Northwords: CanLit meets the North in ambitious multimedia project

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The documentary film Northwords is a multimedia project involving three Canadian landscapes: northern landscape, CanLit authors, and, more recently, e-reading.

This project took five celebrated urban Canadian authors to the Torngat Mountain National Park in Labrador with the objective of them acting as literary surrogates for all Canadians. It is an ambitious project, but not unprecedented. From Susanna Moodie to Margaret Atwood, Canada's writers have striven to make sense of our landscape, and what it takes for people to survive it.

Northwords is narrated by CBC radio host Shelagh Rogers, who came up with the idea for the multimedia project. Rogers connects the experiences of this basket of Canadian authors who by the end of a week are to produce an original piece of writing they can read round the campfire. Of course, through this documentary, they are also sharing the creative process, and the literary output, with the rest of the nation.

Torngat Mountain National Park is on the northeast tip of Labrador where it meets the Quebec border. It takes two days to get there, a length of time during which time you could go to Australia and back. The five authors on this extreme Canlit camping trip are Joseph Boyden, Sarah Leavitt, Rabindranath Maharaj, Noah Richler and Alissa York.

Their first encounter with Northern Awesome is the sighting of an iceberg which looks like a really good Henry Moore sculpture, if he had worked in ice. Sarah Leavitt's first stab at her writing is an attempt to describe the iceberg's colour in her illustrated notebook.

Noah Richler clear-headedly opines that although the North figures prominently in the Canadian imagination, it's pretty hard to get there. He then lists the different dangers that he was required to legally wave in order to be on this trip. This ends up being one of the most precise pieces of found literature on the voyage. The base camp where the authors are staying is surrounded by an electric fence, and protected by armed sentries, to prevent polar bear attack.

On a day tour to Rose Island, with an Inuit elder named Sofia Keelan, the writers are touched by her loss of words at the happiness she feels returning to her former home. She says: "I have no words to describe how happy I am." But at this time it is the medium of film, and not the writers, that can convey her emotion. 

The writers also visit the former home of Hebron, an abandoned missionary village constructed by assembling numbered timbers imported from Germany. Joseph Boyden, who is Metis, is  insightful on the nature of the ruins. He compares the "structures" left behind by western projects with the light touch on the land that is the hallmark of the Inuit.  Noah Richler, for his part, finds little beauty or nostalgia in the place. It existed only by grace of the Inuit acting as its hunter gatherers for whites, who in turn provided them with nothing but an alien culture, and fear of a foreign god. But Sofia Keelan becomes strangely sad at the site of the missionary out station. It was once her home.

There are some rather awkward moments in the film. Some of the attempts at cultural exchange bear some resemblance to audience participation floor show at a Caribbean all-inclusive. The  authors' efforts at throat singing are sometimes hilarious. And the authors take a helicopter trip along a traditional Inuit travel route into the interior. While squealing like they are on a roller coaster during a helicopter maneuver, the irony is lost on them that helicopters are the kind of carbon burning vehicle that will eventually doom the North. Once again the conquerors will scar the landscape.

One of the most interesting scenes is when the authors are taken on a quest to "harvest meat" because their provisions are down to Cheez Whiz and crackers. Obviously the Northwords shoot was not a fully catered affair. First the Inuit hunter with them attempts to shoot a ring seal from a boat, with little success. Finally Noah Richler spots a Caribou which the hunter bags after the third shot, again from the boat. Although not the optimal conditions for hunting, and with a second boat precariously close to the line of fire, the hunter's shot pierces the Caribou's heart.

In the film Shelagh Rogers calls the moment "Beautiful, but intense." This seems an odd and awkward thing to say at the moment of a majestic animal’s demise. It appears to the film’s viewer that inexperience has left the narrator without an appropriate reaction for this situation. However, it has been clarified by Shelagh Rogers herself that she was referring to the prayer said by the Inuit hunter over the caribou, for its bounty and the health of the herd. This prayer is not shown in the film for reasons of religious sensitivity. The absence creates an editing error in the film in that her comment is contextually misdirected. It appears that not even the Inuit hunter considers the act of shooting an animal "beautiful."

Most of the authors did join in the skinning and gutting of the animal, which seems to be the closest they came to an authentic northern experience. Alissa York, who had written a novel about a taxidermist, actually has an insight that all of her knowledge about skinning animals was second-hand. Her mindfulness is complete as she considers that she is "a bit of a liar" as she handles the heart of the dead animal, pondering the bullet hole that ended its life. It doesn't get too much more Northern Real than this for your urban author. (You can watch a clip from this scene in the film here and below.) 

Turning an animal into meat gets a little too real for Sarah Leavitt, who stands back and watches, unwilling to traverse the literary distance between word and deed. She honestly opines, "My job is to watch." But like any of us who are accustomed to getting our meat at the supermarket, she has no issue trying the barbecue.

In the end we are left with the writers and their attempt to make sense of their excursion north. Noah Richler rewrites the waiver he signed to be on this trip. It becomes his literary rendering of the trip to a place that first looked to him like a "gravel pit in the rain." Joseph Boyden writes his story from the point of view of a polar bear addressing the humans behind the electric barrier. Sarah Leavitt lyrically describes the beauty and colour of the place in her beautifully illustrated sketchbook. Rabindranath Maharaj, who perhaps has taken the longest journey north, cannot help but compare the tropical Trinidad of his birth with the strange landscape that is the frontier of his adopted country. Alissa York writes a travelogue about landscape, a most honest response to what she was confronted with.

By the end of the film, it doesn't seem like the authors have had the opportunity to properly digest their experiences. Nor does it seem that a week is really enough to absorb the necessary elements to compose true literature about the North. But you be the judge. The writings of the Northwords project can be found here

The film ends with a marshmallow and weenie roast and storytelling around the campfire. It is intentionally just like an evening round a bonfire at the cottage. In these final scenes Northwords becomes less a voyage of literary discovery, and more about a familiar joy to which virtually any Canadian can relate.

But Northwords isn't just a film or an extreme camping trip. It's an ambitious project carrying on the tradition of the best of National Film Board productions: making culture out of Canada. So read the writing. Take the trip.  


Humberto DaSilva is a union activist whose 'Not Rex Murphy' video commentaries are featured on rabble. 


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