Michael Crummey’s first instinct, when approached by the National Film Board to write a film on the 1914 Newfoundland sealing disaster, was to run.
One of the most iconic, tragic, complicated and studied events in this province’s history, Crummey realized the challenges creating a narrative from the disaster would include. Express the gravity and significance of the tragedy in film — a short film — done in animation? Every voice in Crummey’s head screamed for him to say no.
“Tell me more,” he heard himself utter.
Crummey, a local poet and the Giller Prize-shortlisted author of “River Thieves,” eventually agreed to the project, pitched to the film board by illustrator and animator Paton Francis.
Francis has a personal connection to the disaster which goes beyond the obligatory study of Cassie Brown’s 1972 book “Death on the Ice” in high school: he is related to sealers Reuben and Albert John Crewe, the father and son who perished on the ice in each other’s arms, Reuben attempting to shield 16-year-old Albert from the elements.
Francis had originally pitched the project as a small, spot-motion film using puppet animation, but decided, further into the creation process, that it needed an approach that would better reflect the seriousness of the event.
In March 1914, with the SS Newfoundland jammed in the ice with no radio equipment and unable to reach a seal pack, 132 men were ordered off the ship and onto the ice to hunt.
The sealers endured 54 hours on the ice in unbearable conditions, first in a freezing rain storm and then a blizzard.
By the time the SS Bellaventure came to the men’s rescue, 78 men had died, and many more had been injured.
The completed NFB film, simply titled “54 Hours,” will debut at The Rooms this weekend, marking the 100th anniversary of the disaster.
Written by Crummey, the 13-minute short was directed by Francis and Bruce Alcock, and produced by Annette Clarke and Michael Fukushima for the film board.
The first step in creating a short film about the tragedy was research. Crummey and Francis visited The Rooms and Memorial University’s Centre for Newfoundland Studies, where they looked at transcripts from the official inquiry into the disaster, held two years after it happened, as well as Brown’s audio recordings and transcripts of interviews she had conducted with a number of survivors.
“Setting (the film) up as a conversation between a woman who’s interviewing a survivor created a space to deal just with that one person’s experience,” Crummey explained.
“We were able to concentrate on the experience on the ice and leave a lot of the complexity, which would have been impossible to deal with, as hints in the piece. I think that worked.”
Narrated by actor Brian Hennessey (with Teri Snelgrove lending her voice as the interviewer), the voice of the sealer in the film is a composite, taken from the taped interviews, sworn statements following the disaster and testimony given at the inquiry, although survivor Cecil Mouland’s interview with Brown forms much of the base.
There were some poignant and sometimes beautiful statements made that were not part of “Death on the Ice,” and Crummey said he is at a loss as to why.
“On the second night, Cecil Mouland talked about looking up through the drift and being able to see the stars, and he said it was nice to see the stars. I was shocked that that’s what he was doing, and that Cassie hadn’t used it. There were all sorts of little moments in those interviews that were important to me for the script.”
There were other profound details uncovered, such as what kinds of things happened to the men when the cold turned their minds, that, because of time constraints, didn’t make it in the film, but show up as background pieces.
“You can watch the film and a few things will catch your eye, but if you go back and re-read the book, those really stand out to you,” Francis explained.
Filmed at the LSPU Hall in St. John’s, “54 Hours” opens as a live-action piece. With a soundtrack of haunting music performed by Duane Andrews, Patrick Boyle, Bill Brennan and Aaron Collis, viewers see a kitchen, where a sealer chats openly with the interviewer. You never see faces; you do see tea mugs, weathered hands and a dirty ashtray.
As the sealer recollects, the film transfers to animation — actually, a mix of animation, shadow puppetry and archival photography. Images of the sealers walking across the ice, hakapiks in hand, were made from photographs taken at the time, explained Alcock.
“The pictures of the men look like silhouette because that’s the way photographs worked then. The contrast was too high to get detail,” he said.
“These beautiful shapes made me think of shadow puppets, and of cutting up the photographs and animating the pieces. It’s a little hard to pin down technically how it was done, but it ends up being very beautiful and quite dark.”
When it comes to fine art animation, there’s a long tradition of dealing with darker subjects, Alcock said, and the genre didn’t limit the gravity placed on the tragedy in the film.
Through images, sound, texture, implication and an understated performance by Hennessey, the film is undeniably bleak, beautiful and fantastically well executed.
“54 Hours” will be screened for the first time at The Rooms Sunday at 1:30 p.m. The next day — the anniversary of the sealing disaster — the film will be available for free on the NFB’s website, as well as at www.thetelegram.com.
Crummey said the movie is about survival as much as tragedy.
“It’s called the great Newfoundland sealing disaster and there’s no question it was that, but one of the things that has always struck me about the story, and part of the reason why it’s so iconic, is along with the 78 men who died, there were men who survived this thing, who went through that experience and managed to live a life on the other side of it. I think that’s part of the Newfoundland story.
“Certainly not to dismiss the other side of it at all, and I don’t think the film does that in any way, but I think having the voice of a survivor at the centre makes it, in a bizarre way, a celebration of that human (instinct) to carry on and survive through the worst of what the world throws at you.”