Filmmakers document historic return of fur trade documentary

Jordana Divon
Daily Brew
January 25, 2012

An Inuit hunter stalks the Baffin Island terrain for prey. Hundreds of miles west, a Fort Chipewyan family makes sure their trapline is set. Along a solid sheet of ice, a team of huskies pulls a rider in a sled.

These may sound like scenes from an ordinary day in northern Canadian life. But there's nothing ordinary about the film in which they appear.

As Postmedia News reports, the scenes belong to The Romance of the Far Fur Country (1919), a long-lost film that captured some of the earliest known footage of Arctic Canadian life, and predates Robert Flaherty's groundbreaking Nanook of the North.

The film was buried in the British Film Institute Archive for decades until visual historian Peter Geller rescued it and brought it back to Canada in the 1990s.

Now a pair of Winnipeg filmmakers has turned Romance into the subject of their own documentary exploration.

The Return of the Far Fur Country is a chronicle of the film's repatriation to the Hudson's Bay Archives.

Kevin and Chris Nikkel recorded the British effort to preserve the footage and followed the film's journey back to Winnipeg.

"It is exciting when a piece of history — a recording of history over 90 years old — can spark some community spirit and bridge the gap between past and present," Chris Nikkel told the news agency.

Next month, the Nikkels will show their documentary in Winnipeg — almost a century after the original Romance debuted in the same spot, although Kevin Nikkel said the film's real homecoming will take place later in the year.

"It will be special to see it back on screen," he said in a BBC article. "But the real premiere will happen when we go north."

The Romance of the Far Fur Country was originally commissioned by the Hudson's Bay Company to commemorate its 250th anniversary in 1920. HBC wanted to create a bit of marketing that would essentially romanticize the relationship between Hudson's Bay fur traders and the aboriginal populations that supplied them with hides.

HBC's London headquarters hired a pair of filmmakers and asked them to shoot images from the company's northernmost bases.

Their instructions were simple, at least according to an internal memo: the film should "advertis[e] the Company and incidentally its lands, without appearing to do so."

The crew boarded the famed HMS Nascopie in Montreal and set sail for the Arctic Circle.

On the way, they captured eight hours of footage — everything from their boat slicing through ice floes to a romance between an Inuit man named Inqmilayuk and his beloved Innotseak.

For more background on both films, check out the Return of Far Fur Country's official website.