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film review

Shad (right) and The Besnard Lakes in a scene from "The National Parks Project"Handout

The main disruption to the peace and tranquillity of Canada's national parks is usually a clueless Sea-Doo driver or careening mountain biker. Now it seems to be Melissa Auf der Maur playing a distorted, prog-metal bass line way too loudly.

Then again, this isn't a typical view of Canada's connection to the wild. Auf der Maur is a key element in The National Parks Project, an ambitious collection of short films teaming 39 musicians with 13 filmmakers, together creating a serene, highly expressive take on Canada's parkland.

Exquisitely shot and consistently hypnotic, the films visit 13 preserved areas, from British Columbia's lush Gwaii Haanas National Park to the majestic Sirmilik in Nunavut, to the rocky Gros Morne in Newfoundland - the quintessentially Canadian environs that many (often urbanites yearning for some back-to-natureness) consider the true soul of the country. Indeed, many of the films revel in the novelty of being in the wild as tourists.

Still, the collection clearly aims to be a totemic statement, a link between Canada's thriving indie-arts culture and the land, to commemorate the centenary of the country's national parks service. This is an exceedingly difficult premise to pull off, and the project does it with timeliness and cohesion. That's not to say that everyone who regularly packs bug spray and heads into the wild will take to The National Parks Project.

The films demand as much as they give. The procession of near-silent shots of information kiosks and isolated parks facilities buildings in Stéphane Lafleur's affecting film of Prince Albert National Park in Saskatchewan is, for instance, more of an aesthetic play on electric light than any kind of straight documentary about the park. The same goes for Peter Lynch's repeated shots of cattle skulls in his film on Waterton Lakes, Alta.

The musical doodles that the great outdoors evoke from the musicians (who have a penchant for distortion and VOX amps, for some reason) add even more abstraction. The electric meanderings of Jace Lasek and Olga Goreas of the acclaimed group the Besnard Lakes, accompanied on acoustic guitar by rapper Shad, reverberate off the stupefyingly scenic river valleys of Nahanni, NWT. Yet a sharp eye will note the $90 price tag on the side of Lasek's digital-delay effects pedal. Maybe that was meant to add a little realistic, urban mundanity to the scene?

Then again, the music helps place the films in our time, just as the Vidal Sassoon wigs and groovy music firmly place Denys Arcand's early work for the National Film Board of Canada, Atlantic Parks, in 1967.

Yet, at the heart of the collection is that old philosophical question about the difference between the outer, physical world and our inner thoughts. Kant pretty much nipped that argument in the bud, and each of these films emphasize the divide between us and the land. It not only exists, but may now be something we need to try to minimize (at least during vacations from our urban, indie-music-listening lives).

But are we looking at nature in these films or our own thoughts? When Melissa Auf der Maur is shown throwing rocks in Gros Morne, are we more interested in the clatter the stones make in the otherwise pristine silence, or are we focused on this mini display of her feeling free? When we see Shad whitewater rafting, is the river the inspiration, or are we watching Shad having a good time?

Like any collection of shorts, viewers will pick their favourites.

Filmmaker John Walker's sojourn to the shores of Prince Edward Island is particularly beautiful, evoking a perfect vacation with a photogenic violinist. Some will inevitably find even this, one of the more structured of the shorts, too abstract and narratively barren. For those people, the best advice might be simply to relax and enjoy the scenery.

The National Parks Project

  • Directed by Zacharias Kunuk, Sturla Gunnarsson, Peter Lynch, Hubert Davis and others
  • Classification: NA

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