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Kevin Nikkel PhotoIn 1919, a film crew set out on an epic journey across Canada’s North. Over the course of six months, their expedition traveled by icebreaker, canoe, and dog sled, capturing the Canadian fur trade in a silent feature documentary. The Romance of the Far Fur Country was released in 1920, two years before the legendary film Nanook of the North.

Rediscovering the documentary in a British archive, filmmaker Kevin Nikkel began a journey to resurrect the lost film, taking it to the communities where the film was originally shot. The result is the award winning feature documentary On the Trail of the Far Fur Country.

The film captures the descendants of the First Nations communities depicted in the 1919 footage watching the archival footage as they recognize faces, landscapes and lost traditions.

Ottawa Indie Fest recently spoke to Kevin Nikkel about the making of his film which screens at the ByTowne Cinema on May 24 at 6:25pm as part of the Lost Dominion Screening Collective’s series of film screenings.

How did you get involved in the making of this film?

As a filmmaker based in Winnipeg, I’ve done a series of documentaries for a local broadcaster on local history topics. I wanted to expand my scope to something national, and figured that approaching the topic of the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) was a good place to start.

In my research for a doc on the HBC, I came across a book by Peter Geller called Northern Exposures. In the book, Geller devotes a chapter to the story of the journey of the HBC motion picture expedition of 1919. Along with the chapter were stills from film, and behind the scenes shots as well. I was amazed. It didn’t take long for me to contact Geller and together we began conversations with the Hudson’s Bay Company Archives (HBCA), which are part of the Archives of Manitoba, regarding the possibility of having the films returned from the British Film Institute in London to the collection in Winnipeg.

The time was right. The HBCA had added a new cold vault to their facility, and had some funding to attempt the digitization of the nitrate elements. The HBCA made a formal request to the British Film Institute to have the film elements returned to Winnipeg. I volunteered to support the process, giving advice where possible, and committed to restoring the original film to its 2 hour run time once the digitization was completed. I was the restoration producer once the nitrate elements were digitized and returned to Winnipeg. All the rushes from the 1919 film are now available from the HBCA in Winnipeg.


“The Romance of the Far Fur Country” Production Still

Why were you interested in making this film?

It was clearly a great story. Rare footage from the early days of cinema. The great images of the epic journey across the country. The journals/letters from the filmmakers gave us a window into the hardships they faced. Most of all, it was obvious that the 1919 footage was a cinematic time capsule that clearly could speak to us as a country today.

What were some of the challenges in the making of this film?

The initial challenge was funding. Since we were committed to traveling to the same remote communities that the filmmakers visited in 1919, we knew it would be costly. The project took nearly 5 years to complete, during the first 3 years we were shooting, but still fundraising to secure the final budget. Broadcasters seem to be allergic to archival based stories, so we went with arts funding and were successful.

The logistics of arranging visits to remote communities was also a task, but we found that every community was quite open to having us come to show them footage from 1919. The other issues we faced were related to the weather. In Northern Alberta we faced a cold snap of mid -30s. The predictable battery trouble and memory card errors had to be handled delicately.It was cold, but it added to the film.

What was it like for you personally as a filmmaker showing and sharing the archival footage with today’s First Nation’s audiences?

I speak to this in the film, as my personal voice is one of the voices of the film. I valued the journey visiting these communities and engaging in dialogue with First Nations, Inuit and Metis on the issues the film raises. I was honored to have the opportunity to capture intimate moments of discovery as individuals recognized their relatives in the archival film footage.

As can be seen in the film, each community came out to see the footage when we visited, and were very engaged when we opened things up for a Q&A after screening the footage. There were many reactions, but I would describe them as deeply interested, appreciative, and inspired. When we would routinely ask the local audiences, “What should we do with the footage”, their response was “Take this to the next level. Let people see this.”


“The Romance of the Far Fur Country” Production Still

Although no complete print of 1920 film The Romance of the Far Fur Country exists, what can you tell us about the film’s restoration to its original two-hour running time.

The 1920 film is now restored and available on DVD and Blu Ray for screenings. Regarding the restoration, the nearly 8 hours of film reels returned to Winnipeg in 2012 were quite mixed up, with a lot of duplication in the reels. There wasn’t an existing print of The Romance of the Far Fur Country, so we had to piece together the film from the surviving reels, while using what textual records were available from the HBCA. There was some curatorial editing involved, with the final film receiving a contemporary score by composer Nathan Reimer.

We’ve released a limited edition double disc DVD right now with 6 hours content… loads of extra 1920 HBC silent shorts and alternate versions from the HBCA archives. It is a cinephile and history lover’s dream, but limited in quantity.My doc On the Trail of the Far Fur Country and the 1920 Romance film are both available from the Winnipeg Film Group.


“On the Trail of the Far Fur Country” Production Still

Kevin Nikkel is a writer / producer / director based in Winnipeg, Canada. He completed a Bachelor of Education at University of Manitoba and a Master of Adult Education from St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia. His dramatic, animated and documentary films have reached audiences internationally at festivals, on television and on the web. He is active in the film community of Winnipeg and a member of the Winnipeg Film Group. He juggles his time between filmmaking, parenting, and teaching.

On the Trail of the Far Fur Country screens at the ByTowne Cinema on May 24 at 6:25pm as part of the Lost Dominion Screening Collective’s series of film screenings.

Director Kevin Nikkel will be in attendance to introduce his film, and will be available to answer questions from the audience after the screening.

The film recently won the Colin Low Award for Best Canadian Documentary at the 2015 DOXA Film Festival in Vancouver and Cinemablographer lists the film as one of top ten Canadian films of 2014 stating “This beautiful documentary is one of the hidden gems of the year”.

For more information about On the Trail of the Far Fur Country and the 1919 film The Romance of the Far Fur Country can be found on their websites.

© 2015 Ottawa Independent Film Festival

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