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Waterton inspires art

Living in the Bow Valley region, having an affinity for our national parks is easy, a no-brainer as it were, given that these protected spaces are a part of our daily lives.
Musicians (L) Rollie Pemberton, Laura Barrett and Mark Hamilton record the soundtrack for the Waterton Lakes documentary.
Musicians (L) Rollie Pemberton, Laura Barrett and Mark Hamilton record the soundtrack for the Waterton Lakes documentary.

Living in the Bow Valley region, having an affinity for our national parks is easy, a no-brainer as it were, given that these protected spaces are a part of our daily lives.

But for people in the rest of Canada, it can be difficult to feel passionate or connected to places they’ve never experienced.

The same, however, can be said about Bow Valley residents who have never been to Gros Morne, Kluane or even Waterton Lakes National Parks in southern Alberta.

But a new project which is being billed as an “unprecedented collaboration in Canadian art” is hoping to help Canadians connect to the country’s national parks as part of the centennial of Canada’s national park service – the first such service in the world.

The National Parks Project, a collaborative effort involving film, music, television and new media that involved the contributions of more than 50 filmmakers and musicians, is designed to celebrate the beauty of 13 of Canada’s lesser known or visited national parks through music and film. The project is presented by FilmCAN and Primitive Entertainment, in conjunction with Parks Canada and Discovery World HD.

As part of the National Parks Project, 13 teams of three musicians and a filmmaker were linked to a national park, one in each of Canada’s provinces and territories, to bring together “two of the most innately beautiful things in the world” – landscape and music, according to Ryan Noth, one of the project’s creators and producers.

“That’s how we approached it,” Noth said. “I’m of the mind I could just sit there forever and look at the landscape and listen to the nature sounds, but what is interesting with the musicians is the way they made sounds and songs, soundscapes as elements.”

These soundscapes, songs inspired by place, became the soundtrack of each film, which in Alberta’s case featured Waterton National Park, located in the extreme southwest corner of the province.

Toronto filmmaker Peter Lynch, writer and director of Project Grizzly and one of the first directors to join the project, chose Waterton as his wife’s family had a long connection to the region and it is an evocative place for him.

“I find the landscape speaks to me and I find it just a stunning place on that level,” Lynch said Monday (April 4).

“What I really find powerful is the feeling of where the Rockies meets the plains, where you are situated at an arbitrary border created by humans. And Waterton being one of the first peace parks, the idea of border is something that humans create in this vast geological time,” he said.

It is also an accessible park, which for the five-day shoot last June made it easier to get the equipment – both film and music – around the park.

“With Waterton, it is something that the average person can get quite close to, you can drive along the main arteries of the place and get yourself lodged in there and get quite a range of experience of the park by car and by foot,” he said.

Those experiences included tipi camping, horseback riding and hiking, along with interaction with members of the Kainai First Nation (Blood), which is part of the Blackfoot Confederacy that has a cultural connection to the Waterton region which stretches back 10,000 years.

The challenge, Lynch said, was to provide the musicians – Laura Barrett, a Toronto singer and musician known for her work on the kalimba, or African finger piano; Mark Hamilton, a founder of Calgary band Woodpigeon; and Rollie Pemberton, an Edmonton rapper and poet who goes by the stage name of Cadence Weapon – with opportunities and inspiration to create without constraining the process by approaching it with a set script in mind.

“The thing is, with the kind of specials on national parks that people normally do, they are very beautiful and nicely shot, but the only humans you usually see are well fed white hikers and you don’t get a sense of the history of the other people that were there before western culture came to be,” he said.

“What I wanted to do was capture the light, the rocks, the language and let the music augment and find a rich way to have an interplay between the sound and the pictures that wasn’t locked into regular storytelling,” Lynch said, adding it made the film much more poetic.

“I wanted to find a way to express the place and have the music and the pictures have equal weight and give both some sort of validity that was not just a straight music video or a documentary that tells information about the place.”

To create that sense of culture and history, Lynch arranged for Kainai elder Bruce Wolf Child and a drum group to be a part of the Waterton project, which for the musicians became a defining moment.

“Music does transcend the physical space and goes into your memory and imagination and, for example, the Blackfoot see drumming as a language of the heartbeat that is passed on through the generations,” Lynch said.

And through the process, working with predominantly urban musicians, Lynch said the National Park Project has the ability to look at the parks through the eyes and talents of people able to approach a new generation through a manner that speaks to them.

“So it is someone from an urban background and a musician saying ‘this is how this place made me feel, check it out’; it can introduce the park to an urban population that may normally be resistant to going to a park or even attracted to it. It can be a way to open them up,” Lynch said.

As part of the project, Discovery HD documented the filming, which included the creation of original music inspired by each national park.

The Waterton Lakes National Parks episode, narrated by Gord Downie of the Tragically Hip, airs Saturday (April 9) at 6:30 p.m. on Discovery World HD TV, preceded by the Prince Albert National Park episode at 6 p.m.

After each episode airs, the National Park Project website will air the corresponding film for one week.

Lynch’s Waterton film, Paahtomahksikimii (Kainai for where the water goes into the mountains) can be seen at www.nationalparksproject.ca for a week following Saturday’s airing of the Discovery documentary.

The end result was so effective, Noth said, the producers in May are releasing a two-vinyl album and a CD with the songs from the project, with proceeds going to the Nature Conservancy of Canada.

Noth said they are also considering producing a book about the National Parks Project and they have plans for a summer tour bringing the musicians together with the visuals for a live multi-media show and film screening.

A two-hour feature film, created from the 13 shorter films, will premier at Toronto Hot Docs at the end of April. It will also be shown in Vancouver and Noth said they are hoping to bring the feature film to Calgary in September.

“It has continued to blow us away from every park we come back from how amazing and powerful the filming and music is and how life changing it was for the people involved,” Noth said.


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