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Hot Docs Debuts A Beautiful Epic with “National Parks Project”

Hot Docs Debuts A Beautiful Epic with "National Parks Project"

Among the many Canadian docs making their debuts at Hot Docs this week is “The National Parks Project.” With an assembly of 13 filmmakers and 39 musicians, project creators Joel McConvey, Geoff Morrison and Ryan J. Noth put together something distinctively epic.

Celebrating the centenary of Parks Canada, the omnibus project brought together the likes of filmmakers Zacharius Kunuk, Peter Lynch, Daniel Cockburn, Sturla Gunnarsson and John Walker, and musicians Sarah Harmer, Melissa Auf der Maur, Sam Roberts, Matt Mays, Cadence Weapon and The Besnard Lakes. In teams of three musicians and one filmmaker, they traveled to national parks in each of Canada’s 13 provinces and territories, creating 13 unique — and often quite experimental — short films that paint a considerable picture of the dramatic diversity of the Canadian wilderness. The film previewed parts of the collection in Berlin and SXSW, but is debuting its full canvas here at Hot Docs.

“It’s about nature and the wilderness,” co-creator Geoff Morrison said. “But it’s also about the arts. One of the goals was trying to come up with these interesting artistic collaborations between the musicians and the filmmakers that were somewhat off-kilter so they’d produce interesting results. And through the diversity of the artists we could mirror the diversity of the landscape that we were going through.”

Morrison said that they also wanted to create something that wasn’t overtly preaching a message of conservation.

“That’s probably the thing I’m most proud of,” he said. “You can watch these things and just get blown away. You watch this 13-minute experimental and esoteric nature film that you might otherwise not watch. No one has to tell the audience that this place is important and worth preserving. You can just sort of take that out of the images.”

The project originated when Parks Canada approached co-creator Ryan Noth back in 2006 about a project that might “expose urban demographics to the Canadian wilderness.” He came back to Morrison and Joel McConvey and together they considered how they could put something like this together.

“We just asked ourselves what would be the most interesting thing we would want to do or see or be a part of,” Noth said. “And we were always music geeks and had this affinity for music. So it just came to us naturally to take our favorite filmmakers and musicians to a park in each province.”

Noth, Morrison and McConvey curated the filmmakers themselves, with Louise Archambault, Keith Behrman, Daniel Cockburn, Hubert Davis, Sturla Gunnarsson, Zacharias Kunuk, Stéphane Lafleur, Peter Lynch, Catherine Martin, Kevin McMahon, Scott Smith, Jamie Travis and John Walker the chosen 13 that would head into the Canadian wilderness with a trio of musicians to capture an individual national park over a five-day shooting period. On a shoestring budget with minimal crews, each group of director and musicians had a DP, an on-set producer, a sound person who also doubled as a music recorders and a cook as they camped out in their respective park.

“The first trip I went on was this trip to was this northern park Sirmilik, which is north of Baffin Island,” Morrison recalled of the Kunuk production. “You’re traveling by snowmobiles and wooden sleds across the ice. Every time I watch the film I feel like it’s the most powerful one, narratively. It’s about this 80-year-old hunter and the changes he sees the land there. It blows me away every time. And I’m reminded about it being such a perilous environment. One of us could have died so easily… But more so, I’m reminded that I got to hang out and watch Zacharias Kunuk direct a film. That’s a pretty special thing.”

Other highlights included Cockburn taking on Ontario’s Bruce Peninsula (“the place you don’t remember”) in a piece scored by John Samson, Christine Fellows and Sandro Perri. Davis joining Kathleen Edwards, Sam Roberts and Matt Mays in Manitoba’s Wapusk National Park; and McMahon exploring Nahanni River in the Northwest Territories, with music by Olga Goreas, Jace Lasek and Shad.

Notable is that “The National Parks Project” did not result simply in a collection of films. It’s also been turned into television series on Canada’s Discovery HD, a collection of music available on iTunes, and an incredible interactive website that provides an outlet for the extensive amount of content the project ended up producing.

The film will screen again at the Royal Cinema in Toronto May 19, to celebrate the official centennial of Parks Canada.

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