About a year ago, I was asked to participate in a commissioning project commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Halifax Explosion. Aside from seeing documentaries and visiting the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, I'd never thought very much about this historic event... probably because it was so devastating and horrible, and just too hard to get my head around.
I live within a local world full of reference points to this history: local bars serving up shots called "Halifax Explosions," the Halifax Pop Explosion, etc. Lots of ways in which this huge event is superficially referenced in our popular culture. In fact, when I thought of pairing Halifax Explosion and film, one of the first things that popped into my mind was the filming of Shattered City about 15 years ago. When Hurricane Juan hit Halifax in 2003, rumour had it that those behind the film were a little miffed because they'd already wrapped production, and all those flattened trees from the hurricane would have really looked amazing in the movie.
So when AFCOOP commissioned me to make a short animated film, I naturally Googled "Halifax Explosion" and checked out a number of hits on YouTube. The very first video I saw wasn't a slick documentary or a staged re-enactment. It was vintage film footage posted by the Nova Scotia Archives. Of actual survivors, only two days after they endured the biggest explosion prior to nuclear weapons. I was mesmerized. Turns out a local commercial photographer, W. G. MacLaughlan, had filmed several minutes of motion picture footage only 48 hours after the explosion took place. There is 13 minutes of this footage online, available for anyone with an internet connection to easily access.
Even more astounding to me: although there was ample footage of broken windows, decimated landscapes, and twisted iron rails, a lot of footage focused on people. Ordinary citizens. Opening crates of relief supplies, helping the military lift stretchers of wounded victims, picking through wreckage. In almost every shot that had people in it, everyone was actively helping out. Cleaning up. Getting on with it.
This is what hit me hardest. Not just because of their grit in the face of such devastation, but because this felt like the Halifax I know. We rely on each other so much to get things done around here. Often, it feels to me like that's the only way. After all, when you live in a depressed economy on the edge of a continent, you simply can't go it alone. This footage and this thought gave me a spark for my project.
With the support of the Halifax Central Library, Wonder'neath Arts Society, and NSCAD's Artist for a Day event, I invited members of the public to trace frames I printed from this film footage onto 8.5"x11" paper. These tracings became a literal way through which participants could engage with the explosion and the images documenting it. Putting the tracings everyone made in order created rotoscoped segments that serve as a metaphor for working together, individual expression, and the tensions that may exist in between. How do we understand our own history through images? What is it that makes our local culture of interdependence what it is? What are the dynamics of giving and receiving help--both in times of crisis, and in the everyday?
This film was commissioned by the Atlantic Filmmakers' Cooperative and funded by Halifax Regional Municipality as part of the city's Centenary events commemorating the Halifax Explosion. I am thrilled and grateful to be part of this project.
The film created through this project will be screened on TUESDAY, DECEMBER 5th at Paul O'Regan Hall in the HALIFAX CENTRAL LIBRARY as part of AFCOOP's "REFLECTIONS OF THE HALIFAX EXPLOSION IN NEW LOCAL FILMS." Documentary Halifax Explosion: The Deaf Experience at 7pm, animated shorts (including mine) start at 8pm. The event is free, so if you're in Halifax, please attend!