Is anybody ever really off the grid? To be human is to be part of a continuum that stretches back millennia, even if the future is looking shorter than it used to. In the early 1970s, many members of the counterculture, frustrated by the suppression of dissent and misuse of resources by their political overlords, began a back-to-the-land movement that never really ended.
Of course, few people nowadays expect to establish a utopian garden just because like-minded folks know how to grow their own kale. Changes in technology, however, are enabling people to modify their realities.
Intriguingly, it was Suzanne Crocker’s response to technology that gave focus to the decision to remove her family from its grip. She and husband Gerard had been through medical school and were established as family physicians in the remote Yukon town of Dawson City. With three small children—two young girls and a slightly older boy—time together seemed ever more elusive, and Crocker decided to retire from her principal vocation in 2008. But even that wasn’t enough.
Because of son Sam’s early interest in animation and filmmaking, she learned the basics of camerawork, editing, and sound recording. She subsequently made several short animated films and PSAs, some of which were shown on national TV. But soon the whole clan was packing for a nine-month drop far off that part of the map that has electricity, running water, and, you know, other people.
“We were away for nine months,” says the filmmaker, in Vancouver with a preview of All the Time in the World, the film she made of her family’s flight from civilization. “And the trip did represent a kind of birth. I felt it was something we had to do, as a family. Naturally, this idea was better received by people in Dawson City than by friends and family down south, who thought we were pretty crazy.”
The 90-minute movie won the audience award for best Canadian documentary at last fall’s Vancouver International Film Festival. It nabbed six more prizes at other fests. After this return visit, it moves on to Toronto’s prestigious Hot Docs event.
“Of course, I’m thrilled that the film is getting this kind of reception,” she tells the Straight. “But the experience was mainly for itself. I had never done this kind of long-form work before, and there was no way to know how it would turn out. But I knew I had to at least attempt to document the experience.”
Crocker is aware of the irony in this dynamic—that is, in mediating the first-person experience of a media-free environment. Welcome to the 21st century. “If the film inspires other people, which it seems to, that’s wonderful. But really it was born out of my concern that the whole thing would be too fleeting to recall properly. When I look at it today, it’s a constant reminder to make the most of the moments I do have in this time on Earth. So it exists as a kind of touchstone for me.”
After returning from their wilderness sojourn, the family moved temporarily to Victoria, but she says they are now “happily back in Dawson, a place with few creative barriers”. There’s no movie theatre, but the video store is still buzzing.
Since returning to the Yukon they’ve lost two of the pets who managed to survive the bush. But that’s all part of the famous cycle of life to which they grew so close.
“I really feel we kept the spirit of the venture alive,” she insists. “The kids still get along well, and now everyone knows what it’s like to be really well rested, which is a big problem for modern people. I still don’t have a cellphone, and my kids don’t have iPads.”
Naturally, this presents its own conundrum, since Crocker’s success as a filmmaker means career demands that are substantially more far-flung than those made on a country doctor. Sometimes, she can bring the kids but increasingly it means travelling alone
“My family would definitely say that they’ve done their time, but they’re happy to see me doing what I enjoy, too. It’s early to say, but for my next project I want to draw on my medical background and do some research into the effects of technology and wireless devices on people. I also want to go back to animation and make very simple line drawings, meant to be watched on an iPhone. I realize it’s weird to use social media to comment on social media, but that’s where we are, right?”
So maybe the grid isn’t a grid, after all, but a series of dots mapping out a truly global village. And how we connect them is really up to us.
All the Time in the World plays at the Reel 2 Real International Film Festival for Youth at the Vancity Theatre, on Saturday and Tuesday (April 11 and 14). The film also receives a regular run at the Vancity Theatre (April 12-18)