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Hot Docs 2011 Review: The National Parks Project

The National Parks Project

The National Parks Project documentary is about two hours long. Two things will result from this: 1) If you see it in a theatre, your ass and legs will hurt by the time it’s over; and 2) If you see it in a city, you will emerge from the film incredibly restless after seeing thirteen of this country’s prettiest places.

Honouring Parks Canada’s centennial, three producers rounded up thirteen directors and three musicians for a national park in each province. The goal was to have the musicians create soundtracks based on how they were affected by the nature and experience of being in the national park. What was confusing though was who really dictated each film? Was it the filmmaker or the musicians? There’s a mix of short films that feature music heavily, while others barely have any music in them at all. The former tended to be the much more beautiful pieces, especially if you could see the musicians in action – unfortunately, most of the docs barely show them.

Gwaii Haanas, British Columbia leads us in with gorgeous underwater shots and lonely forest coastlines. It seems like there was much more effort put into this doc than most of the others, it features a lot of interesting camera angles and details that set it apart. Though its musicians – Sarah Harmer, Bry Webb and Jim Guthrie – are barely shown, the music they create is chilling, perfectly matching the scenery. Starting off the doc with this short film made it hard for the other films to live up.

Waterton Lakes, Alberta shows us Laura Barrett, Cadence Weapon and Mark Hamilton as they experience the native people’s history and become one with the bones left behind. Their incredibly different musical styles come together in this blend of kalimba, ukulele, soft vocals and rapping. This is another visually impressive short as well, from zooming shots of the natives to soaring shots of the park.


Gros Morne, Newfoundland, known for its epic scenery, is doubly epic due to the presence of Melissa Auf der Maur; the bassist is shown wielding her axe while poised perfectly on a top of a cliff as the sun sets. It’s a chilling moment as her bass reverberates into the horizon. Casey Mecija shines as a leading lady for New Brunswick, as her and the rest of the team take the film into fictional territory to the tune of the eerily cute song “Mystic Morning.”

Some shorts just don’t live up, though. Bruce Peninsula, Ontario seems like it was recorded on a VHS camera, and they just seem to shoot trees as a car drives through the park. It goes off kilter with random commentary about the internet, in six vague chapters. Wapusk, Manitoba has the musicians talk about how they write music, which is interesting, but doesn’t flow with the rest of the doc. The filmmaker even uses colourful objects placed through the park to prove the point of ideas coming together, but somehow it brought the Teletubbies to mind for me. Cape Breton Highlands, Nova Scotia focuses on the people of the town more than anything else. Nahanni, Yukon barely gives us any music from Shad, Olga Goreas and Jace Lasek, choosing instead to end the film on a visual note.

I could keep going, but seeing this film is much more important than just reading about it. Seeing these peaceful and somber places of Canada, where hardly anyone is around is such an experience just to watch. Imagine how it must have been for those who worked on the films? So many talented people took part in this project. I’m still overwhelmed by the entire thing, trying to take it all in. Besides the great filmmakers, Paul Aucoin must also get a huge mention for his work recording and mixing most of the music on site. Even though a lot of the music can begin to sound the same after a while (especially because of the similar sounding reverb-y guitars that are used to show the pensive, somewhat anxious areas), I’ll definitely be getting my mitts on the soundtrack. Some of these songs are chilling and if it can continually bring up this kind of imagery, I’m all for it.

The National Parks Project is now on DVD and will have a showing on May 19 at the Royal Cinema with a heap of performances by the musical participants. You can find more details here.


Come May 19 as well, you’ll be able to watch the short films on the project’s intense website, And if you head there now you can toggle between each park, listen to the music, check out who’s involved where and much more, although I’d say if you listen to much of the music before seeing the films, it might take away from the experience. However, I would say it’s useful for acquainting yourself with the talent involved in each film, as that information isn’t shown during each short.

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