Emily Carr

Winds of Heaven, a documentary film by Michael Ostroff (2010). 87 minutes, distributed by the National Film Board

It’s magic! 

Michael Ostroff’s new feature film Wind of Heaven weaves a living, breathing evocation of Emily Carr from a basket of disparate elements, bringing us into the presence of a woman of complexity. This is Carr for the 21st century, and Ostroff does this without using an actress to dress up like the feisty lady “on the edge of nowhere”.

I personally hate docudramas, and bridle at any of the well-meaning women who have tried to interpret “our Emily”.  Ostroff agrees, and approaches her by different routes. In a voice-over the superb actress Diane D’Aquila reads the words of Carr, and she does a convincing job of delivering a very carefully chosen script. 

Some of our contemporaries appear briefly in the film: Susan Crean is the author of The Laughing One: A Journey to Emily Carr; Gerta Moray is the author of Unsettling Encounters: First Nations Imagery in the Art of Emily Carr; and Marcia Crosby is  a Haida/Tsimshian art historian. In their essential books, each of these women has given us a fresh understanding of Emily Carr for the 21st century. Their presence here underscores Ostroff’s progressive and profound understanding of a woman I call Canada’s most important artist.

None of this gets in the way of the visual feast of the film. Ostroff had access to all the great national collections of Carr’s work, and he presents us with new, up-close camerawork of unparalleled sensitivity. Never have I experienced the colours and the characters of Carr’s paintings so intensely. Mercifully, he avoids the swoopy panning which lesser cinemetographers revert to. 

The paintings are beautifully complemented by superb on-location footage from Haida Gwaii and Goldstream. He also presents Victoria – under a dusting of snow, no less!  He takes us to a potlatch, and then to the National Gallery, but his most telling effects come from his meticulously constructed sets. Some are evocative – the old typewriter on Carr’s desk, clacking out her manuscripts, mistypes and all. Others are more extensive – her chaotic and cluttered studio upstairs at the House of All Sorts. Best of all is Ostroff’s faithful reconstruction of The Elephant, her caravan. A rickety old truck tows it down a dusty road in Goldstream. Later, it there sits in the forest, the campfire smouldering and an errant breeze flapping the canvas awning – for all the world as if Miss Carr had just stepped away.

Melding these images together are snippets of archival footage – tree fallers, steam engines, and kids at a residential school. The photos of Carr somehow reveal more depth of character behind her smile than I had noticed before. 

To create a film about art, First nations issues, ecology and spiritualism – this was a challenge. To tell the story of someone we thought we already knew is more difficult. Winds of Heaven is a success on those many levels.

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