turning Canadian art and the world of art on its head.

"The Group of Seven had grown in the fields of war and they recuperated their souls through nature," says McMahon. "Ninety per cent of Canadians live on this thin perimeter near the U.S. border and most people don't get to experience that amazing geography."

The project uses diverse filmmakers including McMahon, Zacharias Kunuk, Sturla Gunnarsson, Hubert Davis, Louise Archambault and Jamie Travis. Parks include Gwaii Haanas National Park and Haida Heritage Site (B.C.), Wapusk (MN), Kluane (Yukon), Sirmilik (Nunavut), Gros Morne (Nfld), Prince Albert (SK) , Waterton Lakes (AB), Kouchibouguac (N.B.), Bruce Peninsula (ON), Cape Breton Highlands (N.S.), Mingan Archipelago (QC) and Prince Edward Island.

Trudeau in buckskin

McMahon chose Nahanni for himself: "You know that picture of Pierre Trudeau in the buckskin jacket? That was Nahanni and I'd always wanted to go there. It was Trudeau who saved it. There was going to be a hydroelectric project and Trudeau went out there to canoe and said 'oh no you're not turning this into a hydroelectric project.'"

The resulting short film, which you can watch online, is a beautiful piece with a mesmerizing section with rain and a compelling score.

"You know I spent a year shooting Waterlife hoping for rain like that and never got that shot!"

McMahon is effusive about the music that resulted. He credits the three young producers who brought him the project -- Geoff Morrison, Joel McConvey and Ryan Noth -- with coming up with the roster of Canadian musicians asked to merge their talents.

The vast rainbow of artists participating include Sarah Harmer, Besnard Lakes, Melissa Auf der Maur, Casey Mecija (Ohbijou), John K. Samson (The Weakerthans), Cadence Weapon, Tanya Tagaq and Ian D'Sa (Billy Talent).

"We thought we'd take the urban artists out of their comfort zones and get them out to experience these stunning landscapes. It was astonishing and enchanting in the end, their encounters with their surroundings and each other," notes McMahon, who also says music from the project will be downloadable in late spring and a vinyl album will also be released, all to benefit the Nature Conservancy and land protection.

By the way the series launched on March 19 and I urge you check out its delightful website, where you can screen the short films that resulted from the trips. I managed to catch a few of the Discovery episodes -- the Waterton Lakes (Alberta), Kouchibouguac (N.B.) and Mingan Archipelago (Quebec) -- all to be broadcast April 9, 16 and 23 respectively. The series continues every Saturday on Discovery World HD 8:30 p.m. ET/10:30 p.m. PT until April 30. Each episode is then re-broadcast Sundays and Tuesdays.

"I want Canadians to come away with an appreciation of their geographic reality and an appreciation of the fantastic creative landscape in this country," says McMahon, who adds plans are to make the music and the series all available through iTunes at a certain point.

"The people who take care of our parks are incredible. They are guardians of the parks and have great respect for the place and its visitors."

'A completely social experience'

The Mingan episode is fascinating -- watching the push-pull between Quebec director Catherine Martin and the trio of musicians from English Canada (Sebastien Grainger of DFA 1979, Dan Werb aka Woodhands and Jennifer Castle) as they smell each other out. Martin quickly establishes she has her own vision and she'd rather make a film without collaborating with musicians -- all said in front of the three on a boat ride. What unfolds is an uneasy rubbing-up-against each other.

Grainger, who is part-French Canadian, took it upon himself to be the diplomat between the two camps.

"The tension actually played out really quickly," recalls the amiable musician. "We realized she was uncomfortable: she's a city girl, she doesn't like camping and she was much older than us. Once we realized her aversions, we could work with her and the communication became a lot better."

Grainger, who describes his music as "loud and visceral" says he was challenged himself: "Music-making is usually in a controlled environment, in a studio or at home... It's a very cerebral thing and I'm the kind of person whose nervous about meeting new people and having to interact on that level, too."

But he was up for the challenge and when he saw the surreal-looking stone monoliths at Mingan, he immediately chose that destination.

"You know it was a completely social experience," he says. "And it was the environment that permitted it. None of us had met or even had an email until we were at the airport and the three of us musicians, we quickly became a tight unit."

The episode shows the two sides coming together eventually and Grainger remembers "warm feelings on all sides."

There's also great part in the episode where the musicians create an instrument in the wild and record the rain hitting the string and wood.

Grainger says the experience changed him: "I'll try to perfect things when I make music and with this, I was completely devoid of any technical duties and vibing off the other musicians. I realize now I can still get things done and I don't have to think about the details."

It also went beyond a musical experience: "I would call it like a communion but the church was not only the place but the people."

A compilation of the 13 short films resulting from the project will be screened at HOT DOCS in Toronto April 30 (TIFF Bell Lightbox 9:30 p.m.) and May 2nd (Royal, 9:15 p.m.) The three producers will be there as well as various filmmakers at both screenings. I urge you to catch this cinematic experience.

After that, there is a theatrical May 19 release, once again at the Royal cinema in Toronto, and plans to unspool the shorts at film festivals and small theatres across Canada in the future.