Ten Questions with Dianne Whelan

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Ten Questions with Dianne Whelan

Dianne Whelan talks to Open Book about filming This Land in minus 60 degree weather, her ideal work environment, her book, This Vanishing Land (Caitlin Press) and more. This Land screens Thursday, October 22nd at the Planet in Focus International Environmental Film & Video Festival in Toronto. For details, visit Open Book's events page. Watch the trailer for This Land here

Open Book: Toronto:

Tell us about your film, This Land.

Dianne Whelan:

In March 2007, a team of seven men and one documentary filmmaker, Dianne Whelan, set out to cover more than 2000km of the harshest terrain on the planet in order to raise a flag on the northern most tip of Canadian soil. With a mesmerizing soundtrack from Nunavut-born singer Tanya Tagaq, and spectacular footage of the arctic landscape, This Land captures this epic adventure with the raw immediacy of someone who (barely) lived through it.

OBT:

What inspired you to make your film and to write your book, This Vanishing Land?

DW:

This journey began three months before I ever set foot in Canada’s high arctic. I was inspired by an image I saw of a snowmobile carrying a Canadian flag across the Arctic landscape. The desire to go to the Arctic, though, had been latent in me for a long time. I have been a photographer for over 20 years, and I have always wanted to go and photograph black and white images of icebergs.

But that image of the Canadian flag stirred up something in me that was very emotional. The same feeling I get when I’m watching the Canadian women’s Olympic hockey team play Russia or the United States in a final match for the gold medal. For reasons beyond my rational understanding of myself, the flag in certain situations evokes large, emotional waves of patriotism in me. You know, that choke-back-the-tear feeling. Maybe this love for my country has been preprogrammed. Ever since I was a kid I have been singing, “Oh Canada, I stand on guard for thee.”

Seeing the flag in that landscape also brought home some of the big issues of our time, like global warming. It seems like such an abstraction during most of my days, just another Armageddon looming in the distance. Born in 1965 under the threat of nuclear annihilation, one gets accustomed to living with such threats. But the image of the flag in that landscape suddenly hit home. Almost half of Canada is in the Arctic, and our home is vanishing. There might not be any icebergs to photograph in twenty years. I needed to document this landscape before it disappears.

I feel very protective of Canada’s north, despite never having been there before this trip. When I hear the United States challenging our sovereignty of the Northwest Passage or hear Russia wants to challenge existing political boundaries in the north, I go from being a laid back pacifist to a fiercely protective warrior; I’m like a mother with a newborn. Again, I can’t understand these feelings. They simply exist. The rational person in me knows we all live on one planet in a galaxy full of dead planets. From space there are no borders on this land, we are just one people on one planet. But my heart feels something else. My heart is willing to beat up the schoolyard bullies, even though I have chicken wings for arms.

So this film is a story motivated by my heart, by my love for this land, my home, Canada.

OBT:

Did you have a specific viewership and readership in mind for your film and book?

DW:

I know the marketing departments for the book and film do, but they are projects from my heart, so it is hard for me to categorize. I guess anybody interested in the arctic or adventurous journeys.

OBT:

The landscape in This Land is striking, but it must have been hard to make a film in such a cold climate. Can you tell us about it?

DW:

Well, first off, batteries freeze in the cold. An hour battery lasts a few minutes in minus 60. Secondly, the buttons on digital cameras are small, so I had to pull off three layers of gloves every time I grabbed my camera. Exposed skin gets frostbite in seconds in minus 60. And I’m wearing about 50lbs of clothing, so walking with a tripod and camera with all that gear on was physically challenging.

OBT:

Describe your ideal work environment.

DW:

I love verite film making. Running with it, filming intuitively and throwing myself into the action.

OBT:

What was the first film that you made?

DW:

It was a short film called, The Miracle of St. Damien. It was a true story about a miracle that happened in a small Acadien village in New Brunswick in the 1930s.

OBT:

Describe a recent Canadian cultural experience that influenced your work.

DW:

Watching Tanya Tagaq perform in Vancouver last fall. If the land in the Arctic could speak, she would sound like Tagaq. I went with my producer Selwyn Jacob after he heard her being interviewed on CBC’s, Definitely Not the Opera. She subsequently became the narrator and soundtrack for the film.

OBT:

If you had to choose three books as a “Welcome to Canada” gift, what would those books be?

DW:

Anne Marie MacDonald’s, Fall on Your Knees.
Karen X. Tulchinsky’s, The Five Books of Moses Lapinsky
Farley Mowat’s, A Whale for the Killing.

OBT:

What message do you hope filmgoers will take from your film?

DW:

I hope I made them feel something, a connection to the landscape and the people of the land. And a love for this land. There is so much that is different about all of us, the one thing we are all share is this land.

OBT:

What is your next project?

DW:

It is called 40 Days at Base Camp. When Hilary and Tenzing climbed Everest in 1953, climbing the world’s highest mountain was a noble endeavor. You climbed high to go deep inside. The struggle was between man and nature. Today the mountain is littered with garbage and climbers leave other climbers to die.
Forty days at Base Camp is a reflection on why something that used to be noble has become a selfish pursuit.


The 10th anniversary of the Planet in Focus International Environmental Film & Video Festival, Canada's premiere environmental film festival, runs October 21 to October 25 in Toronto. For more information about the Planet in Focus International Environmental Film & Video Festival, go to www.planetinfocus.org/.

Find out more about This Land at the NFB website.

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