After withdrawing the mid-length version of The Blinding Sea from distribution in 2014, it has taken me two years to completely remake the film. Working with a new editor, Guillaume Falardeau, has been a terrific experience. Alex Charrier has done a superb job of sound editing. Marie Frenette has become associate producer. The official completion date of the new 57-minute-long mid-length version is early April 2016.
We are now working on the feature-length version of the film, which goes more deeply into the psychological world of polar explorers from 1897 to 1928, such as Adrien de Gerlache, Roald Amundsen, Frederick Cook, Robert Falcon Scott, Teddy Evans, Ernest Shackleton and Joseph-Elzéar Bernier, drawing on the rich story-telling of their descendants Bernard de Gerlache, Anne-Christine and Johan Amundsen, Gloria Corbould, Falcon Scott, Julian Evans, Alexandra Shackleton and Paul Terrien, as well as Inuit and Chukchi oral traditions. What an adventure! This feature should be finished in early September 2016.
Rainer Maria Rilke
As a follow-up to those blogs from Mount Rainier, and continuing much along the same path …
The Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke had a celebrated mantra: “wieder anfangen.” I would translate this as “to start out over and over again.”
For the longest time I had taken this as an indication of Rilke’s emotional immaturity, as if he never really developed stable relationships with others; as if he personally were in a kind of slash-and-burn mode, always ready to move on when things didn’t work out the way he hoped they would; as if he were spinning around himself, somehow cut off from the rest of a world he could not accept.
Round and round we go…
My trip to Mount Rainier brings me to a completely different conclusion, however.
I now believe Rilke saw artistic creation as a miracle of Nature, like the blooming of a strikingly beautiful flower amidst the wasteland of disillusionment and loss.
A tiny flower appearing in volcanic ash
I once went to the Icelandic island of Heimaey, where I saw a flower like this. I also saw whole houses buried in ash that was still warm.
Anyway, my perspective has changed. Every day should be an opportunity for renewal, like the first days of life, love and artistic creation…
A house in Heimaey, buried in ash
Volcanic eruption by night
Mark Lundsten and I met at the Rainier Independent Film Festival. In listening to Mark, I remembered Rainer Maria Rilke’s celebrated formulation from Letters to a Young Poet: “A work of art is good if it has sprung from an inner necessity.” Anyway, Mark has allowed me to share the following blog with you. I have made my own choice of illustrations…
Mark Lundsten on the set
Advice to Myself
April 8, 2014
(The evening after screening The Bath at Taos Shortz Film Festival in March, 2014, a very adept interviewer with the wonderful name Tamara Stackpoole (Downton Abbey? Jane Austen?) asked if I had any advice to “emerging filmmakers.” My answer, and I paraphrase: “Let your teachers go. Just tell your own truth. Learn the craft and learn it well. But then trust yourself and tell your own truth, your vision. You’ll know it when you see it.” When I woke the next morning, I realized that I had a lot more to say, and that it amounted to Advice to Myself. It follows.)
The only thing you can control are your choices. You cannot control anything else.
Choose ethically. You will regret anything else.
The foundation of ethics is to respect others. Treat others as you wish to be treated. Be humble. Pride is the foundation of all the deadly sins, according to Dante and his mentor Virgil.
Your work is the essential ingredient of your life, an expression of your choices, your ethics.
Connection to others is the essential mechanism of ethics.
A reciprocal connection
A reciprocal connection of human to human (parent/child, student/teacher, artist/audience, friend/friend, or lover/lover) is the basic means to give yourself to others and to receive from them, to further yourself and others.
You will always be learning and practicing that kind of connection. You will never be finished.
Respect the boundaries of others; do not seek to control anyone else. You can only control your own choices.
Learn and honor with absolute integrity your own boundaries so that others may not try to control you or your work. Unfortunately, this is usually only learned through a certain amount of trial and error.
Learning to trust is an art, and absolutely necessary. Learn to trust yourself first. Learn to trust others.
Honor the tradition of your work, its ancient human conversation by studying it with rigor and doubt, with hours and hours of study and practice. Never stop doing that.
Respect your teachers and your teachers’ teachers.
Follow the path you understand as truth
Then let your teachers go, follow the path that you understand as truth. You will know it when you see it. It will be your part of the conversation. Likely, one or two teachers will have become part of you.
If you do not let your teachers go, your part of the conversation will not be yours, but rather what you think others think or want you to say. That only muddies the conversation.
Revisit the basics and relearn everything you ever learned, over and over. Let everyone and everything be your teacher.
Do not make work that attempts to control others. That is only advertising or propaganda and sustains no one.
Make work that connects to others. That is sustaining.
Do not make work that exalts yourself alone. That separates you from others.
Walking is good for you. Eating and sleeping are good for you. Loving is good for you. All those things sustain and heal you. Make your work like those other things, good for you and for the conversation.
Bragging is not good for you.
Rich and famous…
Never work in order to be famous or get rich. Never confuse your work with either one of those false goals, even though either or both may come your way.
Fame and riches are burdens and require a whole set of tools and abilities not at all related to the work that may have brought you fame and riches. No one but a very small minority of the rich and famous and a few visionary souls who are not rich or famous understand this. These two things may be the greatest false idols of human self-fulfillment of all time.
Time is the only asset that really matters. Value and prioritize it. You also need enough food and shelter, which usually means money. But enough is enough. That’s all that matters.
Having enough money for food and shelter is a necessity of doing good work. You have no choice but to figure something out. It’s never easy, but there are many paths.
You will make bad choices. Learn from them. Forgive yourself so you can make other choices. Keep pursuing the real work. Stay in the conversation.
You will think you wasted effort and time when you do work you don’t like. Everyone does. Try again. No effort is wasted.
All good work contains the discovery of something necessary for human life, even if it’s only that we need to drink water.
All good work shows how we are all human, both you and your audience, that you connect, that you are the same.
All good work shows that it really matters that we are all the same.
More about Mark Lundsten’s creative vision (and artworks) can be found here:
Thanks, Mark! Wonderful being with you and Teru at the foot of Mount Rainier…
Thanks also to Win & Sarah Whittaker, for including my film in this festival…
Mount Rainier from the east side
The sands of the Sahara
Before coming to the Rainier Independent Film Festival, I had been focusing solely on process, doing things, going through lists of tasks to be performed by deadlines. Although I did not realize it, I had drifted into a creative desert. I could picture the next projects, and plan them, but I was drowning in a sea of sand.
The Sahara is a place for exploration and mind-stretching, but not for creativity (at least not for me).
As soon as I arrived at the foot of Mount Rainier, something in my being shifted.
Black-tailed deer in the Cascade Range
The beautiful natural setting had a lot to do with it. From the desert, I suddenly found myself in a humid and volcanically fertile environment.
Stream in the Cascade Range
Part of the shifting was the interaction with other creative people at the festival, such as Mark and Teru Lundsten – he is a film-maker and poet from Seattle, she writes personal stories.
Mark & Teru Lundsten
Mark said kind words about my film, but I was completely taken aback when he spoke to me about the creative process. In fact, he spoke so directly and with such simplicity that I asked him to write his words down on post-its I had in my pocket:
Mark Lundsten’s notes
Mark Lundsten: “All good works are contained within their own universe, distinct, consistent and clearly defined – emotionally, visually, intellectually, etc. That universe is of one fabric.
“The universe of a good work springs from confidence of intuition.”
More about Mark Lundsten’s creative vision (and artworks) can be found here:
George on the left, Mark on the right
I am particularly impressed by the size of the trees in Washington state
I am currently visiting Washington state, since my film The Blinding Sea is an official selection at the Rainier Independent Film Festival.
It is raining a lot so I can’t actually see Mount Rainier, a 4392-metre or 14,441-foot volcano just up the road from here. Hopefully, this coming Sunday, I will get a glimpse when the weather improves. It looks like this:
The snows on Mt. Rainier – photo copyright EdBookPhoto.com
The festival gets underway this evening, and runs to Sunday evening. After putting so much hard work into making the film, I began to feel like a monk isolated in a cell. Now that I am here, I am looking forward to meeting other film-makers and film buffs. I am sure I will learn a lot. I wonder what is going to happen.
Winter has a big impact on the character of Quebeckers. Winter is still a time for magic and inventiveness. Think of this pioneering woman on skis in the early part of the 20th century:
Canadian girl fixing on her skis, circa 1908
If proof is needed that winter runs deep in the character of Quebeckers, we have only to think of the Dufour-Lapointe sisters (originally from Montreal, now living in Lévis opposite Quebec City) who won gold and silver in the ski moguls at the Sochi Winter Games last February. In fact, Quebec athletes had spectacular success at the Games.
The Dufour-Lapointe sisters won gold and silver at Sochi
Winter is not just a time for passion about outdoor sports – it is also a time for snuggling up. In Montreal, we have four completely distinct seasons, so we are constantly adjusting to changing weather, and in the transitional periods, we are never too sure what to wear. Spring is the season of lovers going for long walks on Mount Royal. Summer is a kind of explosive (and often noisy) celebration of warm weather – while it lasts. Autumn for me is a nostalgic season, a moment to look back, to look up (watching the migration of snow geese southwards) and also to look ahead with a combination of joy and dread, as winter makes its slow return.
Waterfall on Mount Royal, during the spring
Cleaning the streets is a huge operation
When I remember Quebec winters as a boy, I was impressed by the way massive snowfalls in Montreal could be cleaned away so efficiently. This took a huge amount of organization. I was also fascinated by the many forms ice and snow crystals took, and even while skating on a pond in the front yard (I grew up in St. Lambert, on the banks of the St. Lawrence River opposite Montreal), I took time out to examine them carefully. Of course, the Montreal Canadiens won the Stanley Cup practically every other year during the 1960s and 1970s, so the onset of winter meant repeated ice hockey triumphs for Montreal fans. Even now, I feel the first flakes of snow in November come as a strange relief – like a return to the magic of childhood, to a secret world of fantasy and inventiveness.
I felt then, as I do now, that ice and snow serve as our companions. The day before my oral exams for my doctorate in History at McGill University, I knew I was completely unprepared. I spent the entire night cramming. Then at five in the morning, as I was drinking a last cup of coffee in desperation, a blizzard suddenly started to blow. It covered the city in 42 centimetres (or 16.5 inches) of fresh snow within a few hours. Fortunately, the university shut down, my exam was cancelled, and by the time it was rescheduled, several weeks later, I found the time to prepare myself properly.
The Great Lakes froze over
This past winter the Great Lakes completely froze over. This doesn’t happen very often. It came like a reminder of the last Ice Age, when an ice sheet covered most of what is now Canada. Towards the end of the Ice Age, melt water built up the Champlain Sea, which for three thousand years covered what are now the cities of Ottawa, Montreal, Quebec City and Burlington (Vermont) with brackish water.
In my mind, the end of winter always brings the first red-hulled icebreaker of the season, to open up the St. Lawrence Seaway to navigation. In fact, as a boy my bedroom window looked right out on the river, and I could witness first-hand the battle waged by the icebreaker against the ice floes.
The icebreaker Amundsen keeping a navigation channel open on Lac St. Pierre, downstream from Montreal
I suppose that in making my film The Blinding Sea, which allowed me to winter for three weeks on the research icebreaker Amundsen in the Beaufort Sea, I reconnected with this powerful childhood memory.
The build-up of ice this past winter, particularly in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, has had disastrous consequences for whales, that have been unable to find breathing holes. Nine blue whales drowned this winter in the Gulf. Nine – out of what biologists estimate is a total population of 500 blue whales in the northwest Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of St. Lawrence.
Nine blue whales drowned this winter due to heavy ice conditions in the Gulf of St. Lawrence
The view from Mount Royal in winter
In Montreal, this past winter was the coldest on record in the last twenty years. In fact the winter was exceptionally cold from the Great Lakes all the way to the Gulf of St. Lawrence, particularly in early January. Detroit and Toronto also had record-cold winters. The reason is an apparent shift southwards of the North Polar Vortex. Now spring is arriving later than usual, and meteorologists predict that summer will be cooler and wetter than the norm.
Frost on windows
In fact, the harshness of this past winter reminded me of when I was a boy growing up in the 1960s, and even of stories my grandfather used to tell me about growing up in the 1880s – with one difference. It was certainly cold, but conditions weren’t that great for cross-country skiing – many times when I would have been happy to put on my skis, it was simply too cold; other times, the snow was too mushy when it got warmer suddenly. The outdoor skating at Beaver Lake was the best I can ever remember, and I got there bright and early many mornings before work, marveling at the wild beauty of blue ice, the white winter sun rising over Mount Royal. Few other skaters were willing to get up so early, given the cold. It felt like being in the country, far from the heart of a city of three million people.
Skating on Beaver Lake
Winter is actually very much a part of Montreal’s character. Montrealers like winters full of snow, and for the first few months at least, we are as frisky as huskies. But by the end of February, winters have dragged on enough. We long for spring.
In times past, Montrealers celebrated their winters. My grandfather used to tell me about cold weather in the olden days. As a boy, he crossed the frozen three-kilometre-wide St. Lawrence River on foot. Then there was that dreadful railway accident when a train followed tracks laid down directly on the ice-bound river between Hochelaga and Longueuil and unfortunately broke through the ice.
Montrealers held snowshoe parties and expeditions on skis, and took ice-boats sailing on the frozen river. And of course my grandfather told me about the ice palaces of the Montreal winter carnivals of 1884 and 1885. One of the most extraordinary rituals was the storming of the ice palace, when a night-time procession of men and women bearing torches marched into the palace, to witness a demonstration of fireworks.
Storming the ice palace
I recently translated the late Marcel Trudel’s classic work on slavery, under the title Canada’s Forgotten Slaves: Two Hundred Years of Bondage. The book was published last fall by Véhicule Press in Montreal.
In finally bringing out this translation into English of a relatively little-known although important work, I wanted to expose the fact of slavery in colonial Canada – first under the French régime, then under the British one. Indeed, more than 4000 aboriginal and black slaves were bought, sold and exploited between 1629 and 1834 by a wide assortment of slave-owners, ranging from governors, seigneurs, and military officers to bishops, priests, nuns, judges, and merchants. One woman recently made a Catholic saint – Marguerite d’Youville – was a willing and even controversial slave-owner. Another slave-owner was James McGill, founder of my alma mater, McGill University.
As I wrote in the preface, I hope this translation gives “a voice to the voiceless, contributing more generally to a debate in Canada about liberty, the universality of human rights, as well as man’s inhumanity to man.”
Little by little, this seems to be happening. My publisher at Véhicule Press, Simon Dardick, presented the work to the Canada Council for a Governor General’s Award for Translation. Ultimately, I was short-listed (i.e. a finalist) which came both as a surprise and an honour.
Since then, media interviews on CBC Radio and Radio-Canada as well as reviews and blogs here and there show that many Canadians are astonished by the way Trudel describes the plight of slaves, recounting how they struggled to regain their liberty. He also documents how some Canadian politicians, historians and ecclesiastics deliberately falsified the record, glorifying their own colonial-era heroes, in order to remove any trace of the thousands of aboriginal and black slaves held in bondage for two centuries in Canada.
Just last week, the Literary Review of Canada published a review of my translation by author Lawrence Hill, in the May issue. I have read many reviews in my time, and have written quite a few. I liked this review because Lawrence Hill honestly acknowledges Trudel’s book is somewhat dated (it originally came out in 1960) while praising Trudel as a courageous trail-blazer for writing the book in the first place.
Racism is not just stupid– it is a cancer in society. Institutionalized racism turns prejudice into a system, which is then used to justify exploiting whole groups of people as if they were sub-human, as if they were born merely to serve others. Trudel has put a human face on the many thousands of slaves who were deliberately abused, neglected and then forgotten by Canadians. I am glad to have brought this work to the attention of new readers, in English. The work plays a part in helping restore an inconvenient truth to the historical record.
Here is another review:
Putting a human face on slavery in Canada