Film and Video

The Newfoundland and Labrador film industry was born during the cultural revival that swept the province in the 1970s. The basis of that revival -- the challenge to authority, the search for a distinct provincial perspective, the do-it-yourself ethic -- infused the films of the era. Those guiding principles are still in evidence, though the film industry has grown from modest beginnings to one that attracted $9 million in investment in 1999.

Early Newfoundland Film

There's evidence of Newfoundlanders shooting film and newsreel footage as far back as 1904. The most famous of these early film makers was Captain Bob Bartlett, who toured the United States in the 1930s with documentaries of his sea-faring adventures. The island was occasionally a shooting location for feature films such as The Viking, a 1931 Hollywood adventure made during the seal hunt. Following Confederation numerous documentaries and nature films were made in the province, usually by visiting film crews.

Camera Crew of 'The Viking', ca. 1930
Camera Crew of The Viking, ca. 1930
Courtesy of Archives and Special Collections (Col - 203), Queen Elizabeth II Library, Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. John's, NL.

The young actors, writers, and photographers who began making local films in the early 1970s were based primarily in St. John's. With little experience and less money they gathered whatever equipment they could find and taught themselves how to make movies. Their earliest works were short black-and-white films. Some of them, such as Sisters of the Silver Scalpel (1978), convey a taste for satire and absurdity that would come to be associated with Newfoundland and Labrador film and television.

The Adventures of Faustus Bidgood

The first feature-length film to be produced exclusively in the province was made on a miniscule budget and took over ten years to complete. The Adventures Of Faustus Bidgood (1986) tells the story of a bewildered bureaucrat who, following a revolution, unwittingly becomes the first ruler of The People's Republic of Newfoundland. An enigmatic and disjointed comedy, its commercial success was modest. But with its irreverent and iconoclastic approach and its status as Newfoundland and Labrador first "real movie," Faustus has acquired near-mythical status.

Faustus Bidgood was the first major production of the Newfoundland Independent Filmmaker's Cooperative (NIFCO). Established in 1975 and based in a two-story house in downtown St. John's, NIFCO was formed to encourage cooperation among filmmakers and provide affordable access to cameras, film, editing rooms and other resources. Most of the filmmakers in this province developed their skills as NIFCO members, and most of the films produced have utilized the cooperative and its facilities.

Development and Expansion of the Industry

Short film and documentary work expanded rapidly in the 1980s. Standards of quality and professionalism improved and documentaries such as The Last Days Of Okak (1985) found international audiences. Feature films, being expensive and labour intensive, were still few and far between. But features such as Welcome To Canada (1989) and Secret Nation (1992) reflect significant leaps from the early days.

Cast of 'Secret Nation' 1992
Cast of Secret Nation 1992
(l-r) John Holmes, Richard Cashin, Brian Downey, unidentified, John Housser, Michael Wade jr., unidentified.
Courtesy of Archives and Special Collections (Col - 121, 11.01), Queen Elizabeth II Library, Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. John's, NL.

With the proliferation of new television networks and the growing profile of Newfoundland and Labrador talent, filmmakers became more aggressive in pursuing financing and distribution deals. Women's film work was encouraged and supported through The St. John's International Women's Film and Video Festival and the National Film Board. Cooperation with other provinces resulted in successful co-productions such as The Boys Of St. Vincent (1992).

St. John's International Women's Film and Video Festival Poster, 2000
St. John's International Women's Film and Video Festival Poster, 2000
Reproduced by permission of the St. John's International Women's Film and Video Festival Committee.

The new century began with feature film production at a peak of activity. Many producers and directors continued to bring a singular Newfoundland and Labrador perspective to their work, while others pursued more universal themes and subjects. Marketing and promotional efforts opened doors to international co-productions such as Misery Harbour (1999). The story of a Norwegian sailor who jumped ship off the coast of Newfoundland, the film was a joint effort by companies in Newfoundland and Labrador, Denmark, Sweden and Norway.

Production in other areas continued to expand. Documentary makers established an impressive track record. Rapid growth of the television industry opened new opportunities for the makers of short films and vignettes.

'Pigeon Inlet' Publicity Photo, ca. 1980
Pigeon Inlet Publicity Photo, ca. 1980
Pigeon Inlet was a popular television program in the 1980s. (Back row l - r): Ted Hanley, Rosemary Dawson. (Front row l - r): Kevin Noble, Canon Earle.
Reproduced by permission of CBC Television, St. John's, NL.

The provincial government invested in the industry through the establishment of the Newfoundland and Labrador Film Development Corporation. With financial programs, tax credits and international lobbying, the Corporation encouraged local production and promoted the province as a location for filmmakers from around the world.

The summer of 2000 saw the beginning of work on the most ambitious project ever undertaken in the province at that time: Random Passage, an eight-part television series based on the novels of local writer Bernice Morgan. It was another international production, with cast and crew from Newfoundland and Labrador, Quebec and Ireland.

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