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New documentary filters Emily Carr through a fresh lens

An image from Winds of Heaven, which is playing at the Vancouver International Film Festival

Suffering a crisis of confidence, worn down by the continued lack of recognition for her art by the Canadian establishment and her own crushing self-doubt, Emily Carr needed some encouragement. She found herself leafing through letters from her confidant and correspondent, Lawren Harris.

The Group of Seven painter was effusive: "Despair is part of every creative individual; it can't be conquered," he wrote. "One rises out of it. I suppose we are only content when all our sails are up and full of the winds of heaven. I hope all your sails are up and full of the winds of heaven. There is only one way: keep on."

Filmmaker Michael Ostroff found himself turning to Harris's words too, not just for the title of his new documentary about Carr, but for some personal encouragement as he fought to secure funding for the film - so elusive at points, he had to put the project on hold for months at a time.

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Like Carr, he persevered, and this weekend Winds of Heaven has its world premiere at the Vancouver International Film Festival, where VIFF director Alan Franey has called it "one of the most important films ever made about [British Columbia]"

Much of the film's content is supplied by Carr herself, with her words (performed spiritedly by actress Diane D'Aquila) and images. Carr's lush, iconic paintings are paired with contemporary shots of the B.C. landscape and native totem poles they depicted. Ostroff has dug up some remarkable archival footage, and also includes commentary by art critics, historians and curators.

The filmmaker approached the project from the margins of the subject, as he puts it. As a Canadian with some knowledge of art (he's a member of the National Gallery in Ottawa, where he lives; and has also made a film about the Canadian modernist painter Pegi Nicol), Ostroff was of course familiar with Carr, but he was in no way an expert.

"I love to take on films where I really have to start from almost zero. What I knew about Emily Carr before I started working on this film, our conversation would have lasted three minutes."

Instead, we talk for an hour, Ostroff revealing an in-depth knowledge of the artist. This wealth of information became a challenge for him in making this film.

"You go into the research files on Emily Carr," he says, "and there's a gazillion fingerprints on everything, right? That stuff has been looked at time and time again."

Looking at her work and studying the contemporary history, it became clear to Ostroff that he needed to portray Carr in the context of her relationship to B.C.'s first nations.

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"You don't see the brave noble savage as was being depicted by all the other white [artists] whether it was films that were being made by [American photographer Edward]Curtis and images of drug-store totem pole Indians, cigar chiefs. You don't see that in Carr's work. What you see is a great deal of respect."

Carr fell in love with native culture and recreated it lovingly on canvas in a way that was unusual for a white artist of her time. Today she's celebrated as a pioneer because of it. But that reverence is not universal. Ostroff tackles the thorny issue of appropriation and Carr's anticipation of the culture's disappearance.

"She couldn't get beyond her upbringing, which was very comfortable and conventional, and so she bought into the whole idea that first nations were on the verge of extinction," he says. "So there's this great tension in her work and there's this great tension in Canada."

A particular sequence of archival footage solidified this approach for Ostroff. Dating back to at least 1920, it depicted a group of native women canning fish on an assembly line. For Ostroff, the grainy sequence put so much into focus.

"The reason that the potlatch and all their cultural activities were being repressed was because their labour was absolutely essential to white capital," he says. "Absolutely you could not have native people running off to a one-month potlatch if the fish needed to be packed, right?"

After VIFF, the film will screen at several galleries, beginning with the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria next week. The first Victoria screening coincides with the unveiling of a new statue of Carr a few blocks away, in front of the Empress Hotel.

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It's high time Carr was honoured this way, says Ostroff, but the content of the statue annoys him: specifically the fact that it features Woo, her pet monkey (who makes only a brief, unexplained, appearance in his film).

"I know some of the people [involved in the statue]and I've said to them: I don't think it's appropriate in the 21st century to continually play up that myth as an irascible old lady with a monkey on her shoulder. ... There's a lot more to this woman than a monkey.

"But it's not the purpose of making the film," he adds, "to get into a fight with the blue-rinse set of Victoria."

The purpose of the film is to promote a deeper understanding and appreciation of Carr, framed by a rich, poetic treatment. It can't be the definitive piece on Carr; there's too much written about her already. But it can, Ostroff hopes, be the definitive film, encouraging people to read on about the artist and the native culture that helped shape her.

Winds of Heaven has its world premiere at VIFF on Saturday at 6:30 p.m. It screens again on Sunday and Wednesday (

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About the Author
Western Arts Correspondent

Marsha Lederman is the Western Arts Correspondent for The Globe and Mail, based in Vancouver. She covers the film and television industry, visual art, literature, music, theatre, dance, cultural policy, and other related areas. More

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