The National Film Board of Canada presents 54 HOURS
54 Hours is a remarkably vivid account of the 1914 tragedy in which 132 men were stranded on the ice during a severe snowstorm off the coast of Newfoundland. Seventy-eight men froze to death.
The animated film is a mixed media collage told through the lens of memory. It’s breathtaking in its use of shadow puppets, animation, and documentary footage. Bruce Alcock and Paton Francis directed. Michael Crummey wrote the story using the testimonials writer Cassie Brown collected from the sealers who survived the tragedy.
I had the good fortune to meet up with Bruce, Paton and Michael to have a chat about the film – as a lead up to the Q&A I hosted for the world premiere at The Rooms in St. John’s, Newfoundland. Here is what I learned:
The idea for 54 Hours originated with Paton. It came from reading Cassie Brown’s book, Death on the Ice, as a kid. When the book came out, Paton’s great grandmother said that they were related to two of the men in the book who perished on the ice, Rueben Carew and his son Albert John. It became a part of their family lore.
Paton had done animation work for the National Film Board in the past and wanted his next piece to deal with the sealing story he grew up with so he contacted NFB producer, Annette Clarke. The initial pitch to Annette was a broader story. It encompassed not only sealers but men and women, in general, who go to sea for work and have met tragedy.
Annette was onboard and they started the development process. Annette asked Michael to write the story. Paton came to St. John’s and he Michael ventured into the archives where they began looking at the mountains of archival materials and Cassie Brown interviews. From there, the story began to take shape. Although the idea morphed into a one-person point of view story, it still had the heart of the original pitch – the unearthly cold, the tragic end and the unbelievable will to survive.
One of the first things Annette had said to Michael when she approached him about doing the film was that she wanted Cassie Brown to be part of the story somehow. Michael said, the reason we know these stories is because of Cassie Brown. Without her interviews and the work she had done, they would have been lost. And from that conversation with Annette, almost immediately the notion of having Cassie talking to a survivor became a perfect way into the story. It was serendipitous.
Michael said that when you get into the research, it mushrooms. There’s so much stuff and so many stories that deserve to be told. They are completely compelling but you have so little time to tell them all in a short film. So the choice to have one person speaking was a way of narrowing the focus of the story. A legitimate way of leaving out a whole bunch of stuff. Otherwise, people would say you have left out this part and therefore it is not accurate but the choice of using a survivor account gives a story people can stay with and the focus is on what happened on the ice. The single entry point tells the whole story.
Bruce said the strength of the first person account was the concrete story telling. It’s full of detail. Historical events are based on detail…this happened then this happened and if that hadn’t of happened the event wouldn’t take place.
When Annette first asked Bruce to look at the proposal and give his input on how to move ahead. One thing that brought him in was the image of the man looking up at the stars. “If you’re going to remember anything from that time, it’s beautiful that this guy remembered that.” Bruce said, the star scene was an actual account that Michael had found. It was the second night out on ice for these men. People were dying all around them and this man looked up and was moved by the beauty of the stars. Bruce, Michael and Paton were all struck by this moment and, for me, I left the film thinking about it.
Bruce said that because the concrete was told in the voice over, he knew that they could go abstract in the imagery and that it would be more fertile ground for the audience to let them see inside the sealer’s head, not just the detail but the feeling of it: the hope at the beginning, and the sorrow, and the hallucination that came on, and the bewildered relief when they are rescued, that there is sun, not death. Bruce didn’t see pictures right away which was unusual for him. It was the emotion that drew him in. When he did see pictures, inevitably David Blackwood came to mind. He wanted to pay homage, because Blackwood is so strongly associated aesthetically with the sealers, yet let the film have its own distinct visual interpretation of the story.
When Bruce saw the archival photos, it struck him that the contrast from these old pictures was too high to see detail so you automatically have shadow figures. The photos were really punchy and graphic which inspired Bruce to fill in the film with shadow puppets and photography animation that uses a hybrid technique. The result is that the final image doesn’t look like the shadow puppets or the photographs. You end up in an unusual aesthetic experience that takes you somewhere else.
When I saw the film, I thought the use of the shadow puppets was a metaphor for memory and the past.
Bruce said, shadow puppets can be associated with childlike ways of telling stories but the way they use them in the film is very heavy. “Shadow puppets make you think of cave painting. There’s something elemental visceral about them.”
Sound too was important. Bruce said, they had to really think about how they wanted to use sound. Once you started filling in all the details that tell the physical story and the real world story, it’s a pandora’s box. You’re going to have to put a sound in for absolutely everything and then you’re making a story that’s real. You’re not showing memory anymore. So they had to keep it somewhat abstract and use musical sound rather than literal sound. There are literal sounds in the film and they’re used there to focus certain elements but there is not a reliance on them to fill in the story. Their goal was to try to make it alive but not a real world.
Paton said that when the rain and elements hit in the film the intention is to actually feel that cold and the choice in sound reflects that. As you get more into the shadow puppet realm, you get more and more uncomfortable. A lot of the weather sounds come from accordion bellows and air being blown through horns. Bruce said, it’s a dirty sound. It’s not just like white noise, it has a texture and a relationship to breathing but the breath from the accordion bellows is longer than a human breath so it feels uncomfortably out of breath.
While talking about portraying such a tragic story, we got back to talking about the beautiful scene of the man looking up at the stars midst the death and cold. Michael said that as soon as he heard that image, he knew he had to use it. It spoke to the part of the story about survival. “That is part of the reason why this story is so compelling and present with us. It was horrible, of course, and a lot of men didn’t make it. But, there were a bunch of these men who did make it. The will to survive is so intense in those men that’s it’s really inspiring.” At that moment in the middle of the night with the stars shining, this man doesn’t know. He doesn’t know if he’s going to make it but he still has the capacity to see beauty. It points to that will to live. The capacity to hold onto what makes life worth living.
To sum up our chat, I asked the guys why it was important to tell this story now. Here are their summarized responses:
Paton: The sealing industry has been misrepresented in the media, as well as other offshore industries like the oil and fishing. It’s dirty dangerous work. They do it for a paycheck and to provide a better life for their family. And the way the men in the film were treated by the merchants and powers that be at the time is sort of being mirrored today. How corporate interests are taking over and the middle class, or little guy are being stepped on, yet are in the position where they have to take it. Things have come a long way but we’re not there yet. So, these stories keep these themes and issues in the forefront.
Bruce: 54 Hours is a seminal story for Newfoundlanders. These stories pull people together and create a sense of identity. Telling it again in a particular, emotional way, and in a condensed way, hopefully makes people go back and read Cassie’s book and to look to other things about it, and to other stories that are similar in their personal and emotional importance.
Michael: Michael said he is on the mainland a lot, and is often asked, why are Newfoundlanders different? What makes them different? Where does the particular culture come from? “This story reflects part of where our culture comes from. And as Newfoundland changes, and god knows, it’s changing very rapidly and has been since Confederation. I think it’s really important for us to keep those stories close. To know where we came from.” The conditions those people were born into created a particular character and even though those conditions don’t exist anymore we are still the children of those people. We are who we are because of what they went through and I think it is absolutely essential that we remember those people and their stories.