Director Michael Ostroff shudders at the thought of the Emily Carr statue they’re planning to erect in Victoria. After spending five years delving into the Canadian art icon’s life to make the documentary Winds of Heaven: Emily Carr, Carvers, and the Spirits of the Forest, he’s put off by the fact that the monument will picture her with her pet monkey, Woo. That clichéd idea of the eccentric artist runs against that of the complex woman he portrays in his movie.
“I was not going to make a film about an irascible old woman with a monkey on her shoulder, that image of her created by the tourist world,” Ostroff says emphatically, speaking from his home in Ottawa in the weeks before the movie debuts at the Vancouver International Film Festival on October 9, 10, and 13.
Ostroff came to the project knowing relatively little about his subject. After he directed a documentary on Canadian artist Pegi Nicol MacLeod, National Gallery of Canada curator Charles Hill encouraged him to take on the legendary Carr. Ostroff was familiar with Carr’s moody, swirling forest paintings, but it wasn’t until he started reading about her that he saw the potential for a film portrait.
“I realized she was looking for a spirituality, that in these woods there are ancient voices that maybe remind us that there are alternatives to the way we are living,” Ostroff says. “And I think that’s the message you can take from her later work.”
He was also stunned to find out that she had stopped painting from 1914 to 1927. “Then when she starts painting again, from 1927 to 1937, that’s the work everyone talks about,” Ostroff says. “A 57-year-old woman finds her voice. She began to understand, when she was painting the carvings of the [First Nations] artists, what it was that they had been searching for in the forest. She begins to search for that thing in the forest, and from that point on, this energy, this rush, comes out of her.”
The result is a rich and fascinatingly structured film that parallels Carr’s life story with both the harvesting of B.C.’s forests and the attempted assimilation of this province’s Native people. The biography is mostly told through Carr’s own written words, spoken by actor Diane D’Aquila, with a wealth of archival photos and films, as well as re-created shots of settings and images from more than 120 of her works. What emerges is a definitive portrait of someone who persevered to create her art at a time when women didn’t paint, who struggled and saved to take a steamship to Paris to study the masters, and who braved the bush to find herself in the wilds of northern B.C.
Ostroff was amazed at the archival footage and photographs he was able to find in B.C. As well as stunning images of untouched Native villages flanked with awe-inspiring totems, he uncovered such other gems as a hand-cranked 1920s film that pans across an early clear-cut.
Armed with 16mm film to give Winds a more artful look, he and cinematographer John Walker ventured to Haida Gwaii and up the Skeena River to trace Carr’s journeys.
This was during the steaming-hot summer of 2009 but well worth the trip into the heart of Carr’s inspiration, Ostroff says: “To do what I wanted to do, you have to go to those places. You have to re-create as best as you can Emily Carr’s world.”