Sunday, March 8, 2009

Both Sides of the Lens: Franklin in Documentary Film

For inexplicable reasons, cultural phenomena often come in bunches. Maybe it’s something in the collective zeitgeist, maybe everyone is watching everyone else, maybe it’s simply chance. So it was that, when the Franklin expedition finally got its day on camera, not one but two documentaries were produced and released almost simultaneously in 2005 and 2006. Since then, two more documentaries have been made which touch closely on the Franklin tragedy. As an on-camera expert in one, and an avid viewer of all these programs, I thought I might offer my comments on these films in a way that I hope will give viewers some insight into how and why they were made, and how to judge between their sometimes conflicting stories.

A documentary film has an aura of fact. After all, our friend the Narrator wouldn’t mislead us – or would he? Ever since documentary films began in the 1890’s, when they were called “actuality” films, this has been a vexed question. Thomas Edison’s film company, for instance, knew that there was tremendous demand for footage of the Second Boer War (1899-1902). The cost, and risk, of sending cameramen and equipment to the battlefield was prohibitive; it was far more cost-effective to stage battles in New Jersey with hired actors and costumes. Thus was begun the noble tradition of re-creating scenes that the camera had missed, one which has enjoyed a resurgence of late. When it came to the Arctic, much the same rule applied; despite the successes of pioneers such as Frank Hurley, whose footage of Shackleton’s expedition electrified audiences, the big studios usually found it far more economical to send a camera crew to the Sierras and use the snow and mountains there as their backdrop. With Nanook of the North (1922), Robert Flaherty reversed that trend, but in the process he managed to open a whole new can of muktuk.

Flaherty had managed to film the Inuit easily enough. But actual footage of everyday events, narrated with title cards, had little dramatic value. How much better to write a script, cast Inuit in the main roles of an idealized family, and use the title cards to tell a dramatic story with twists, turns, and a happy ending! Which was just what Flaherty did. The result packed cinemas, earned accolades, and is often hailed as the “first” true documentary, but the tale it told of the “happy-go-lucky Eskimo” was not, strictly, true. The Inuit of Ungava had long before traded their spears for rifles, but Flaherty wanted to show the old ways, so spears it was. They also smoked pipes, used western as well as traditional clothing, and went to church – none of which Flaherty permitted to be shown in his film. The result pleased “southern” audiences, but distorted the lives it purported to reveal.

Of course that was 1922 – and here we are in 2009. Surely we’ve come a long way from the “Nanook” era. And yet, in many ways, these same practices persist today. To explain, I’ll tell you a little about my work on the documentary, “Search for the Northwest Passage,” as it was called in the UK (the US  title was the more lurid “Arctic Passage: Prisoners of the Ice”).  I’d worked as a consultant on the film for more than a year before it finally got the “green light” for production. As a co-production between Britain’s ITN TV and WGBH/NOVA, this was to be a big-budget affair, as documentaries go. The producers sent an advance crew to Gjoa Haven, Nunavut, to scout locations and lay plans; back in London, scripts were prepared for the historical recreations. The scenes on board Franklin’s ships would be shot at Greenwich aboard the venerable Cutty Sark; these would be followed by a day at sea for exteriors using a replica ship. The scenes with Lady Franklin and Sir John were completed in London, and those playing Crozier, Fitzjames, and the rest were flown to the Arctic for location work. What remained was to line up the “talking heads” – the on-camera experts – and interweave their footage with the re-creations. I was lucky to be one of just two of these “heads” who would be filmed on location.

It was a strange business. As soon as we arrived in Resolute, the first order of business was to film my “arrival” – another plane was filmed landing, and we did several shots of me getting of this plane and heading to the hotel. After about the fourth take of this sequence, I turned to the director of photography, Harald Paalgard, and remarked “there sure is a lot of fiction in these documentaries.” He laughed. “It’s all fiction,” he declared. What he meant, of course, was that it’s all about the story. If some expert is to arrive at a remote location to conduct research, he or she must be shown arriving; the viewer will want and need this thread in order to accept the overall truth of the film. The small “fiction” of the staged arrival was in the service of the larger truth of the overall story.

By the time we got to Gjoa Haven, most of the dramatic actors had gone home. The only remaining scenes at that point were with local Inuit, who played their own ancestors. A call had been put out to any adult men and women who possessed caribou-skin outfits and could speak Inuktitut; a wage of $100 a day was offered. Quite a few showed up, and the best were set to work, speaking to the “explorers” from within an igloo the townspeople had built on the town’s “beach” (odd to call anything a beach in twenty-below zero weather!). After a week in Gjoa, it was off to Resolute, and to Beechey Island, that mythical centerpiece of the Franklin saga. There, we did numerous shots of me riding on a snow machine piloted by the crew’s guide and safety officer, polar veteran Paul Landry. I wondered why, given that we’d chartered a helicopter to Beechey, but when I saw the film I had to agree that a 10-mile trek across the ice in a skidoo was far more dramatic than 15 minutes in a chopper.

Unlike the dramatic actors, I didn’t have a script. Instead, I had “talking points” – themes, facts, and observations, many of which I’d submitted myself, which the producers had sorted out in terms of where and how they wanted them placed. It was awkward at times, since I had to improvise my lines from these points, but had to make sure I did not add any asides or wander from the key points. We were shooting on 16mm film, so every moment meant money; it wasn’t until the second or third day that I really grew comfortable with the arrangement; there is something in a scholar’s disposition that resists absolutes and cautions against conjectures.

One of the experts the producers wanted, the late Roy “Fritz” Koerner, was to meet us in Resolute a few days in. He was a true Arctic veteran, having worked on the ice almost continually since being a part of Sir Wally Herbert’s trek across the Arctic ice-cap on the British Trans-Arctic Expedition of 1968-69. A few years ago, he’d written a scholarly article that suggested ice-core evidence showed that the years of Franklin’s expedition had been unusually cold. In the article, he cautioned that the type of cores he’d looked at had a +/- 5 year margin of error, and that it was therefore difficult to be precise about the connection with Franklin. The producers, for their part, wanted something definitive: would you say that the period 1845-50 was so cold that Franklin’s ships couldn’t possibly have gotten through? “Well, possibly,” he demurred, “but all we can say with certainty was that the average temperatures over the nearest ten-year period … “ “CUT” called the producer. “Let’s try that again.” Finally, frustrated that Fritz would not offer up the right soundbite to fit the script, the producer switched to more general questions about ships and ice, which she hoped she could edit into something useful later. At the end of the day, Fritz declined a ride back with the crew on our skidoos; instead, he walked the two miles from the location out on the frozen bay back to Resolute, wanting the time, I’m sure, to “cool off”!

Once all the footage was shot, then comes the next phase of truth-telling – editing. It’s not uncommon to have a great many hours of footage for a single hour of finished film, so a good deal can happen at this stage, for better or for worse. Even though all the shots have been pre-planned to fit the puzzle, there are dozens of slight variations to every piece, and just the right ones must be chosen. At this stage, I was called upon to re-record some of my comments, and add others that could be used as voiceovers for existing footage; this gave the producers the flexibility they needed. Like the rest of the cast, of course, I had no idea exactly what choices were being made, I could only guess what was in the stew from the ingredients I’d added myself, or seen filmed. It wasn’t in fact until nearly six months later when I received a videocassette in the mail that I had the least idea how it had all come out.

And I have to say, I like the film. The recreations are as good as they get – solid acting, excellent costume design, and at least 90% of the words were ones actually written by the people the actors were portraying. I found that I didn’t look as bad on camera as I’d feared, and the magic of editing had whisked away my flubs and hesitations, and made me seem far more clear and decisive in my views. And there were pleasant surprises – seeing the scene of Franklin’s funeral, with the Service for the Burial of the Dead from the Book of Common Prayer very meaningfully read by Bohdan Poraj, who played Francis Crozier; the sweeping aerial shots of ice and snow; the appropriately north-country-inflected narration of Colin Tierney. There were places where things were seen which I knew had been added later – the “Erebus” and “Terror” making a digital appearance in the ice near Beechey Island – and places where I could laugh at the illusion, as when I and my fellow “passengers” (actually, the film crew) look meaningfully out the window of an airplane which was, in fact, firmly parked on the tarmac.

There were further changes in store – the US producers decided to re-write the script, and re-shoot a series of additional interviews with me – and of course they made quite a few different choices in the editing room. The result, though equally satisfying, made me once more conscious of the intricacies and inflections of filmmaking. The film aired in England in 2005, and in the US in 2006, where it has since be shown several more times. It’s now available on DVD, and I’ve gotten used to seeing it, even though the thrill of being there still feels fresh.

Search for the Northwest Passage” was the first full-length film ever made about the Franklin expedition. But it was not to be the only show in town for long. There have since been at least three others: a 2006 documentary by the Irish filmmaker John Murray, “Franklin's Lost Expedition,” which aired on the UK’s Channel 5 and toured the festival circuit in a longer version; Canadian John Walker’s 2008 film "Passage,” which highlights the contributions of Dr. John Rae. The same year saw the BBC’s “Wilderness Explored: Arctic,” which featured interviews with Margaret Atwood as well as Huw Lewis-Jones of the Scott Polar Research Institute. Lastly, for comic relief, Billy Connolly’s “Journey to the Edge of the World,” which while it does nothing to enhance the facts, captures something of the ‘spirit’ of the Arctic, has just aired this past week.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be discussing aspects of each of these films. Although I only appeared in one, many other installments feature friends of mine whom I’ve met along the way on the trail of Franklin’s men, such as Dave Woodman, Huw Lewis-Jones, Anne Keenleyside, and Ernie Coleman. I’ll also assess the factual claims of each, and give some sense of where a grain – or more – of salt is needed. They’re all worth watching, of course! So stay tuned.


  1. "The scenes on board Franklin’s ships would be shot at Greenwich aboard the venerable Cutty Sark; these would be followed by a day at sea for exteriors using a replica ship."

    What was the replica ship that was used for the footage at sea, Russell? Cheers.

    1. Rarely has a question been so belatedly answered: it was HMS Surprise, same ship as used in the most recent version of "Master and Commander."