The Last Trapper
Written and directed
by Nicolas Vanier
Starring Norman Winther
and May Loo
The Last Trapper opens with some spectacular footage of caribou moving across a snowy landscape at dawn. The film then shows us the fur-clad hunter, camouflaged with his own set of antlers, and rolls the title and this credit: "Introducing Norman Winther as himself." The camera then cuts to equally breathtaking scenes of Norman in summer, canoeing through a canyon while, in a voice-over narration, he introduces himself as a trapper in his 50s who lives off the land.
Apparently, The Last Trapper is a documentary about Norman's life in the Yukon, hunting, fishing and running a wintertime trapline alongside Nebraska, his partner of 15 years. Their survival skills are inspirational: Apart from the occasional use of a short-wave radio and some supplies dropped in by float plane once a year, they live without any contemporary technology. They mainly eat what they can catch or pick, and they have built their cabin themselves, felling the logs with a hand saw and hauling them by horse. Norman explains that he prefers his dog team to the "snow machine" used by another old trapper because your dogs keep you company -- and can save your life.
However, it's at the very moment when Norman and his sled have gone through the ice and the untried bitch Apache heeds his desperate cries to turn back the panicked team and rescue him that you may really start to wonder whether this is actually Norman's life or some wildly exaggerated version recreated by the adventuring Quebec director Nicolas Vanier. The dogs pull Norman out; he warms his hands with a flame, and he's up on his sled and off again: Apparently soaking clothing in sub-zero temperatures is no impediment to the great trapper.
The notes for The Last Trapper inform us that this is neither a work of fiction nor a documentary -- information Vanier might have wished to have passed along to his audience -- but rather an attempt to draw spectators into the world of a real-life character by re-enacting scenes from his life. There will always be an unspoken tension in nature films and survival documentaries -- why doesn't the camera crew pull Norman out of the drink and wrap him in a blanket fast? -- but Vanier is exploring some even more awkward artistic territory here.
If The Last Trapper is a fictionalized account of a true story, we can permit Vanier the whole series of narrow escapes that Norman suffers in what is supposedly one last winter on the land before clear-cutting drives him away, but we can also demand that the characters not all talk in stilted, expository dialogue that sounds very much as though they are amateurs trying to go about their daily business in front of a camera. As the couple exchange information that in real life would never need to be spoken, Norman sounds a lot more comfortable with his dogs than he ever does with Nebraska.
If this is a documentary, on the other hand, we might easily forgive this odd dialogue but we would expect these people to be real. However, with the exception of Norman, they are all actors (Nebraska is played by May Loo) and furthermore, those behind the scenes can inform journalists who bother to ask that Norman currently lives alone with his dogs: Nebraska is a fiction. Similarly, those who scan the credits carefully will notice that it is not Norman's voice in the narration and that this film packed full of scenery worthy of a big-screen viewing was shot in Kluane National Park: There's neither logging nor trapping in those woods.
Before any of those credits, Vanier actually ends the film by flashing the World Wildlife Fund logo on the screen. Norman has told us that the trappers keep nature in balance, paradoxically encouraging the growth of animal populations by culling the weak and keeping any particular species from becoming dominant. It sounds plausible, but why should we buy this environmental message any more than we should believe that Norman hasn't resorted to a snowmobile or a chainsaw run off a generator when Vanier's sentimentalizing camera wasn't rolling?
In the world of fiction, ethically, the artist may be permitted any toying with fact that he wishes; artistically, his only concern must be whether his audience will suspend disbelief and enter his world. By painting an uneven layer of documentary on top of his drama, Vanier breaks that bond. To preach an environmental message, he has climbed into the documentary-maker's legitimate pulpit, but once there he attempts a seduction of the assembled congregation with the delights of make-believe. Norman Winther -- if there is a real Norman Winther -- deserves better.