“I think the country isn’t used to this sense of humble pride. Those are the stories that we know,” said Mike Downey. The filmmaker was speaking in conversation at the Kingston Canadian Film Festival (KCFF) on March 5 in a talk moderated by CBC’s Elamin Abdelmahmoud. The session featured a screening of Downie’s inspiring new documentary short A Century in the Making, about late Queen’s Gaels hockey legend Stu Crawford, but the conversation largely focused on Kingston’s pride and joy: Downie’s late brother Gord of the Tragically Hip fame, who died in 2017.
The conversation featured an extended excerpt from Downie’s 2016 documentary The Secret Path, which chronicled Gord’s mission to tell the story of Chanie Wenjack, who died of hunger at age 12 while fleeing the inhumane conditions of residential school. Downie’s album The Secret Path, as well as his concerts that mixed animation with live performance and the Canadian Screen Award winning documentary, helped bring attention to Wenjack’s story and, in turn, those of other Indigenous children who were lost to the residential schools.
Mike told the KCFF crowd that Gord saw reconciliation as the “missing piece” of the country. Gord Downie’s revelation in May 2016 that he had terminal brain cancer marked a turn in his career as an artist and activist. Downie said that he could see a sense of urgency in his brother’s work to use his remaining time for a project of greater meaning.
“It wan opportunity to feel useful in the second to and last year for Gord,” said Downie. “It was so important to him that he got the story right and got it in front of so many people. Gord was using all that capital to redirect attention. For that time, he really had the attention of the whole country.”
On Gord and Reconciliation
Downie unpacked the process of making The Secret Path and admitted to Abdelmahmoud that production worked around CBC brass to deliver a concert doc that conveyed Gord’s vision and message on a wider scale. The team shot concert footage at Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto where Wenjack’s family attended the performance. The concert featured an empty chair dedicated to Wenjack.
The filmmaker also unpacked the intricate process of matching live performance with the animation, which was facilitated by mixing footage shot during the Toronto concert and during rehearsals in Hunstville. The team seamlessly edited together the 10 songs and accompanying animated work with repeat takes to keep the music and the images on the same beat.
The conversation noted The Secret Path and Gord’s work for ushering a new phase of awareness for reconciliation. “It was not part of the consciousness of the people when we began to film as it is now,” observed Downie. The filmmaker also cited land acknowledgements, which feature prominently at festivals like KCFF, as part of the conversation invited by his brother’s work. “I feel that Gord helped get that off on the right track and into the conversation,” noted Downie.
Moreover, the conversation detoured to address the recent event in which singer Jully Black altered the words of “O Canada” while performing the national anthem at an NBA All-Star game in February. Abdelmahmoud asked Downie for his thoughts on Black’s revision of the lyric “our home and native land” to “our home on native land.” Downie replied that it “was really brilliant on Jully’s part.” He also related the idea of adapting the national anthem to the argument about legalizing pot. “As you’re watching it happen, there’s no real opposition to it,” observed Downie.
New Hip Doc
KCFF’s spotlight on Mike Downie also gave audiences a sense of his latest project. Downie shared insights about his upcoming four-part documentary series about Gord and the Tragically Hip, which will stream on Prime Video next fall. Downie noted that the first two episodes were at the rough-cut phase and out to members of the Hip for feedback.
“In many ways, I’ve been getting ready for this for a long time,” noted Downie as the conversation became emotional. “It was just the right amount of time since Gord had passed. Memories are still fresh.”
Downie shared that he shot numerous interviews with members of the Hip and Gord’s contemporaries in Kingston and Toronto over the summer. The doc-series will look at Gord’s final year, which was also captured in Jennifer Baichwal and Nick de Pencier’s doc Long Time Running. Moreover, the new work spans the Tragically Hip’s oeuvre and its place within Canadian culture. “You could feel it in the way that people talk about the legacy of the Tragically Hip in Kingston, in Canada,” said Downie.
Downie added that the series should appeal to dedicated and casual fans alike, as it will span the fourteen albums released by the Tragically Hip, along with seven albums that Gord released solo. He noted that the doc should invite reappraisal of the Hip’s albums produced by Bob Rock, We Are the Same and World Container, while reminding viewers how the Hip’s earliest and mid-career work captured Canadian culture in a unique way through Gord’s relationship with the audience.
“It’s beyond place, musically,” observed Downie. “It’s a sound that has a real call-and-answer from the stage and back again.”