Saskatchewan: A Cooperative past and future

Our doc history from coast to coast

10 mins read

In late May, when crops have been sown and winter is almost a distant memory, a small agricultural community becomes a focal point for Canadian broadcasters and independent filmmakers. If you happened to be driving along the Yellowhead Highway near Saskatchewan’s eastern border, stopping to fill up at the local Co-op gas station, you would likely have no idea you were near a rural town that hosts North America’s longest-running film festival and is the birthplace of two seminal figures in the establishment of the National Film Board’s documentary legacy. Saskatchewan has never been a place to boast about its achievements or make a fuss of its homegrown talent. It’s not in the spirit of a place founded on socialist values and often overlooked for its cultural contributions.

For over six decades, the Yorkton Film Festival has recognised the achievements of Canada’s best filmmakers with their iconic Golden Sheaf Award, a symbol of the festival’s prairie roots. But this farming town’s connection to Canada’s documentary history predates the 70-year-old festival. Born in Yorkton in 1906, a year after Saskatchewan became a province, Evelyn Spice Cherry forged a strong connection to the prairies that remained evident throughout the more than 100 films she made between 1929 and 1979. Her work with John Grierson at the British GPO film unit in the 1930s eventually brought her back to Canada at the outset of the Second World War. When Grierson was charged with developing the National Film Board of Canada (NFB), he invited her to assist with the effort. As the first female and Canadian within the organisation, her contributions in developing the Agricultural Unit with her husband Lawrence Cherry (also from Saskatchewan) made her a cinematic pioneer in the province. She helped establish social documentary form using a prairie lens that didn’t shy away from political ideologies that would be shared on a national stage.

Wings of Mercy, Evelyn Cherry & Lawrence Cherry, provided by the National Film Board of Canada

The Board benefitted from another Saskatchewan export, coincidentally also born in Yorkton. Roman Kroitor’s film career developed away from his home province, like many artists whose careers and creative aspirations draw them to larger centres with greater resources, but one can imagine that the endless prairie sky might have inspired the scale of the IMAX format he helped develop.

Despite having benefitted from Saskatchewan-born filmmakers, the NFB never established a permanent studio presence in the province. Over the years, production offices in Winnipeg and Edmonton provided intermittent support, often with outsiders commissioned to create films about those who live here. (Paper Wheat being the best-known example.) A recent shift, however, has fostered new production with local filmmakers. Tasha Hubbard’s Gemini and Golden Sheaf Award-winning Two Worlds Colliding (2005) illustrates the importance of Indigenous voices sharing stories of national relevance, and the NFB’s capacity to provide a platform for socially engaged and auteur-driven documentary. Hubbard remains in Saskatchewan despite the draw of larger centres. “I briefly considered basing myself out of Toronto or Winnipeg, but the stories that I wish to tell are based here,” she explains. “I’m a Cree woman who was adopted as a baby by a homesteading family, and I feel deeply connected to this place. I want to tell stories of resilience. And because Indigenous filmmaking mentors supported my career, I wish to do the same for emerging Indigenous filmmakers based here so more of our stories can be told.” In 2017, Hubbard will release Birth of a Family with the NFB, which will hopefully herald an era of continuous NFB production focusing on a new generation of filmmakers, who will be able to remain in Saskatchewan with the support they need to share their vision.

Two Worlds Colliding, Tasha Hubbard, provided by the National Film Board of Canada

On the other hand, a bitter blow struck the filmmaking community when Premier Bradley Wall rescinded the provincial tax credit in 2013, inciting an exodus of skilled production crew to Vancouver, Winnipeg and Toronto. Hubbard acknowledges that the replacement system is underfunded and “there are many stories waiting to be told by both experienced and emerging filmmakers in this province and I wish the provincial government would be more supportive of that.”

But the relative isolation from broadcasters and industry networks provided independent documentary filmmakers in this province the freedom to develop their projects without the limitations and interference that traditional support might impose. To overcome production obstacles, alternative modes flourished over the decades and encouraged artist collectives to develop and champion personal filmmaking. This voice became a hallmark of documentary in Saskatchewan.

As the Saskatchewan Filmpool Cooperative prepares to celebrate its 40th anniversary in 2017, one must note how the influence of a passionate social documentarian inspired the organisation. In the summer of 1977, after his success with Warrendale (1967) and A Married Couple (1969), Allan King was hired to direct the feature film adaptation of W.O. Mitchell’s Who Has Seen the Wind. The rarity of a feature film shoot in Saskatchewan at the time spurred a few aspiring filmmakers to join the production as interns. King’s mentorship sowed seeds for the Filmpool. As a hub for independent filmmakers wishing to gain the resources and support to develop their own documentaries, it drew many members from the University of Regina’s film program. Through the Filmpool’s evolution in the 1990s, members like Dianne Ouellette, Mike Rollo, Jason Britski and Brian Stockton developed their own documentary voices and told stories about themselves while remaining in the province. SCN, the provincial broadcaster, provided financial support and a broadcast window to many of these local independent projects and helped sustain filmmakers. But, much like the tax credit, it too became a victim of Conservative cuts in 2010, and with it evaporated yet another means of vital production support.

Aside from film production, the photographic documentary tradition established its roots in Saskatoon in the 1970s as part of the growing artist-run centre movement, becoming The Photographer’s Gallery (later merging with Video Verité to become PAVED Arts in 2003). Modelled on cooperative principles that flourished through the wheat pools and credit unions seen in every corner of province, the centre provided members the means to develop, print and exhibit their work in gallery settings using shared resources and responsibilities. These photographers took it upon themselves to create opportunities for exhibition and publication, distinguishing their works from the constraints of photojournalism. The ability to work collectively also provided an opportunity for discussion and critique, allowing artists to improve their practice without the need to travel to other communities of photographers. The works of Thelma Pepper, Don Hall and Sandra Semchuk (among others) were seminal in establishing a prairie documentary aesthetic, highlighting the landscape, culture and spirit of perseverance and survival that helped shape its identity.

Through it all, the Saskatchewan Arts Board (established in 1948, and replicated across the country thereafter) continues to be a vital resource for the independent documentary filmmakers and photographers who call Saskatchewan home. The result is innovative, reflective work that leans toward the personal, yet tells a story specific to a part of the country that continues to be largely unknown and misunderstood. These grants combined with production support from cooperatives and artist-run centres like the Saskatchewan Filmpool Cooperative (Regina) and PAVED Arts (Saskatoon) allow new work to emerge and documentary modes to evolve. As filmmakers like Tasha Hubbard lead a new generation who address the past while innovating new approaches, the next chapter of this country’s documentary history will likely owe something to one of its frequently overlooked places.

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