Filmmaker explores province's seal hunt

Christopher Vaughan
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Docs on the Bay film festival

Documentary filmmaker Anne Troake was in Stephenville last week to showcase two of her documentaries at the inaugural Docs on the Bay film festival.

Headlining the festival was Ms. Troake's My Ancestors were Rogues and Murderers, which explored the realities of Newfoundland and Labrador's seal hunt.

Documentary filmmaker Anne Troake was in Stephenville last week to showcase two of her documentaries at the inaugural Docs on the Bay film festival.

Headlining the festival was Ms. Troake's My Ancestors were Rogues and Murderers, which explored the realities of Newfoundland and Labrador's seal hunt.

"It's a hot-button topic, obviously," said Ms. Troake shortly before the screening. "There's a great deal of heated emotions - and I dare say hysteria - that exists around the seal hunt. When you talk about the seal hunt in Newfoundland, you're talking about history, you're talking about culture, you're talking about truth in media and advertising, you're talking about witch-trial mentality."

She said these and other topics related to the seal hunt were addressed in the film, using her own family's legacy of seal hunting over several generations to explain her perspective that the seal hunt is an economically viable and environmentally sound industry.

"My goal in making the film was introducing people to Newfoundland, to an outport community, to sealers, and to a family that has a long history with sealing," she said. "Not only are you getting a portrait, you're having the opportunity to [understand] a number of specific events that are, what I believe, are food for thought around the discussion of the issue."

Ms. Troake said her early years were spent in Twillingate, but her family moved to Logy Bay just before she started school in the 1970's.

She said she was exposed to environmental principles when she was young, as her stepfather was a marine biologist and environmentalist, and her family lived what would now be considered a green lifestyle.

"We lived on a farm in a solar house, with composting toilet, organic gardening - and we had chickens and goats and cows and ducks," she said. "My parent's goal in having that farm was to be self-sufficient. So, back when I was in elementary school, I already knew about global warming and climate change before they were [popular]."

Ms. Troake said her parents also made her aware of concerns such as over-population, species depletion, pollution and climate change. All of which, she says, formed her ethical outlook on the world.

She noted as she got older, she started to see distinct similarities between her immediate family in Logy Bay and her relatives from Twillingate.

"The line between the way my family lived and my relatives were living traditionally in Twillingate ... there wasn't a huge amount of difference. The difference was my Twillingate relatives had been doing this for hundreds of years."

Ms. Troake said she became acutely aware that something was amiss with international anti-sealing campaigns when celebrities and environmentalists were hugging the seals on the ice, while ignoring what was happening below the ice.

"What was driving me crazy was I saw Newfoundland as a real canary in a coalmine in terms of what was happening with the fish stocks," she said, adding if global fish stocks had as much conservation and attention placed on it as the seal hunt, possibly it wouldn't be in the precarious state it is in today.

Ms. Troake said her interest in documentary filmmaking came by chance.

"I got my training in contemporary dance and was working as a dancer and choreographer for a lot of years," she said.

In 1997, while creating a piece about Newfoundlander's relationship with the ocean, she decided she wanted to use underwater footage, which piqued her interest in filmmaking.

After making a few more short films, she said she was hooked on this form of media, and this led to My Ancestors were Rogues and Murderers.

"I started out because my cousin Garry, he was president of the sealer's association and had done some really effective lobbying on behalf of the sealing industry and he was an incredible diplomat for Newfoundland and for the seal hunt," she said. "We agreed to work together to make this film."

She noted Garry was killed in a fishing accident shortly before filming was set to begin, but she decided to forge ahead anyways.

"I had to turn the cameras on a family and a community that was in a severe state of grieving," she said. "So, that was a great challenge and I was really fortunate that my family members were strong enough to sit down and be interviewed and talk about [Garry]."

Once completed, Ms. Troake said her family were the first people to see the film. She notes they, along with the St. John's audience who attended the official premiere, loved the film.

While she said she had a difficult time marketing the film in the rest of Canada, once people have seen the film, they generally have a positive reaction.

"I'm always encouraged by the number of people who are not based in Newfoundland and who are not Newfoundlanders who seem to understand that there's nothing essentially wrong and that the accusations that sealing is cruel and barbaric and sadistic are unfounded," she said.

Ms. Troake's second film screened at the festival is Up the Anti - Voices of Sealing People, a short film that also addressed issues with the Canadian sealing industry.

"It's a documentary of a demonstration that took place in Ottawa in March of this year," she said. "Seal hunters from the Queen Charlotte Islands in British Columbia, from a number of communities along the North Coast of Canada, plus Quebec and Newfoundland sealers, who all came together to talk to the media about who they are, what they do and why they hunt seals."

She noted the response from rural parts of the country have been especially positive as she believes these people share a comparable knowledge and heritage of living on the land.

The mandate of Docs on the Bay was to showcase films that deal with rural issues. Ms. Troake says she's honoured to be a part of the festival.

"We have specialty film festivals all over the place," she said. "But, to my knowledge, there are no festivals on rural issues, and people are starting to talk about the urban/rural split, it's becoming a major issue ... and it's high time we had a film festival that addresses those issues and the fact that it's based in a non-urban area, I think is highly appropriate."

She said she believes this festival has wonderful growth potential to be a real significant player on the international film festival scene.

"To be in on the ground floor with that is such an incredible honour," she said.

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador, Twillingate, Stephenville Logy Bay Canada St. John's Queen Charlotte Islands British Columbia North Coast Quebec

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