Before you gather around the TV this weekend to cheer on your Oscar picks, take an hour to watch one of Canada’s past nominees.
Helicopter Canada (streaming on Netflix and NFB.ca) was a nominee for best documentary at the 39th Academy Awards, back in 1967.
The 50-minute film, presented by the Centennial Commission, was meant to celebrate Canada’s 100th birthday at home – and promote the country as a tourist destination. Shot entirely from a helicopter, it offers a bird’s-eye view of all 10 provinces.
“If this film doesn’t stir your Canadian blood, nothing will,” Joan Fox wrote in her review for The Globe and Mail upon its release.
But watching it now, it provokes more cringing than pride. For some inexplicable reason, the film opens with the sound of yodelling and, straight away, talk of a land covered in ice. “But it’s now warm enough to swim in most of Canada, at least part of the time,” says narrator Stanley Jackson as the camera pans over a crowd swimming at a beach. From there, we are treated to shots of Sudbury mines and Alberta oil fields interspersed with more familiar scenic shots (Niagara Falls, snowy Montreal). It sure seems an odd way to attract visitors.
“This is a film that was made in a very different era,” explains Albert Ohayon, collection curator at the NFB.
“Since this was a film sponsored by the Centennial Commission, I’m sure there were some directives that were sent to the NFB. ‘Listen, while we’re at it, we should add in the mines.’ What do people think of when they think of Canada? Big wide open spaces, unlimited resources, fishing. It does play up some of those stereotypes.”
That shouldn’t take away from the effort behind it, however. Director Eugene Boyko, a long-time camerman with the NFB, spent more than 540 hours in the air over 18 months, shooting about 24 hours of film. A special harness was built so Boyko could film without falling out. They almost crashed at least twice. The final cost was $381,000 – a lot of money for the time.
“The response critically was phenomenal,” Ohayon says. “People absolutely adored the film. In Canada it was a huge hit. Columbia Pictures bought the rights for a 22-minute version that was shown everywhere – USSR, USA, China, Italy.” Besides French, it was translated into 12 languages.
“It’s still a nice look at Canada,” Ohayon adds. “As a travelogue for the period I think it works really well.”