The Princess Court Cinema presents:

An Independent Showcase interview with Rick Hancox

(Thursday, August 24, 1997 9:30pm)


PC: Obviously you come from Moose Jaw.


Rick: I was actually born in Toronto, but after a few years we moved to Moose Jaw, where I spent pretty much all of my childhood. When I was thirteen we moved to PEI-my dad was in the newspaper business and he got transferred. So this is where I got my B.A. in English, where I did most of my work in poetry, music and I discovered film after that-there was a film course taught there by George Semsel, who was a member of the underground film movement in new York. After that I went to the States, and did a Master’s of Fine Art degree in film at Ohio State, where thee was a lot of emphasis on experimental film and documentary.


So here I am sitting on the deck overlooking the Northumberland Strait in PEI-the exact place where I shot Landfall and Beach Events. We’ve had this property since we moved from Moose Jaw in 1959. So for thirty six or thirty seven years we’ve been coming to this spot of beach here in front of the ocean.


PC: And you’re currently teaching at Concordia (University in Montreal)?


Rick: In the Communications Department-we have a small production program and I teach 16mm production and I also teach Canadian documentary film at the graduate level. I incorporate a lot of experimental and documentary film into my production courses-students are free to do what they want, but I try to get them to be innovative. Before Concordia I taught at Sheridan College-out of that program the documentary filmmakers Holly Dale and Janice Cole emerged, and there were a lot of experimental filmmakers who were working in 16mm. So in those years I taught Phil Hoffman and Richard Kerr, Mike Hoolboom, Andre Gautier, Gary Popovich, Carl Brown…


PC: Everybody!


Rick: The style of those films–including my own–has been called the Escarpment School. It’s really a kind of experimental documentary.


PC: And somewhat personal or autobiographical?


Rick: Absolutely. And there was a real connection in this Escarpment group with landscape-how landscape inspires, how there are traces of memory in the landscape.


PC: And history also in the landscape, which I noticed very much in your Moose Jaw film. Layers and layers and layers of history.


Rick: That’s much more political than the trilogy, the three poetry/landscape film. It’s also more autobiographical. The trilogy is a personal landscape, the only part of that’s in them jay be shadows of my arms holding the camera, my footprints in the sand filmed backwards. But Moose Jaw is directly autobiographical, a more mature work than the earlier ones in that it tires to find through the medium of film a political, social, historical context for the personal.


PC: That is easily discerned with the Native history, for instance, that comes in about halfway.


Rick: I was worried about that scene, where it describes what the Native people are wearing in the 1905 provincial inauguration parade-but that’s verbatim, right out of the Moose Jaw Times-Herald!


PC: What prompted you to go back to Moose Jaw?

Rick: In the late 1970s I drove out west with my wife, she had never been west of
Ontario, so I wanted to show her the west and rediscover it, and show her where I lived. She was decidedly unimpressed by Moose Jaw! I took a camera with me, at this time I didn’t have a plan, just to capture some scenes of my childhood. I started to become more and more interested in the footage-there was something WRONG with this picture, something missing. Every excuse I got to go out west I’d take my camera and go to Moose Jaw and film some more, and some more… and over a period of ten years I accumulated about fifteen hours of film. I didn’t know what I would do with it. And then I realized that what I was doing over a decade recording the… devolution of the place.


PC: The decline and fall?


Rick: Yes. The Prairie economy was going downhill, people were leaving Saskatchewan in drove, buildings were closing up in Moose Jaw. And the camera gradually-I didn’t know any of this-nobody knew in the late 1970s. Finally in 1989, when I went out to do the last shooting, we all heard the announcements about the VIA Rail cutbacks to the Southern Prairies. And I thought, “Ah ha, this is it, this is what I’ll finally use to end the film with, and I’ll structure it with what looks like one train trip out west-the whole film condensed into what looks like one trip-and it’ll end with the train back. The train was so important to Moose Jaw, because it was one of those many CPR towns built along the rail expansion to the west. We took the train when we moved to Moose Jaw, and every summer we’d take the train to our summer cottage in Ontario. It is so much tied up with who I am, I guess. I spent about here years working on the editing, a lot of work on the soundtrack especially.


PC: Yes, it’s quite dense.


Rick: As you noticed, there’s different layers, I think there’s something like 23 different voices reading. I wanted to give an impression of a broader history than just my own-a social and historical overview of the place. I’m really interested in how one landscape can show evidence of many layers of time. As if you would dig down through the strata of time. It’s fascinating to me how in the same place you have the statue of the moose was a great inland sea of dinosaurs, then Natives.


PC: And then onto the royal couple!


Rick: There’s a lot of emphasis on the influence of imperial Britain and the royal family. We talk about the influence of the American empire. But earlier in this century it was very much Britain. The royal visits were one of the biggest events on the Prairies. I don’t know how much of that might be lost for people now-it’s about the end of that era-I’m certainly not being nostalgic for it. There’s a lot of imagery of imminent disaster, the mythology of the domination of nature and of the formation of this Dominion, the political Dominion formed by the technology of the railroad-and that rhetoric is now continued through mass communications. But when technology changes… for a small prairie community, what’s left? People just pass them by now in the sky, in airplanes…


But meeting the young town councilor, the guy in the red sweater: he’s the first in his family to live off the farm, in the city-and they were homesteaders. He was educated at the Sorbonne, learned to speak French, and he now teaches French. My meeting him marks my turnaround from someone who stands outside, making this documentary, and then making fun of Moose Jaw, being shamed into realizing that there are still people who live there.


PC: Who choose to live there.


Rick: And who are soldiering on, despite me. And this is why I end up at the end of the film with the parade literally passing me by-they don’t care about this guy and his problems with his memories. Life goes on. That’s what I enjoyed so much about making the film, situating myself in the larger context. I really like the holistic approach to film; instead of standing to one side, pretending you’re making a pseudo-scientific documentary, you attempt to inject your own subjectivity into it…


I really see, after spending all this time thinking about it and working on the film, how Moose Jaw is really symbolic for the rest of Canada in a way—it’s not just a film about Moose Jaw. It’s about the west, but it’s also about Canada, its formation based on technological and a political will. Technological mastery rather than something that emerged from the people themselves, like the United States. The railroad is the technological-political spine of the country.


PC: Now, what about the trilogy?


Rick: They’re inspired by personal landscapes, and I filmed them without a script, in an intuitive response to the landscape. In Landfall I’m literally twirling and dancing with the camera, inspired by a really beautiful winter morning on the beach.


In the case of Beach Events I went down to the beach in front here every day for a week, determined to film something different than the day before. Never with a script, but just responding to the conditions of the tide and the weather. I found that the longer I filmed there, the closer I was getting to filming the life on the beach in extreme close-ups—in the end of starfish and snails and flora and fauna-whereas I had begun by taking longer shots. When I edited that I realized that what I had was a diary of my interaction with nature.


Waterworx was inspired by the water filtration plant on Lake Ontario at the east end of Queen Street, where I was born. I had always been, as a boy, in awe of this enigmatic structure at the end of the street, never knowing what it was or what it meant. Going back as an adult with a camera, I was determined to solve it metaphorically—I mean, I knew it was a water filtration plant, but I was interested in what it symbolized, its mythical properties.


In all three, the poetry came after they were conceived and shot, they are not illustrations of preexisting poems. The poems were found to invoke the intellect in films that were otherwise sensual. I was interested in dealing with both reason and the imagination.


PC: Did you conceive of them as a trilogy in advance?


Rick: I call them a trilogy because they’re all about the same length, they all deal with words in a similar way and they’re all landscape-based, personal landscapes, so they do go together well.