Film on Fogo

Capturing the past, changing the future

Published on May 22, 2010
Depicted here are scenes from Fogo Island in 1967, as captured in The Children of Fogo Island, a short documentary from director Colin Low and producer John Kemeny from the National Film Board. Low completed a collection of short films on the island that year, developing a method for community documentary and laying the groundwork for Fogos film future. Submitted photos

During the first week of June, Fogo Island will welcome contemporary artists and leaders in Canadian film.
This will mark the beginning of a rural revitalization project built on the arts, in particular film. Events will include the opening of the Fogo Island Arts Corp.'s first new artists' studio for participants in an international visiting artists' program, a rock-turning for a five-star inn, the launch of Newfoundland's first
e-cinema and film screenings with panel discussions.
It is a lot of development, all started in January 2009.
"That's when we announced the funding of $16 million, six from me, five from the province and five from ACOA ... but I personally have been working on this for four years," said co-founder and president of the Shorefast Foundation, Zita Cobb.
Cobb grew up in Fogo, but moved away after high school. She worked in finance, making her way to the position of vice-president at JDS Uniphase. She travelled the world.
"The more I saw, the more I realized how important it is to hold on to the places that have these cultural roots," she said.
In addition to holding on to the culture, Cobb (along with her brother and Shorefast Foundation partner Anthony Cobb) also wanted to hold on to the community.
"I graduated from the high school there in '75 and we were 80-odd. And they just had the graduation or the prom or whatever they call it last night, they had 23 kids. When things are gone, gone is forever," she said.
The Cobbs are hoping their work to make Fogo a destination for filmmakers and creative artists will help.
And just so you know, there is a basis for Fogo's initial film focus.
It started decades ago, with a visit from filmmaker Colin Low in 1967.
"Fogo island was 60 per cent (on) welfare at that particular point," Low told The Telegram this week.
"I talked to some senior members of government and they admitted they didn't know what to do with Fogo Island, quietly and on the side."
Leaving behind these members and arriving on the island, he met with community development officer Fred Earle, who showed him around.
"There was no municipal government on the island, it was simply merchants and clergy who were heads of the little towns," Low said.
Children, adults, he spoke with them all. He said he was "profoundly impressed" by the local improvement committee.
"Everywhere I went, I bumped into unique people."
He met Jim Decker while Decker was working on a longliner. His family, "way back," had built schooners. "I was knocked out by him," Low said.
While visiting the Change Islands, the filmmaker met fisherman Billy Crane.
"His humour was awesome and his language was awesome," Low said. He was not prepared to film that day, but decided to return, arriving two to three weeks later.
"That day he was pulling up and packing up his gear and he said 'I'm about to leave and we're moving to Toronto.'"
But before Crane moved away, while packing up his fishing gear, he spoke to Low and his crew while the cameras rolled.
Crane spoke about the fishery, the loss of jobs, the indifference of government, the loss of rural life. At just shy of 18 minutes long, "Billy Crane Moves Away" became key to what became a collection of 27 short films depicting life in Fogo.
The films were shown in Fogo Harbour to an audience of 300. Then they screened in St. John's, to provincial government representatives.
"The film went as far as Ottawa and the federal government. I think it changed a lot," said Low, who added there was no way to gauge the impact for certain, but the film gave a face to rural Newfoundland. He feels it potentially played a role in the establishment of the 200-mile limit in 1977.
Films from the series, including "Billy Crane Moves Away," can now be seen online at the National Film Board website.
Low's work in Fogo established a model for community documentary, becoming known worldwide as the Fogo process.
The impact of the collection of short films led to the National Film Board establishing a Challenge for Change, leading to the creation of over 190 films across the country from 1967 to 1980 in order to "initiate positive social change and combat poverty in Canadian communities."
Low himself returned to Fogo to complete another film, "The Winds of Fogo."
He returned again 30 years later and once again about six years ago. He will return for what he has said will be the final time this coming week. He will be on hand for a screening of some of his work, as well as a panel discussion.
"More than three decades ago, the National Film Board made a difference in the lives of Fogo Islanders with our Challenge for Change program," NFB chairman Tom Perlmutter stated in a news release on the week's events.
"Today, the NFB and the Shorefast Foundation and the Fogo Island Arts Corp. have committed themselves to transforming Fogo Island in the 21st century, with a broad range of community media projects. It's all part of the NFB's goal to forge sustainable ties in Canadian communities."
There is the promise of school programs, workshops and other film-education opportunities.
"Governments everywhere are struggling to find viable solutions to the disintegration of rural communities," Shorefast Foundation chairman Gordon Slade said. "Fogo Island is offering a model that has some promise of stemming the freefall."
June 1 will mark the opening of the Fogo Island Film House. The five-star Fogo Island Inn will have a rock-turn and boil-up on June 2. The inn will include a contemporary art gallery and heritage library. The opening of the Long Studio for visiting visual artists will also be held on June 2.