No surprise that people whose ancestors named their villages Joe Batt’s Arm or Seldom Come By have a way with words. Storytelling is a strong tradition in Newfoundland. On the other hand, the visual tradition, whether that’s in art or in filmmaking, is less pronounced, which may explain why the interactive piece Far Away from Far Away is a great story searching for the right medium.
Produced by the National Film Board of Canada, Far Away is intended to show that your phone can be the site of deep and lingering media experiences. It begins with a fascinating tale – the true story of Zita Cobb’s Newfoundland girlhood before she founded the Fogo Island Inn, a luxury hotel and artists’ colony – and illustrates it with video. Call it up on your smartphone (no app required), and it proves gently interactive. You can swipe your way through short videos or, in a few instances, press on one image to find a second hidden video emerging like meltwater. Following the work in a linear way as the narrative by Michael Crummey plays on the audio track will take you about half an hour.
In this multimedia piece directed by Bruce Alcock and Jeremy Mendes and filmed on Fogo by Justin Simms, it’s the layered videos that are often the most poetic. A fishing shed shown at night gives way to a heaven full of stars; a human eye dissolves to reveal the eye of a fisherman’s very last cod. The longer scenes of empty houses, blowing grass or half-glimpsed figures are evocative, but there are also elements that feel like filler: A burning cigarette stands in for a working man; views of highway cloverleafs represent the road trip west, and, rather unnecessarily, some sections of the text are displayed in decorative type.
Perhaps the most important imagery here is NFB footage from the 1960s of daily life on the island and a wedding. It is both the only video showing identifiable faces in the otherwise unpeopled Far Away, and it is of major historic significance. In the late 1960s, filmmaker Colin Low spent a summer shooting on the island as part of the NFB’s Challenge for Change project. The Fogo Process, as it became known, allowed people dotted around the island’s various outports to see and hear their neighbours on screen – in a place where Cobbs herself was 13 before she ever travelled from Joe Batt’s Arm to the next village a mere five kilometres away. Discovering that they all shared the same problems encouraged the people of Fogo to band together to forestall government attempts at resettlement, and in that community determination lie the seeds of the Fogo Island Inn.
What is really gripping about Far Away from Far Away, however, is the way Crummey, the award-winning novelist, has rendered Cobb’s story as a lyrical third-person narrative, filled with moments of crystalline literary resonance. The priest stands over the family in church, announcing that people who send their children to the Protestant high school will be turned into billy goats. The father takes great pride in his restraint, not slamming the door as he walks out of mass on the spot, never to return. The 1960s bring the offshore trawlers that can catch more in a day than an inshore fisherman does in a season. Cobb’s father burns his boat.
The lilting tones and strong stresses of actor Ruby Joy do full justice to these arresting stories. In the end, for all its pleasing bells and whistles, you could just listen to Far Away from Far Away as a podcast, so powerful are Crummey and Joy’s voices.
To view Far Away from Far Away, access https://faraway.nfb.ca/ from a phone.
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