On the Trail of the Far Fur Country

Plays Oct. 24 to 26 at Cinematheque

Kevin Nikkel’s On the Trail of the Far Fur Country is a fascinating documentary about Canada, its history and the movies. It’s a reminder that cinema is more than just entertainment: it’s a mirror, reflecting our culture and identity back to us so we can observe and learn from it. A documentary about another documentary might not sound accessible, but On the Trail moved me as a Canadian as much as a film lover.

On the Trail is about The Romance of the Far Fur Country, a feature-length documentary commissioned by Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) in 1919 to document the Arctic fur trade and the life of Canada’s northern peoples. It premiered in Winnipeg in 1920 (a full two years before the better-known Nanook of the North). This historical film, long thought lost, was recently discovered and restored. In Nikkel’s 2014 film, he returns to the villages and locales of the 1920 original, sharing the footage with the subjects’ descendants and learning how Canada’s northern culture and landscape has changed in the past century.

This is worth seeing for the historical footage alone. The images feel older than film, like we’re glimpsing a way of life that’s centuries old (by 1919, the HBC was already drastically scaling down its fur trade for a more modern approach). Nikkel’s modern take gives the picture real pathos. He doesn’t shy away from the darker bits, showing that colonialism, racism and environmental catastrophe are as prevalent in Canada’s north today as they were a century ago. But he’s also not afraid to embrace the beauty inherent in his experiment. The connection to the past he provides is more than a document. It’s a conversation between two centuries. At its heart, that’s what On the Trail of the Far Fur Country is: a fourth-dimensional handshake.

Published in Volume 69, Number 8 of The Uniter (October 22, 2014)

Related Reads