Thursday, July 01, 2010

In 1980 or '81 i had a radio show at CKUT (campus-community radio station based at McGill University). My show was from 6:00 a.m. to 9:00 a.m. which pretty much ensured that no students were listening. But i did have a few listeners who connected through cable. Rooting through the bank of vinyl i looked for anything but pop music and one morning found a record by Willie Dunn that included the song Ballad of Crowfoot. I was immediately struck by it played it that morning (and probably several others after that). I learned about the NFB film and tracked it down. I was very moved. And am delighted to find that it is on the NFB site and available for embedding in other websites. So here it is.

Gil Cardinal, on the NFB site, writes:
Notable for being one of the first films produced by the NFB’s Indian Film Crew, The Ballad of Crowfoot is also remarkable for its haunting archival images set to an impassioned ballad written and performed by director Willie Dunn...
I am moved once again to watch this film and listen to this song. Especially given the context of recent aboriginal activism in Canada (from the work done on the legacy of residential schools to Defenders of the Land). And given the nature of my family, i am more connected to this history than i ever imagined i would be.

The NFB site also notes that this film was made in cooperation with the Company of Young Canadians, a fascinating community development/youth program that started in 1966 and lasted until 1969, 1972 or 1977 depending on who you ask (it lost its autonomy in 1969 when the government felt it had to impose controls; the CYC is, unfortunately, mostly-forgotten community development history but i found a few interesting pages on the internet: excerpts from two books about the CYC; an article Strange Bedfellows: Youth Activists, Government Sponsorship, and the Company of Young Canadians (CYC), 1965-1970; a short entry in The Canadian Encyclopedia).

I tracked down more of Willie's music and have enjoyed his songwriting and his beautiful baritone voice for a long time. And about fifteen years ago i had the pleasure of meeting and working with Willie for a week on a theatre project.

It is interesting to compare this film with the now famous work of american documentarist Ken Burns who has a film process named for him (the Ken Burns Effect) which uses panning and zooming in and out to dynamize the use of (mostly) black and white photographs. This film uses some of this (effect) and, notably, it was made in 1968. The NFB does have a remarkable history of documentary film-making and one that is well-worth exploring. You can do so here: Challenge for Change.


Anonymous said...

thanks for sharing this important part of Canada's history. It is a reminder that this freedom we have came at a great price - the freedom of others.

Chris cavanagh said...

Thanks for the comment. i appreciate you making the point about the "price" of the "freedom" we are too quick to be proud of. It is heartbreaking to me how much amnesia we live with in order to feel this pride. And it is both cognitive (we're simply not taught what we should be and we are kept ignorant of contemporary struggles by the structure of our mass media news and entertainment) and emotional (divorced from the stories and the people and made to feel pity, at best, instead of shame, guilt and compassion). Our nation is built on theft and genocide as much (if not more) than it is on the work ethic/frontier spirit that is the dominant part of the "Canadian" mythology. I do not know if we will see justice in our lifetime but i do know that it cannot happen until we, as a nation, have learned to acknowledge the violence of our history and to feel the sorrow and loss that is, for many still, a daily reality.