Monday, August 8, 2011

Emily Carr: bold strokes, mutilated treasures

The above video is just a snippet of the most superb documentary I have ever seen: Winds of Heaven, a fresh approach to the life and work of the brilliant West Coast Canadian artist, Emily Carr. Fresh because it dares to throw off the shackles of those dusty, crusty old National Film Board movies that we had to sit through in school.The narration is riveting in its sense of presence, in the eerie feeling that Carr is in the room with you.

But when I recently watched this treasure on Knowledge Network in Vancouver, I had a sense that it ended rather abruptly. I did some research on the net and found one reference after another to this "90-minute film".

Wait a minute. 90-minute?

Then why was it shown in a one-hour time slot? And why were there 10 or 15 minutes left over, at that?

I was horrified, and began to fire off emails to Knowledge Network (which is forever yammering on and on about the significance of Canadian culture, not to mention trying to get my money to support such efforts) and White Pine Pictures which released the film.

Below is my correspondence with the director of the film, Michael Ostroff. I was stunned to discover that my worst fears were true: the film had indeed been mutilated, with 40% of the original material excised. But it got worse. I discovered which part of the film had been put on the chopping block: all the material about Carr's legendary relationship with First Nations people.

But this is the soul of Emily Carr, one of the main reasons her work is so celebrated! The comfortable myth is that she cozied up to Indian chiefs and was given an "Indian name", but the reality was much more complex. Carr never quite lost her Victorian perspective which was closer to the "noble savage" beliefs that dominated the early 20th century.

Was this too contentious, or did it disturb the myth we have always taught our school children? Did it overturn the traditional sanitized version deemed more palatable to the good people who open their eyes and their wallets to the Knowledge Network?

Before I run on all day, I will include my initial email to White Pine Pictures, director Michael Ostroff's response, MY response to his response, and a snippet from the web site lamenting the casual mutilation of this masterwork.

In the meantime. . .

DO NOT GIVE MONEY TO KNOWLEDGE NETWORK IN BRITISH COLUMBIA. You will be throwing it away. You will be allowing these idiots to go on slashing and burning films that celebrate irreplaceable Canadian icons and their work.

Ignore their ludicrous pledge drives. Don't listen to excuses from them. What they did was evil. It never should have been allowed. Would someone take a Carr original and hack off 40% of it? What part of it is dispensible? Maybe this picture of a totem pole? We've seen lots of totem poles, haven't we?

To:    White Pine Pictures
From: Margaret Gunning

Your Emily Carr documentary is riveting, the best thing I've seen on the subject. Knowledge Network in BC ran it in a one-hour time slot, and it ended after 45 minutes. Then I found out this is a 90-minute film! Knowledge Network does this sort of thing all the time. There is no indication whatsoever that it is a "Part I" or "Part II". It's just run the way it is, I would assume a badly truncated version left in mid-air. I have tried to inquire about this kind of policy before and have been brushed off, or else they tell me they'll show the second part whenever they can find a slot in the schedule. I just do not understand it. If I'm wrong about this, and I hope I am, please set me straight. This film was so significant that I felt it was nothing less than a spiritual experience for me, as if Carr was in the room speaking to me. Something this sacred should not be tampered with!

From: Michael Ostroff

Sent: Monday, August 08, 2011 6:19 AM

Subject: Winds of Heaven

Dear Margaret;

Thank you for taking the time to send me your thoughts on Winds of Heaven.

You are correct – the version broadcast on Knowledge Network is a travesty. We were forced to provide the Network with a 52 minute cut; more than 40% of the original version was deleted to meet their demand. Removing that much out of a film destroys its integrity. I did everything I could to reason and argue with Knowledge to reverse this decision. In the end I removed my name from the credits. If you wish to register your complaint you might contact Murray Battle at Knowledge.

The full-length version in dvd format is available for purchase at the RBCM, the AGGV, Carr House, the VAG and several locations on Haida Gwaii. If none of these are convenient for you can purchase the dvd through our internet store.

Again thank you for your kind words. This year - Dec 13 - is the 140th anniversary of the birth of Emily Carr - and there is a possibility of special screenings of the film in Victoria and Vancouver to mark the occasion.

Best, Michael Ostroff

Cine Metu

613.237.0618 cell
613.237.9687 landline

Winds of Heaven

From: Margaret Gunning
To:     Michael Ostroff

Why is this legal? Why aren't those people facing major fines or worse? Why do they claim to promote Canadian culture? Why do they constantly ask for my money (and if they do answer my complaint at all, it'll probably be with their hands out). I did think it ended rather abruptly, with her dates of birth and death suddenly flashed on the screen. But it wasn't until the next day, doing a little research (and by the way, I have already ordered two DVDs, one for me and one for my best friend: in truth, I wanted to order one for everyone I knew because I felt like they HAD to see this) that I saw "90 minute film" and all the info on the premiere.

90 minute - ??

I will say, however, that I was STILL mesmerised by this film. It was nothing short of enthralling. The music had a fey supernatural quality which perfectly matched the narration, which was spookily spot-on and made me feel Carr was in my living room talking to me. I remember all the horrid old NFB things about her in which some narrator droned on and on about the monkey in the baby carriage. We all know that stuff, so it was delightful to see the monkey screeching into the phone, a great way to convey the information without dropping it on us like a cement block.

Yes, come to think of it. . . I wondered why there were relatively few of her works shown, why I still felt hungry. Oh God, more comes back. A while back they showed a documentary on WWII - I wish I remembered more about it. It was left hanging. There was a Part II, missing. I contacted them and they said it would be on, but they didn't know when just yet, they weren't sure it would fit into the schedule. (To my knowledge, it was never shown, nor was there any indication at all that there was a Part II: for all the public knew, this was the whole film.)

So. Knowledge Network is a bastion of the uniquely Canadian, of national treasures and art at its finest, and we should all be watching it instead of some cheap reality show because it's CULTURE, folks, so get with it! We should also be opening our wallets when they have those chintzy pledge drives with people trying to look busy talking to imaginary contributors. But it's OK to pare those Canadian treasures down, isn't it? If we only have an hour to spare, for God's sake. . . For after all, we have to show that program on sperm whales for the 47th time this year, don't we? It's educational and doesn't cost us anything.

An hour and a half, for God's sake! How much can there be on this wacky old woman who was a landlady most of her life and kept a monkey? Besides, this film had the effrontery to say she wasn't all buddy-buddy and cosy with the "Indians" all the time, but often felt a typically Victorian sense of superiority to them. Heresy! Artists can't be that complicated, it just confuses people, and she spent most of her time crashing around in the bush and was crazy anyway. And she wasn't one of the Group of Seven so she isn't included in those calendars we buy half-price after Christmas.

I don't like to rant, but I am truly incensed by this. I am, to be honest, horrified that a film of this quality was slashed like that, that they were allowed to do it. I am very sorry now that I sent them a rave review of it before it dawned on me that I hadn't really seen it. Then I sent a follow-up email lambasting them for what they did to it (which I couldn't quite believe - surely there would be a Part II sometime?. . . No?).

When I look at the crap they show, and their habit of repeating the stuff ad nauseam, I am tempted to stop watching them altogether. Unfortunately, I wouldn't have been aware of this extraordinary film because things like this tend to get buried. "Art" is ghettoized and treated like some rarefied, white-gloves thing that most of us can't be bothered with.

I would like to know whose decision it was to do this, why someone must have felt it was OK and acceptable and even good to cut a leg off it and show it mutilated. Someone did, someone with the power to decide. I will try to forward this letter to the good folks at Knowledge Network if I can, but I have no illusions it will do anything but draw criticism (of me) from them. Meantime, having ordered the DVD from White Pine Pictures, I look forward to seeing a truly outstanding film in its entirety.

Thank you for enlightening me on this, distressing as it is!

Margaret Gunning

(From Winds of Heaven web site, White Pine Pictures)
January 30, 2011

The 87-minute theatrical version of Winds of Heaven is now for sale in DVD format. Order Winds of Heaven from the White Pine Pictures online store.

If you were disappointed by the version recently shown on television – it’s not surprising. That version – 52 minutes – is missing forty percent of the content of the original film. Missing was the entire parallel story of Carr’s interactions with the First Nations people of BC.

(AFTERWORD: Everyone should see this film. Order a copy of the DVD.  Don't trust any TV network to show it without it being truncated or interrupted by ads. Do not allow the kind of casual censorship which obviously gutted the film and will no doubt be vigorously denied by the networks. AND DON'T GIVE THEM YOUR MONEY! Do not believe for one instant that anything you give them will be used in the service of Canadian culture. It will go to some insensitive idiot with a large pair of scissors and no conscience.)


  1. A travesty. Did you hear back from Knowledge Network?

  2. Yes, and they assured me they were within their rights to run the 53-minute "broadcast version", and that the 87-minute "theatrical version" was available on DVD if I wanted to see it. The filmmakers were contractually obliged to allow their film to be mutilated - 34 minutes hacked out - so Knowledge Network could show it in a 60-minute slot. When you look at the utter crap they show, including 2-hour-long National Film Board documentaries from the '80s and stuff like that, it makes you wonder why they even exist. This made me furious because they constantly yammer on and on about the importance of promoting Canadian culture. I will never give these bozos another CENT of my money, and I am going to tell as many people as possible to boycott them for this atrocity. Meantime, I've ordered a couple of the DVDs, one for me and one for my best friend who has a birthday coming up. Emily Carr was a genius, and this was the first film treatment I've seen that truly understood that fact.