By Frank Peebles
The gold rush still glitters on the silver screen. Director Richard Wright fell in love with Cariboo stories more than a century after the tsunami of prospectors crashed on the shores of the Fraser River, and he has struck paydirt with another project panned from the silt of time.
The Cariboo gold rush was a colonial dam-burst. It was devastating to the First Nations, it generated wealth for only a handful of the thousands who flooded the area in and around Barkerville and Quesnel, yet it set our modern local culture into motion, for better and for worse, and this was all distilled into the unique short film Wright named Long Road To Cariboo.
In only 20 minutes’ time the story of British Columbia’s first highway superproject rolls out like a combination music video and documentary, narrated sparingly by Amy Lee Newman, who also acts and co-produces in this project.
Song and historical reenactment are used, along with vintage photos and film clips, to slip the telling of the story into our consciousness as only seasoned Barkerville entertainers know-how.
“The story usually told is gilded with hindsight and British optimism,” said Wright. “The returns of wealth are exaggerated, and the losses in life, health and wealth minimalized. In our films, plays and stories we have always aimed for a more balanced tale – adventure, maybe a new life, and rarely wealth.”
Wright has written so many books, directed so many nonfiction films, produced so many Theatre Royal plays, among many other expository acts, that a film like Long Road To Cariboo is almost a lark. But it still took him and his dedicated actors, musicians, and other storytelling enablers, three years to complete. The pandemic and the wildfires slowed the process.
“We dodged around and rewrote the idea three times and then had to re-imagine how to shoot it,” Wright said. “A one-day shoot, for instance, ended up being six separate shoots over months.”
It was finally released in August, but the effects of COVID-19 linger in the way social gatherings are done, so no public showing has yet happened. It was unveiled instead on the Vimeo platform, and it was entered into a number of film festivals.
And that is where gold can still be found in the Cariboo. The edutaining little doc won awards in four festivals so far, three more pending.
“What pleases us as much as the awards are the comments from folks who ‘get it,’” Wright said. “One of my favorites: There is a moment in the middle, maybe on the Cariboo Road song, where we’re all wrapped up in the joy and hardship of the music and feeling the natural rhythm that a ‘westerner’ would feel listening to it, imagery is changing to the music, and maybe that’s the same song where (actors) Brendan (Bailey) and Edd (Wright) are hiking toward the camera in exactly the same step as the beat of the music, driving home the relationship between music and work, and music and the rhythm of movement, when you fade to Ben Zhou playing the thing he plays (called an erhu) but with ‘our’ music overlaid as if he’s ‘fiddling,’ and then we suddenly we see the bagpipes in the same segment, and I couldn’t help thinking, wow, that Chinese instrument is so weird, and then suddenly the bagpipes, weirdest of them all, but somehow considered ‘normal’ because it’s from Scottish culture, assaults my assumptions, and then Mike (Retasket) is dancing in regalia seemingly jigging to the same music, and suddenly the universality of the expression of music, the commonality of the experience of all people, and our assumptions about the weirdness of other cultures is laid bare.”
Bare as gravel in a pan. Bare as snow in September. Bare as the story of a wonderful, terrible road to a wonderful, terrible event in Canadian history that local residents still live in today.
See Long Road To Cariboo here: https://vimeo.com/726878846?fbclid=IwAR1ntMk0kBG2ecckj4oxHcCOz-QP7fm4l8cULq233WTnfqhQm1MwXDRMGsw
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