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Yukoner’s documentary shares the lonesome work that keeps forests safe

Tova Krentzman’s Fire Tower was screened at the Hot Docs festival

If you’re going to make a movie, pick a topic you love. That’s what Tova Krentzman learned while working on her first documentary, Fire Tower, in 2022 (and 2023 and 2024).

“The amount of work it takes …” Krentzman trailed off as she spoke with the News over the phone on May 7. She’d just returned to Whitehorse from Toronto, where Fire Tower had its world premiere at the Hot Docs Film Festival and won the audience award for mid-length documentary. “You have to have a passion for it,” she said.

Fortunately, Krentzman did. She first conceived of the idea, to train her camera on the individuals who staff fire towers during the summer in the Yukon and Alberta, watching for signs of fire, years ago, before the COVID-19 pandemic.

At the time, she was working as a cook at a firefighting camp in Alberta. There, she spoke with a number of lookouts before they headed out to their towers, where they would spend the next six months alone (in the Yukon, lookouts work for three months), watching the horizon for 10 hours a day, looking for smoke and acting as the first line of defence against forest fires.

It interested Krentzman for a few reasons. First, there was the romance of it, like a lighthouse keeper on land. Second, she was fascinated by the question of how much longer jobs like theirs would be around, with the rapid development of technology and artificial intelligence. Finally, she had a personal connection to the sense of solitude, having spent five years working at sea on tall ships, icebreakers and research vessels everywhere from Brazil and the Falkland Islands, to Australia, Japan and Panama.

“I do relate to that,” she said. “Standing, watching and observing.”

Initially, Krentzman planned to do a series of photos documenting lookouts. Over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic though, she got into more and more filmmaking.

In 2021, her short film, Harashama, won the emerging artist jury prize during the 48-hour film challenge at the Dawson City International Film Festival.

From there, Fire Tower evolved from a photography project into a documentary, largely because of the support the idea received at every step of the way.

“It was one of those things, where it seems right and it feels right,” Krentzman said. “You’re getting good responses and not knocking your head against the wall.”

In the winter of 2022, it won the prize for production funding at the Available Light Film Festival. It also received support through the National Film Board. It felt like the project was taking on its own life, Krentzman said.

She ended up shooting during the summer of 2022, a notoriously awful year for forest fires, where Yukon blazes reached an historic number, and Alberta saw an above-average number of fires burning.

Krentzman captured the season through a series of interviews with lookouts, wide shots of the landscape and candid footage of lookouts in and around their towers — stretching, watching and passing the time.

“The aerial footage, presumably filmed via drone, is particularly awe-inspiring, conveying the majesty of the landscapes that these people spend so much of their lives looking out upon,” read an April review in Exclaim, published the day after the doc premiered at Hot Docs.

It was tough, Krentzman said, to be a fly on the wall in an environment where the subject is used to being the only person around, but she was able to achieve this occasionally, by having lookouts wear a mic while they worked and she shot footage from the ground below.

Altogether, she worked with 12 lookouts, though some had to be cut for the 47-minute documentary (“unfortunately, you can’t have everyone you love in the film,” she said), but she said it was a remarkable experience to be able to spend time with each of them while putting the film together.

This May, the documentary screens at Northwest Fest in Edmonton. Krentzman said she’s looking forward to touring the film around a bit more this year (“reaping the benefits of being alone in front of my laptop for so long”) where she hopes to meet more filmmakers from other countries and talk about new ideas.

That’s another one of the lessons she learned while working on Fire Tower. Krentzman wrote, directed, produced and did the cinematography for the film. Producing alone is a ton of work when you’re doing it on your own.

She’s hoping to collaborate with other producers and filmmakers on whatever comes next.