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Riverhead screens at Rotary Arts Centre

A scene from the movie Riverhead.
A scene from the movie Riverhead.

By Sam Westcott Special to The Western Star

A 2016 Newfoundland full-length film capturing the nuance of Protestant and Catholic rivalry in an outport Newfoundland community is set to show at the Rotary Arts Centre Aug. 15.
Filmmaker Justin Oakey says he based the film “on stories of my family, and other historic events that have happened around the Harbour Grace area.”
However, he’s not trying to take a political or a social position on the Protestant/Catholic feud. “The whole point of making the film was to make this observational social-realist film that just kind of showed a scenario that is not that uncommon in Newfoundland,” he said.
“There’s no finger-wagging, no this was wrong, this was right.” It was just “about time to do something that explores that. Not necessarily with an agenda, just plainly exploring it.”
Riverhead, named after a small town in the Harbour Grace area, was shot around the outports of St. John’s, and in Harbour Grace. However, within the film, the setting is purposefully ambiguous — giving the audience the sense that this could be occurring in one or indeed any outport of Newfoundland.
Oakey says he “went out his way” to ensure the accents, and the characters themselves felt and sounded genuine to Newfoundland. “Real Newfoundland accents, real Newfoundland settings that aren’t the same three places, you know, that aren’t Trinity, Bonavista, St. John’s.”
Oakey said he’s “gotten a lot more support from Northern Europe than I have from mainland Canada” in terms of the film’s reception.
“They find it really interesting to hear about Newfoundland, because it’s not something they learn about despite the connection between Newfoundland and Scandinavia.”
The film’s cultural-realist portrayal of outport Newfoundland shows them something that is “just different enough from their own culture that it’s exotic, but it’s also similar enough so that they can really commiserate with what’s going on in the film.”
“It’s screening all over rural Scotland next month, because they just really picked up on the culture and they obviously see parallels between it and their own culture, and there’s potentially a screening in Norway, as well.”
The soundtrack for the film came from Norwegian band Ulver, who sent early tracks and snippets to Oakey before he even began filming. He says the soundtrack is partly responsible for large portions of the film feeling “claustrophobic,” as he allowed it to inform decisions on shooting close-ups on the characters. A technique that seems to be about “60-70 per cent of the shots in the film.” The result ends up with the audience confined within the same space the characters interact in.
Oakey says, “there’s no fat on the script, there’s no fat on the film. We had very little money, so we shot it as lean as possible.”
Riverhead has gotten out to some of the smaller outport communities the film portrays and Oakey says this was important for him.
“It’s been “screened in Grand Falls, and Bauline, and Bonavista, the most important thing for me is getting it out on a grassroots level to small communities that don’t actually have movie theatres.
“Growing up I hadn’t seen a film that tried to show me Newfoundland as a Newfoundlander, so I think it’s great when I can get the film out to smaller audiences in isolated places.”
Oakey says the audience can also dictate where the movie will be screened next.
“If someone in some small community wants to organize a screening, I’ll send them a DVD. It’s important for me that people in Newfoundland should get to experience stuff that’s made in Newfoundland, even if they’re not in St. John’s.”
Oakey is seeking funding to complete his next film, a social-realist “mixup, like with ‘Riverhead,’ sort of like a western, but about a fur-trapper in central Newfoundland.”

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