a ghost story made of real bones
The creation of The Water Thief has been an adventure in fate.
When we met for the first time we discovered both our families hailed from Cape Breton. We were both writing separate proposals to create a film that uses projection and live performance to come to life. Amy wrote her thesis about landscape and memory in the Maritimes. Sean had a performance about a man who gets swallowed by a whale.
We travelled to Sackville, New Brunswick to make the film portion of the piece as part of a residency at Struts Gallery. This location was not chosen by accident. Amy spends much of her time in this small town on the Fundy. It is a special place renowned for its art and culture and warm hospitality. However, kindness was not the only reason we were drawn to Sackville. In 2008, friends of ours were the first to discover a 50-tonne beached whale at Slack’s Cove in Rockport, a twenty-minute drive from Sackville.
A scientist reporting for the CBC stated: “Sei whales are uncommon in the Bay of Fundy where the mammal beached…The species usually stays away from shorelines, preferring deep offshore waters…This is actually the first on the New Brunswick coast that I’m aware of” (CBC July 15, 2008). Scientists never truly figured out what caused the whale to become injured in the first place, but she died there on the beach of Slack’s Cove.
There were rumours the whale was buried near the Cove. It seems absurd to bury a whale, but scientists were worried the strength of the tides would wash the body ashore. We recruited a friend who lives in Rockport, Bertholet Charron, to help us find the buried whale. We traipsed around the sandy foothills; evidence of clear-cuts mixed with local hiking trails. Bertholet took us to a mound, surprisingly a very whale-shaped mound. It was surprising because it didn’t seem to be buried very far below ground, rather heaped on the earth and then covered hastily. We tried to honour the whale by creating a shrine and clearing the shrubbery for a clear view of the ocean from where she lay.
Immersing ourselves in a place that really did experience the beaching of a whale adds to the magic of the film. The striking landscape of Slack’s Cove, the red sand, the craggy cliffs and crashing waves, adds authenticity and beauty to the piece.
We wanted the piece to speak to the changing landscape of the Maritimes. Little remains of the life our grandparents knew. Returning to the East Coast meant unearthing memory and thinking about what it means to be “from” somewhere. We thought about how we as humans honour our pasts and how landscapes aren’t quite as sentimental.
Rockport and the surrounding area provide the loose backdrop for The Water Thief. Rockport was once a vibrant community in the 19th Century, with a thriving economy dependent on a sandstone and gypsum quarry. The population was much bigger than nearby Sackville. With a fallen economy, the townspeople left. Now the area is only sparsely populated. The buildings that do exist from the turn of the century are falling apart. Many of the original families have left. There are coyotes and black bears and plenty of deer.
Rockport is also a place that is literally disappearing; as the shore erodes and the tide creeps on to land. The shores of the Fundy in New Brunswick have not yet been developed in the same way that they have on the Nova Scotia side, and this precious landscape has not been experienced by many. It is an interesting moment to document an important part of Canadian history.
As we set out to create the film from this skeleton of an idea, the real happenings of Rockport’s history began to create the flesh of our tale. In searching for locations for the interior of Charon’s (our protagonists) house, we came upon a schoolhouse in Rockport that was owned by the De Les Dernier family (trans. Of The Last: very apropos for a story about the last man alive in a dying town!). Jim De Les Dernier was happy to lend us the schoolhouse for shooting, and was also willing to indulge us with tales of his family from this area.
His storytelling led us to his uncle Rupert De Les Dernier, a hermit who lived a simple life without electricity or modern technology well into the 21st century. As Rupert had past away years before we arrived to film, his house was near ruins, and yet full of beautiful and haunting objects and housewares. Rupert’s character had numerous parallels with the life of our protagonist and so we began to draw from Rupert’s life to inform our fable. Rupert’s house also became the exterior of Charon’s house, as Rupert’s objects filled the schoolhouse to create a grounded portrait of our protagonist.
It became clear that Bertholet was the actor to portray Charon, the main character of the film. The experience of living in Rockport, of seeing a whale beached in Slack’s Cove, and in having a friendship with Rupert situated Bertholet in the perfect position to tell our fable. Bertholet also shared music with us; his growing up years as a choirboy in Acadian New Brunswick helped give us a soundtrack for the piece. It was also a hair-raising coincidence that Bertholet’s last name was Charron, when we were drawing his character from the mythical Charon, the boatman who journeys spirits across the River Styx, that which divides the world of living from the world of the dead.
Bertholet and the Choir (NFB) – NFB film featuring Bertholet’s school choir (he is second from left) Link:
Hints and glimmers of this story are found in the final production of The Water Thief. The landscape, the people, the structures, the passing of time and the music. We call it a ghost story because it speaks to those we cannot always see. The bones of the story lying just beneath the surface.
The Water Thief runs August 7th to 15th 2014
186 Cowan Ave. (St. John’s Catholic Cathedral)
For more information or to schedule an interview please contact firstname.lastname@example.org