One of the films at the Vancouver International Film Festival that was highly anticipated was Michael Ostroff’s documentary about Emily Carr — Winds of Heaven: Emily Carr, Carvers, and the Spirits of the Forest. Carr is one of BC’s most famous artists but wasn’t appreciated during her time and is historically written as cranky. I think the film did an excellent job giving an overview of her life, the times, and her work as an artist. The cinematography was gorgeous — Carr’s paintings coupled with historical footage, stories, photographs, and commentary. I really enjoyed the narrative-style and found it engaging. I think this is an important film for all BC residents to watch, not only to learn about Emily Carr, but to experience the beginnings of our province and appreciate the contributions of the Northwest Coast’s First Nations.

VIFF: Winds of Heaven

An impressionistic exploration of the spirit that informed the solitary life of one of Canada’s most celebrated and irrepressible painters. Emily Carr began painting in an era when women didn’t, at an age when most people shouldn’t, traveling to remote locations that few professional adventurers chose to go. Not only did she adopt the painting techniques of modernism, when such ideas were considered dangerous, Carr chronicled the extraordinary art and culture of native peoples, who were invisible to the dominant culture.

[From White Pine Pictures, the documentary’s co-producer]

I really liked these quotes from the filmmaker in various interviews:

“I was not going to make a film about an irascible old woman with a monkey on her shoulder, that image of her created by the tourist world,” Ostroff says. … That clichéd idea of the eccentric artist runs against that of the complex woman he portrays in his movie. — The Georgia Straight

Ostroff says his documentary about the enigmatic artist tries to avoid what he calls the Emily Carr ‘freak show.’ ‘What I wanted to do was present a living, breathing, tough, vulnerable, smart, confused, and ultimately a very sympathetic woman.'” — News1130

“I found her to be an extraordinarily sympathetic person, [someone] who paid an enormous price to do what she felt she needed to do, which was to be an artist.” — The Vancouver Sun

I think he did it quite well and the end result is a stunning documentary, not only about Emily Carr, but about the people and the places of British Columbia. She did so much travelling in her lifetime, painting the First Nations’ totems and the wilds of BC. I am a little torn about the inclusion of certain rude remarks against the First Nations people. On one hand, you can see from first-hand accounts (Carr wrote her autobiography) that she was truly interested and intrigued by the First Nations people of the Northwest Coast. However, it is clear that there were certain opinions during her lifetime regarding the First Nations people.

While she resisted the predominate white attitude of portraying natives as ‘savages’, devoid of cultural sensibilities, the film explores the critique of Carr that she did contribute to the “traffic of native images”. It also recalls the racism of the day – the Canadian government’s celebration of the ancient native arts and its determination to preserve the totem poles, while ironically advocating and implementing policies that were determined to assimilate First Nations people and eradicate their way of life and culture.

[From the Winds of Heaven blog]

After the screening (and thunderous applause), Michael Ostroff was present for a Q&A. I think this has been my favourite part about the Film Festival: the opportunity to discuss the film in more detail. The two questions I want to dicuss here are about (1) the fact that images from different First Nations groups were shown when speaking about a specific culture and the fact that they didn’t correspond, and (2) Emily Carr’s voice, tone, and intonations.

In answer to the first question, Ostroff said that it was mainly a lack of material. He was able to find a lot of archival images and some video, but not necessarily in exact equal measure. So sometimes the narrative talked about Haida Gwaii, and the images perhaps were showing Coast Salish people. The question-asker also inquired if Ostroff was worried about insulting the First Nations people, to which Ostroff wittily replied that he had his poetic license in his back pocket.

As for the second question, this really bothered my dad (who joined my sister and I at the screening). He didn’t feel that Carr should have been portrayed as a cranky old lady. I am of two minds about it — on one hand, Carr did set her feelings in writing, but sometimes the tone of the narrative was not how I would have interpreted. Ostroff said that while she never recorded any audio, he did rely on a number of first-hand accounts from friends and associates. There was also a plethora of letter correspondence between herself and Lawren Harris of the Group of Seven.

If you’re interested in watching the Q&A, Jason (a mutual friend and fellow Winds of Heaven attendee) tweeted that he filmed some of it.