Monday, July 10, 2017

A murder, followed by an indignity to the body, featured in the Centennial film Helicopter Canada

Misrepresentation at core of opinion piece.
It’s five a.m. and I can’t sleep. Again. It's been a full week and I’m still upset, haunted by the horrifying story brought into my home and into my consciousness by my local paper, The London Free Press

An Indian was murdered, the body desecrated and the local journalist slipped over the nation-shaming incident with a simple mention of crude talk.

Why do I call the incident nation-shaming? Because the incident is a featured vignette in Helicopter Canada, a film made to celebrate Canada's Centennial.

I watched Helicopter Canada and haven’t been able to get it out of my mind. If you’d like to stop here, please do. The following is difficult to write and it will be difficult to read. I am finding it difficult to find a comfortable narrative within which to fit this film into my naive, Canadian psyche. 

At the 40 minute 50 second mark, while a honky-tonk piano plays in the background, the narrator of the film tells us:

The Canadian West is still pretty well strung out but it's held together by legends. (Here a new voice is heard, that of an aged, Western man, possibly a cowboy or an oil man, relating one of the so-called region-binding tales.)

And they started to shoot up ‘round the fort, that is, they were shooting all around the fort and raisin cane there. And at that time they killed an Indian an’ scalped him. They took seven scalps off the one Indian. Now many people think when you talk about a scalp, it’s the whole thing but it’s not. It’s only about the size of a 25-cent piece with a strand of hair. That’s just about the size of it.”

I’m numb. Absolutely numb. And my local newspaper headlines a story on this film with “Lights, camera - misrepresentation!” Misrepresentation? We all wish. And the newspaper story talks about the roundabout, crude terms used in the film. Roundabout? A man was killed. Murdered. The body mutilated, desecrated, scalped. And the entire squalid episode was driven by racial bigotry, racial hatred.

I'd like to say the journalist simply didn't view the film But he clearly did. He tells his readers “an old-timer explains that a ‘scalp’ taken from a skull was only about the size of a quarter.” It is the local paper that is unable to address the horror in anything but the most roundabout way.

The writer found the film, Helicopter Canada, now badly dated. When the Globe and Mail revisited the 50-year-old National Film Board production, that newspaper called the film “cringe worthy.” That's it?

Eugene Boyko, the film's editor/cinematographer, delivered a film that on the surface is pretty light fare: a tongue-in-cheek narrative accompanies consistently spectacular film footage shot entirely from a helicopter. But this film is clearly not just high-end visual fluff, it is not, and never was, just a light-hearted look at Canada. 

At its core, this film is subversive. One of the hidden messages slipped past the sponsoring Centennial Commission in 1967 is things are not always what they seem. Here, I could list example after example supporting this contention but please allow me to move on to another clear message: “there are none so blind as those who will not see.”

I am absolutely stunned that so many saw this film on its release and so many more have viewed it over the years but no one, as far as I can tell, has ever gotten passed the honky tonk piano to see, to question, to discuss the horrific way Canada and Canadians treated people of the First Nations.

I'm going to continue digging. Eugene Boyko is simply too good a filmmaker to have included this incident to entertain us. There must be something out there that reveals why this incident is in a film made for Canada's Centennial.

I believe Eugene Boyko is holding a mirror up to Canadians and what that mirror reflects is not always what Canadians want to see. Boyko's film is not ignoble as the opinion writer believes. It is us, us Canadians, who are shown to have an ignoble side.


This post could end here but, if it did, it would not be a complete look at the little, aging, documentary film: Helicopter Canada.

Shooting a film entirely from a helicopter is an awesome undertaking, which director-cinematographer Eugene Boyko pulls it off with great skill and style. 

It must be remembered that Boyko worked before most of the technical advances that make shooting something like now easy. 

He pulled it off using big, heavy, Panavision equipment. Many of his images are simply inspiring.


Next, the choice of the little vignettes could be seen as simply veering toward the quirky but I see more. Sadly, what writer Larry Cornies calls “whimsical” is the tone that causes most folk to miss the underlying problems being addressed.

And there are some fine cinematic moments in Helicopter Canada. Moments that slip by journalist-reviewers unnoticed. The little segment featuring the Bluenose is wonderful. The filming and editing is first rate and the music accompanying the episode is provided by The Mountain City Four featuring Kate and Anna McGarrigle. To have included the McGarrigle sisters in a 1967 film was a stroke of genius.

I talked to film buffs about the movie and the criticism of its being dated. Of course, it’s dated, I was told. It’s a visual time capsule. It is meant to grow old. It was a look at Canada “warts and all.” It carried the message “we have problems but we can solve them.”

God, I hope so.

Lastly, I could not believe what I was hearing when the honky tonk piano started and the talk of the casual murder and mutilation of a First Nations man began. I contacted the National Film Board and they sent me their transcript of the soundtrack. I believe the transcript has errors but nevertheless it does contain the murder-mutilation story.

I don't hear the name Grayson. I hear "and raisin' cane there."