Speaking on the phone from Vancouver, John Walker is eating an apple and trying to do an interview at the same time.
The renowned Canadian documentary filmmaker is ravenous, having just flown in from Halifax. Between bites, he talks enthusiastically about his latest film, Passage, which opens the Available Light Film Festival tonight at 6:30 p.m.
Based on the nonfiction book Fatal Passage by Ken McGoogan, it’s the story of Arctic adventurer John Rae and his discovery of the fate of the Franklin Expedition.
The film marks a departure for Walker, who didn’t want to take a traditional documentary approach.
“I saw the possibility of a very strong story,” he says. “I just didn’t know how to do it in a documentary form, since all of the main characters were dead.
“I realized that I’d need to dramatize the main characters – John Franklin, Lady Franklin, John Rae himself, of course, and Charles Dickens.”
It turns out that the famous British novelist played a central role in promoting the official account of what happened to the Franklin Expedition – a very different version from John Rae’s.
“The historical record is fiction,” says Walker. “Sir John Franklin did not find the Northwest Passage, as it states on his statue in Waterloo Place in London and in Westminster Abbey. It’s a falsified British imperialist history.”
But Walker wanted to avoid creating yet another fiction with his film. “I wanted to use fictional elements with a documentary perspective,” he says.
He eventually came up with the idea of going back and forth between past and present, intercutting dramatic scenes with the contemporary search for the actual story.
The resulting film is a genre-bender of fact and fiction.
“It’s about how we tell history, how we make history,” Walker says.
“It’s also a film about the process of how we create drama. I wanted to work with actors who would study the characters, and the process of creating roles would be part of the documentary.”
The backstory of the film – the story of the Franklin Expedition itself – was provided through scenes between the actors playing Sir John Franklin and Lady Franklin.
“The Franklin expedition came over with what I call ‘floating hotels,’” says Walker. “They had enough food for three years, they had an organ, they had 1,400 books, they had brass polish to polish their buttons. The idea was to live on the ship and not interact with the natives.”
By contrast, says Walker, Rae only packed enough food for three months, although his expedition was planned to take up to two years.
Rae was a chief factor and doctor with the Hudson’s Bay Company, stationed at Moose Factory, Ontario.
Like 75 per cent of the HBC’s employees, he came from the Orkney Islands in Scotland, and had adopted the indigenous way of life, which was encouraged by his employer.
“He was doing all his own hunting and living off the land,” says Walker, “though going to the Arctic required a whole other set of skills that he had to learn quickly.”
But the idea of “going native” was anathema to British explorers like Franklin.
“It was the equivalent of becoming a Communist in the 1930s, because it was a denial of your whole religious and ethical background to follow the ways of pagans,” Walker explains.
“The irony is that the old lithographs of the time show Franklin’s ships surrounded by seals and whales and walrus. That’s all food, but they weren’t eating it. That’s how you keep warm, eating seal meat.”
For the film, Walker travelled to the Orkney Island with Rick Roberts, the actor who plays John Rae.
Roberts is Canadian, although the rest of the cast is British, and worked with a dialogue coach to get the accent right.
“It turned out that having a Canadian play the role was the best choice, because John Rae’s accent was a hybrid,” notes Walker. “He was born in Orkney but to Scottish parents, and his tutor was Scottish, so he had a Scottish accent with an Orcadian influence.”
Walker also wanted an Inuit perspective on the story and included Inuit testimony from Tagak Curley, who played a prominent role in the negotiations that led to the creation of Nunavut and was later awarded the Order of Canada.
“He was one of the main stars of our film,” says Walker. “He plays a critical role in the film because he challenges the navy’s perspective on the history. His connection to the story is profound because his ancestors were interpreters and guides to John Rae.”
The Inuit, who brought relics from the site of the doomed expedition, told Rae that Franklin’s crew had resorted to cannibalism.
But when Rae submitted his report, both the British Admiralty officials and Lady Franklin refused to believe his story.
“It was unacceptable to Lady Franklin that they would commit cannibalism,” says Walker. “It ruined the whole notion of Franklin as a hero. British gentlemen do not eat other British gentlemen.”
Lady Franklin responded by soliciting the help of Charles Dickens to refute Rae’s report. “She was a media star,” Walker explains. “She’d been in the newspapers for six years searching for her husband, and she knew how to manipulate the media.”
In fact she had browbeaten the Britain’s Royal Navy into continuing the search for Franklin, including writing letters to the Tsar of Russia and the President of the US.
“She really played up the role of the grieving widow,” Walker adds.
But public opinion was with Charles Dickens and Lady Franklin. Rae tried to defend himself publicly, “which dug his own career further and further into the ground,” notes Walker. “He also came out in defence of the Inuit, which didn’t do his cause any good.”
Walker filmed some of his scenes in London, where he held a script read-through with Tagak Curley and various experts.
These included a historian from Orkney, another historian from the Maritime Museum, and an expert on Lady Franklin.
“There were differences of opinion. One of the historians was in agreement with Lady Franklin”- in other words, says Walker, he didn’t believe that John Rae was telling the truth.
“He believes the history as it was told, that Sir John Franklin discovered the Northwest Passage, and he believes Dickens, that there was no history of cannibalism in the British Navy.
“We also discussed why Charles Dickens attacked Rae and accused the Inuit of being cannibals and murderers and thieves when he knew absolutely nothing about them.”
At that point, says Walker, they brought in Gerald Dickens, Charles Dickens’ great-great-grandson.
How did the great-great-grandson react? “You should probably see the film,” says Walker.
Rae himself left the Hudson’s Bay Company and never went back to the Arctic, although he walked 16,000 kilometres across Canada surveying telegraph lines and also charted thousands of kilometres of new coastline.
His name was erased from Canadian geographic features by cartographers, says Walker. “Tom Muir, the Orcadian historian, says that Rae was airbrushed out of history.”
Today Rae’s body lies in the churchyard of St. Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall, Orkney, with a memorial statue inside depicting him in native dress, a dog, a rifle and an open book lying by his side.
“It was a real eye-opener for me in terms of how history is shaped,” says Walker of his film.
And Walker himself is helping to redress the balance.
The director will be in attendance when Passage screens tonight at 6:30 p.m. at the Yukon Arts Centre, following the festival’s opening reception at 5 p.m. Tickets are available at the Yukon Arts Centre box office and Arts Underground.
Whitehorse writer Patricia Robertson’s most recent book is
The Goldfish Dancer.