- The Films of Fogo Island by Derek Norman, Jeff Webb
Less than twenty years after Newfoundland joined Confederation, Fogo Island, like many outport fishing areas, faced an uncertain future as late twentieth-century economic and social realities seemed to be eclipsing time-honoured folkways. There was a strong grassroots organization that coalesced around the Fogo Island Improvement Committee to deal with a series of crises, notably the closure of the local fishing merchant, a demand to develop a local economic cooperative, growing discontent with the highly fragmented parochial education system, and the desire by many to create better linkages both on the island and with the mainland of Newfoundland.
To compound these problems, islanders were attempting to safeguard their families and livelihoods at a time when Premier Joey Smallwood’s refrain to remote communities was often “develop or perish.” While little help seemed forthcoming from provincial officials, locals had come to respect the influence of Fred Earl from the Extension Service of Memorial University of Newfoundland (mun). Earl and others teamed up with a National Film Board (nfb) crew, which helped to pull together various interests and interviewed locals about their pressing concerns. They then showed the film footage to the various community members, and this footage often highlighted common concerns and, ultimately, common solutions. Various participants argued that the outside forces of the nfb and representatives from mun created a process that allowed the people of Fogo to see themselves and their views reflected on film and gave them a strong sense of a mutual cause. This in turn focused their energies in finding lasting solutions. In particular, this culminated in the establishment of a Fogo Island Co-op. In the words of historian Susan Newhook, the entire project, from the perspective of 2019, “seemed like an incredibly slow motion web conference.” Yet it showcased the issues and problems and permitted community members to see that there were common sets of concerns and complaints from across the island. As local resident Zita Cobb explained, the long-established and deep-seated divisions that separated the various communities of the island, which were further complicated by religious differences, were successfully bridged by the outside lens provided by the nfb and mun and helped to give islanders a common voice.
The film successfully blends archival interviews and footage from 1967 with retrospective discussions and reflections by Fogo Islanders in the 2010s. In addition, the reflections of those who had worked with mun and the nfb are incorporated. Similarly, the documentary brings in voices of scholars like Newhook to provide a larger context for the filming process and its impact. While it is clear that the original film crews were attempting to get “authentic” and unvarnished views of the residents in 1967, participants on both sides acknowledged that the presence and influence of the camera could not be ignored. It created such a strong self-consciousness and awareness that there were potential participants who were reticent to take part. The filmmakers assured those who were most reluctant that the films would be shown to them and if they were unsatisfied the footage would not be used. While the film [End Page 159] footage, particularly that showing the formation of the Fogo Island Co-op, was comparatively raw and unscripted, the presence of the camera influenced the responses and demeanour of the participants to varying degrees. This is particularly apparent in the film segments that intended to showcase local culture and activities. While the camera might have been a dispassionate eye, the fact is that many of the 1967 subjects, particularly the children, were clearly conscious of the camera’s presence. Inevitably in any such project that attempts to investigate local histories, there is an element of the self-congratulatory or nostalgic that can creep in. This was particularly so when residents from the 2010s were asked to reflect on the original films, their effects, and their perceptions of their communities as they remembered them being in the late 1960s.
The documentary successfully blends a variety of perspectives with archival sources and retrospective views. As with...