Gerry Flahive is a writer in Toronto.
A funeral has all the natural elements of a story. A beginning, a middle and an end (so to speak), plus “characters” who find themselves in an unexpected and profoundly emotional situation.
But when that funeral is a state funeral, the most elaborate state funeral in 50 years, and it’s Pierre Trudeau’s, the elements of drama and history are significantly elevated.
Mr. Trudeau’s funeral took place on Oct. 3, 2000 – 20 years ago. I attended as a producer for the National Film Board of Canada, along with two film crews. Our goal was not to gather material for a documentary, but to preserve the event in the NFB’s archives for future historians and storytellers.
CBC’s three-hour live coverage documented the grand sweep of the day’s purpose; we were there as somewhat furtive chroniclers. I had argued that what we were capturing would become part of the national heritage.
The funeral had the kind of solemnity rarely seen in Canada, and a coming-together of French and English Canadian “elites” hardly seen since. The narrow streets surrounding Montreal’s Notre-Dame Basilica were filled that morning, creating an atmosphere that was variously respectful and festive. Looking at the footage now, taken less than a year prior to 9/11, it’s remarkable to see how casual and benign it all seems – no metal detectors, security passes barely looked at, and people such as Jimmy Carter, Fidel Castro, a then scandal-free Prince Andrew and every Canadian politician of the day chatting within arm’s reach of the crowds.
Actor Margot Kidder, who once dated Mr. Trudeau, was among the first to arrive. Mr. Carter and Mr. Castro displayed a remarkable ability to ignore each other while standing side-by-side. Leonard Cohen, an honorary pallbearer, seemed bemused by the spectacle of it all.
We positioned our second film crew on an interior balcony, the only camera other than CBC’s allowed inside. We had a much more fluid view of the faces, reactions and small details, such as how the applause from the crowds watching on a large TV screen outside affected the attendees inside, and a shot of performing arts legend Brian Macdonald looking on slyly as three former prime ministers – Joe Clark, Brian Mulroney and John Turner – bantered in front of him prior to the service. (Mr. Turner’s state funeral on Oct. 6 in Toronto will have a completely different quality, lacking a public component due to the pandemic.)
As documentarians everywhere know, you don’t leave an official event just because it is officially over, and so we caught the mixture of smiles and tears as the streets emptied – and government protocol staff posing for a team photo.
Every event is a “historic” event, if you give it enough time. The most seemingly pedestrian film footage of people walking on a Manhattan street in 1911 is now, to our eyes, deeply fascinating, every detail telling, every person indubitably unaware that they are living in the past.
For Lea Nakonechny, sales manager of the NFB Archives, raw footage begins to feel “historical” after 20 years, and its candid nature gives it cultural and creative potential. “Because the material is unedited, it lacks an editorial voice. That lack of editorial voice is what makes it so valuable, because it can be taken by someone else in the future to tell a different story, from a different angle.”
She cites film footage from an uncompleted 1960s documentary about residential schools: “Indigenous filmmakers are often using this footage to talk about the residential school experience in their own way."
Archive producer Elizabeth Klinck searches the globe for the most pertinent and often unseen historical shots for broadcasters and filmmakers, in a time when an explosion in content creation is opening the archival vaults to foster new interpretations. “The intent of the Trudeau funeral footage was as a record of a place and time. It was observational," she says. "This is an archivist’s dream – pure gold. It only matures and gains greater importance over time.”
We might assume that pretty much everything is caught on some sort of camera these days: smartphones or security cameras and, soon, drones. But little of that gathering is done with archival intent, and most of it won’t be collected, catalogued and preserved. (The NFB’s footage from the funeral, unedited, is preserved on film, the most robust audio-visual medium, its analog nature ensuring it will survive the vagaries of electronic deterioration and technological obsolescence. Good luck viewing VHS home movies in 100 years – or even five.)
While we can probably count on events of national import always being well-documented and viewable decades from now, what are we not capturing? What of the human experience are we missing? Can we solve the technology issues to preserve records of everyday life? There are stories to be told from our peripheral vision, if we just pay attention.
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