John Walker’s Passage
By Darrell Varga
(Canadian Cinema, U of T Press, 2015)
Darrell Varga’s book John Walker’s Passage is essentially an auteurist study of the filmmaker himself, bound up with an in-depth analysis of his 2008 hybrid film, Passage. While Varga’s writing tends at times toward gushiness, his personal commitment to the project brings the subject to life and makes some fairly heavy theory entirely accessible.
A hybrid film that shifts seamlessly from non-fiction to fictionalized modes, Passage takes up the controversy surrounding the fate of John Franklin’s failed 1845 expedition to find the Northwest Passage. Passage focuses on John Rae, whose findings that the Franklin party had most likely become stranded and ultimately resorted to cannibalism provoked angry, racist responses from the British. The film alternates between fictionalized re-enactments based on diaries and other documentation left by Rae, Franklin and Franklin’s wife, among others, and documentary footage of the actors struggling to separate truth from imperialist distortion, as well as on the lead actor’s Method-like immersion in Northern life.
Varga’s analysis of Passage is lengthy and quite descriptive, but insightful, and peppered with behind-the-scenes details as well as statements of intent directly from Walker. Some may find this approach lacks critical distance, but it is actually a refreshing change of pace from the usual projections and assumptions made in auteurist analyses of films, leaving little room for doubt as to Walker’s own intentions in making Passage.
Despite his connection with Walker, Varga doesn’t shy away from addressing critical issues around the film. In particular, he focuses on the potential ethical issues in fictionalizing historical re-enactments and presenting them as part of a narrative continuum. At one point, he compares Passage to Al Pacino’s similarly structured film Looking for Richard (1996), pointing out that both films are “driven by an interrogation of the process of representation and how this informs understanding.”
It is the process of creating understanding through representation, as well as the interchanges between documentary and fiction and past and present, that interest Varga most. Using both Gilles Deleuze and Harold Innis to inform his points, Varga’s central claim about Passage is that Walker’s balanced combination of fiction and documentary is essentially a “way of revealing the fictionalization of history at the hands of power and empire.” Varga argues that Walker has not only adopted Innis’s notion that “one can really only see the nature of empire from the margins,” but also that by using both fiction and documentary elements equally, the filmmaker has engaged in a form of resistance to dominant modes of storytelling by including previously marginalized or unheard voices and revealing the fictionalized nature of history itself.
This idea, along with other thoughts on the nature of documentary and representational ethics, are woven throughout the book, and tie neatly together in a concluding chapter dealing with Innis’s ideas as they pertain to Passage. While the initial three chapters meander at times, they ultimately provide an excellent grounding for Varga’s solid exploration of Innis and the connection to Passage. Innis and especially Deleuze can be hard to read on their own, but Varga does an excellent job of explaining how their key ideas inform Walker’s films. The final chapter devoted to Innis is particularly helpful in that regard. Notwithstanding a slight tendency toward adulation, and with more references to Grierson’s “creative treatment of actuality” than should probably appear in such a short work studded with so many other insightful gems, Varga’s work expertly reveals the importance of Passage as a hybrid film.