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Dawson Film Festival prompts question: Why haven’t we shot a feature here?

Despite a golden story that has inspired countless movies, cartoons, plays, books, poems and documentaries, a feature film has never been shot in…

Despite a golden story that has inspired countless movies, cartoons, plays, books, poems and documentaries, a feature film has never been shot in Dawson City.

As dozens of festival attendees and filmmakers descended on the town — which looks like a film set — for the Dawson City International Short Film Festival, that irony was not lost.

“When will we see something from Yukoners?” asked Whitehorse filmmaker Rachel Grantham as she ate breakfast in the Jack London Lounge on Sunday.

“The whole thing of the Klondike Gold Rush — think of how many films have been done and they’ve all come from Hollywood,” she said.

The question remained in the shadows during the eighth annual Dawson festival, with its strong contingent of Yukon short films.

But how can a place with a vibrant arts community, eccentric characters and breathtaking locations not have led to a Yukon-produced feature film?

The answer, said Grantham, is that dramatic film is still finding its feet in the Yukon, and Canada as a whole.

And the best fix, she said, is to encourage homegrown dramatic filmmakers.

Grantham presented a workshop for filmmakers called Producing Short Drama, which probed the difficulties of short filmmaking in the Yukon as well as underlining its importance.

“Most of the world wants to go out to a movie, but they don’t usually want a documentary — they want to be entertained,” said Grantham after the discussion.

“So, if you’re really serious about bringing the Yukon to the world, you have to do it in an entertaining way, which is through fiction.”

Short films — like the dozens screened at the Dawson festival from Canada, the US, Norway, Sweden, Japan and Russia — are generally considered the ideal way for filmmakers to progress to making feature films, said Grantham.

But compared with documentary and animated films, the financial support dramatic filmmakers have in Canada — and also in the Yukon — is somewhat limited, she said.

The reason? The National Film Board quickly made a name for itself in documentaries and animation, but didn’t really get behind dramatic films, she said.

That has created a knock-on effect.

 “I wanted to come to the Yukon when I first read Jack London in Grade 6,” said Grantham, underlining the Yukon’s potential.

“Fiction can capture our imaginations in a way that documentary can’t — teach us things in a way that documentary can’t. It really goes right to your emotions.

“We have great stories to tell,” she said. “But everybody knows that Canadian drama on film is still emerging.”

The maximum amount a filmmaker can get for a production from the Yukon government was recently increased from $5,000 to $8,000 by the department of Economic Development.

And compared with other places in Canada, the government incentives provided for filmmakers shooting their productions here is second to none.

But the challenge is to get more people involved in dramatic film despite the still fledgling culture in Canada, said Grantham.

A friendly guy with streaks of grey running through his bushy black hair was also eating breakfast at the lounge on Sunday morning.

He ate, that is, between visits from fans asking him about a bunch of guys in Halifax.

Mike Clattenburg, creator of the Trailer Park Boys television show and the recent feature movie, Trailer Park Boys: The Big Dirty, was reveling in the Dawson City Film Festival — high-fiving festival goers and demanding the locals call him “Mike.”

Clattenburg traveled for two days from his home in Nova Scotia to attend the festival and was amazed by the potential for filmmaking in Dawson.

“It’s like going back 100 years when you first drive into town,” he said on Sunday. “There’s a film to be shot in Dawson, I just don’t know what it is.

“I don’t think there’s been a feature film shot here, but there’s this Lynchian vibe. If David Lynch saw this place, he’d probably shoot a film here,” he said.

Like Grantham, Clattenburg feels short filmmaking is an ideal way to break into the business.

One Yukoner using short film as a way to reach her dream of making a feature film is Celia McBride.

McBride’s first dramatic short, Last Stop For Miles, screened at the Dawson festival.

In the fall, she’ll join her sister in Paris to shoot a longer, 20-minute short film, she said.

Last Stop is a small segment of a feature-length script McBride has written.

Breaking into feature filmmaking requires short filmmaking experience, she said.

“To suddenly shoot a feature film was impossible, but to shoot a short was very doable,” said McBride on Sunday. “It’s a place to start, a good introduction into the industry and how it works.

“I think the budget’s there, there’s just less people doing drama,” said McBride of the Yukon’s potential for dramatic film production.

“So far the only downside to being in the Yukon and trying to make films is … well, I don’t see that there is a downside. I see lots of bonuses to the Yukon, there’s money available, incredible places and locations, vibrant characters.

“But we are limited in crew. I had to postpone my shoot because people were working on another film. We’re limited in bodies that have experience in sound, grip, gaffer, editing,” she said.

McBride was using the Dawson festival as a way to further understand filmmaking.

And surprisingly, so too was Clattenburg.

“There’s a collective IQ that comes together when a crowd watches a film, you can feel it,” he said. “That’s invaluable for a filmmaker to sit and watch.”

His other favourite part of the Dawson festival was more in keeping with his Trailer-Park-Boy roots.

“It’s the only festival I know of where you can get a beer and watch some films,” said Clattenburg. “It’s all a filmmaker could ask for.”

Contact Tim Querengesser at