Budding Canadian filmmaker Tony Massil is making a name for himself by harnessing the mystique of the modern-day gold miners of the North.
Forty Men for the Yukon, a 20-minute film about two aging Keno City residents is quickly striking it rich with audiences all across Canada and the world.
Filmed in August, 2007, Forty Men focuses on Geordie Dobson and Frank Erl, two men stuck at a crossroads after decades of living in the Yukon.
At the time of filming, Erl was considering selling his long-held claims and moving on.
Just days before the filmmaker’s arrival, Dobson’s 30-year history as the Keno City pub owner came to an abrupt halt after his liquor licence was taken away by government representatives.
In Massil’s film the two men discuss their long histories in the Yukon, and hint at what could possibly lie ahead.
In late August, Forty Men scored Best Documentary at the Canadian Student Film Festival in Montreal.
Over the next few months, the documentary is scheduled to appear at festivals in Vancouver, Seattle and Spain.
The film has struck a chord with scores of southern audiences enamoured of the romance of the North.
Massil soon learned that Dobson and Erl weren’t the only ones with stories about the Yukon.
“For a year after I shot the film, every time I told someone about it, everyone always had a story about it; ‘I know someone there’ or ‘I’ve been there,’” said Massil, speaking from a cellphone on a Toronto street corner.
“I still get stopped on the street,” he added.
It’s one thing to be in the Yukon, and another to watch a film about it, but Massil is pleased he was able to translate the charm of the North to southern audiences.
“People really seemed to be involved with the characters of the film … I didn’t know if people would take to them,” he said.
The seeds of gold fever were first planted in Massil while he worked as a landscaper in the upscale neighbourhood of West Vancouver. There, Massil found himself working alongside a pair of former BC gold prospectors.
“For three weeks, during lunch time we would just sit with them and talk about their experiences,” said Massil.
“I just didn’t even know people did gold mining like that any more,” he said.
The old gold mining stories stuck with Massil, and resurfaced when he was wracking his brain for a film to produce in his final year of film studies at Simon Fraser University.
He brought up the idea of a gold miner documentary with fellow film student Paul Siggers, who had previously worked in the central Yukon.
Siggers told him about Frank Erl.
“He had to go through (Frank Erl’s) land every day to get to where he was working, so every time they drove by with the truck Frank would run out, make them come in for a cup of coffee and talk their ear off, for, like, two hours,” said Massil.
“If they didn’t stop he would run in front of the truck and lay down in the middle of the road,” he said.
Those were clear signs of a good documentary subject, said Massil.
Erl would be an obvious candidate to pepper the film with more than enough colourful anecdotes.
Recruiting Siggers as the associate producer, and calling ahead to announce their intentions to Erl, the two headed out on the road for Keno City to profile a Yukon eccentric and hopefully stake their claim in the cinematic world.
Meeting with Dobson wasn’t as easy.
“Everyone we met up in Keno said, ‘Oh, you’ve got to talk to Geordie,” said Massil.
“But good luck,” they added.
After the closure of his pub, Geordie had locked himself inside, refusing all attempts at human contact.
“One day we knocked on his door and all we heard was the TV volume go up,” said Massil.
After calling him from the phone of a local friend, the two received a much better reception; they spent six hours chatting with Dobson, touring his bar, and even seeing his hand-built “bottle house.”
Throughout the filming with Dobson, the filmmakers had to deal both logistically and emotionally with the fact that Dobson’s short-term memory was starting to slip.
When they returned for a second day of shooting, Dobson didn’t remember who they were.
“It was a little hard for us to take,” said Massil.
He’s worried about pitching himself as a “Yukon filmmaker,” but Massil’s next two planned film projects are also Yukon-centric.
While filming Forty Men, Siggers mentioned a screenplay idea he had about a gold rush-era census man travelling down Yukon rivers and tributaries to count First Nations populations.
Surrounded by the mountains and space of the North, the idea was instantly entrancing to Massil.
The director and his team have already put pen to paper, but in a logistical sense, it would involve a lot more than a camera-laden road trip to central Yukon.
“It’s going to be a bigger project, so we’re going to have to look into funding and things like that,” said Massil.
In the meantime, he also envisions a longer version of Forty Men.
Armed with 18 hours of additional footage, Massil wants to go more in depth to the lives of Erl and Dobson — as well as focusing on some of the other characters around Keno City and Mayo.
In the film, Erl and Dobson are shown primarily by themselves, speaking with the filmmakers and regaling them with humorous anecdotes. Very little is shown of them interacting with friends and others in the community.
“I’m interested in showing both Geordie and Frank interacting with other people, and expanding their characters to show this mentor role for other people up in the Yukon,” said Massil.
One prominent aspect not examined in the original film is Erl’s status as a mentor to the region’s small population of placer miners. From newcomers to decade-long veterans, Erl is a valuable teacher and friend to gold mining hopefuls, said Massil.
The film’s title refers to a conversation Erl had at an unemployment office.
“I want a job where there’s no women, no roads, no nothing,” he had said.
“Hey! We just got an order today for 40 men for the Yukon,” the clerk replied.
At 15, Dobson lied about his age and joined the merchant marine during the Second World War. After sailing “around the world four bloody times,” Dobson ended up in Vancouver.
When he overheard two men speak about a “mining city” in the North, Dobson’s fate was sealed.
“He told us as all these stories about his old navy days, he sang us all these old navy songs, it was really quite touching — probably one of my favourite moments in the whole shoot,” said Massil.
Even with large — at times more than 800 audience members — successful screenings under his belt, the real test for Massil will be when he shows it to Erl at the Vancouver International Film Festival.
“As a filmmaker you feel responsible for how you represent someone; you want to do them justice,” said Massil.