by Brian Charlton
“Goodwin’s Way’ is a film by Neil Vokey which will premiere locally on June 16 at the United Church in Cumberland. It has grown from its original form as a short documentary about the legend of Ginger Goodwin, a union organizer killed by the police on July, 1918, into a look at Cumberland itself and its continuing activism specifically around the now defunct Raven Coal project.
This event, on Thursday evening, will kick off this year’s Miner’s Memorial Day program. It is a very exciting package from the traditional graveside speakers and music to an oral history workshop to walking tours to Wedlidi Speck speaking at the Memorial Dinner Saturday night. For more info go to www.cumberlandmuseum.ca
Neil is a young talented filmmaker. I interviewed him about his background, his film, and his experiences making the film.
1) You were raised in the Comox Valley and went to high school at Mark Isfeld. When did you become aware of Ginger Goodwin and the Cumberland coalminers?
I first learned about Ginger Goodwin thanks to my Social Studies teacher Barry Walker, who sadly passed away last year. However I wouldn’t say I was very aware of Cumberland’s coal mining history growing up – learning about Goodwin put a distinct human face to a history that otherwise seemed abstract to me. When I was young I didn’t pay attention to sign markers, plaques, and mining memorabilia – it was all sort of inanimate. So ironically, if the Ginger Goodwin Way signs had remained up, I may never have become interested in the story.
2) What is the most interesting aspect of the Ginger Goodwin story to you personally, and as a filmmaker?
I became a lot more interested in this story as a filmmaker when I learned about the Ginger Goodwin Way signs being removed. Putting up signs like that usually means that a piece of history is being sort of ‘officially recognized’ so I wondered who would care enough to try and undermine the legacy of someone who seemingly died unjustly almost a century ago. I think the fact that this had all happened in my home town gave me a special desire to dig deeper and learn more.
3) You attended the Film Studies program at Capilano in North Vancouver. How did you first become interested in becoming a filmmaker?
I’ve always been interested storytelling, and would consider myself a visually oriented person as well. When I was young I liked to draw and thought I would become an animator. But perhaps being a product of my own generation, I didn’t have the patience to tell a story frame by frame, and bought my first video camcorder as a teenager. By the age of 15, I was making little movies with my friends on a weekly basis, and was pretty set on pursuing film-making. We started a weekly video news program at our high school, which helped me win a scholarship to study film at Capilano University. So film-making has been a passion of mine for a long time, though I can’t say I would have gotten far without the support of my parents, teachers and friends – it’s a collaborative medium.
4) How was the program at Capilano? Did it have a particular focus like documentaries or camera work or was it pretty open?
Capilano University’s Film Centre has multiple programs – I started in Motion Picture Arts, which begins as a sort of general film studies, training students for entry level positions in Vancouver’s film service industry. As someone who has always been interested in current events, politics, social justice etc., I made a snap decision to switch into the Documentary Production Program and pursue those interests from a filmmaker’s perspective. It proved to be one of the most rewarding experiences of my life, and I quickly fell in love with the power of non-fiction storytelling.
‘Goodwin’s Way’ – Cumberland Yesterday and Today
5) You did some work on the Knowledge Networks shorts ‘Working People: A History of Labour in British Columbia’ What was that experience like?
One of my instructors at Capilano University connected me with the research team for ‘Working People: A History of Labour in British Columbia” after I completed the student film version of Goodwin’s Way. I really enjoy researching and learning this history, so it was a fantastic job. It was exciting to work with Robin Folvik, the lead researcher, as well as the Directors, to hash out the main story points of the various topics. I was tasked with researching Ginger Goodwin, as well as the history of the Dunsmuirs and mining on Vancouver Island. I even did a short report on Joe Naylor, which unfortunately did not make it into the series, but becoming familiar with all of that information was actually very useful for Goodwin’s Way as well.
6) Can you tell us about the evolution of this film? Was the structure always there- multiple interviews, archival photos and shots of Cumberland?
Making Goodwin’s Way was a challenge for me as a storyteller, because even though it’s largely about the past, the part that I wanted to capture, and what has always intrigued me, was how that history very palpably echoes into the present. As soon as I started researching for the film, the people I talked to and interviewed made it pretty clear this was not a dormant history. So, making a purely historical film like a Ken Burns documentary would, in my mind, undermine the powerful way that Goodwin’s legacy is framed. It became my intention then to aesthetically tear down that dividing line between past and present in the film. So as I went along the focus of the film shifted from Goodwin himself to the town of Cumberland and what Goodwin represents to the community. While almost everyone is very proud of Cumberland’s coal mining heritage, I was later surprised to find that some of the same activists who preserve Goodwin’s legacy were also opposing the proposed return of coal mining – the Raven Coal project. This added a whole new level of connections to the story, because now we weren’t just talking about the past in relation to the present, but also in relation to the future. This was difficult for me to articulate when I tried to describe the film to people – especially when I was fundraising. It wasn’t really until I was able to start cutting the scenes together, did the connections make more sense.
7) The music is very effective and adds sort of a ghost story feel to parts of the film. Who was responsible for the music and for how it was used in the film?
I was very fortunate to come across the music of Chet W. Scott (who composes under the moniker ‘Ruhr Hunter’) a few years ago through a mutual friend, who actually knew him. I was listening to the same pieces we hear in the film on a CD a few summers ago as I was driving around the Valley, thinking about Ginger Goodwin’s story and thinking about the film as a sort of ghost story. Chet’s compositions definitely have all the elements of a film score, and I realized that listening to it helped me envision the film. So I was able to reach out to him, and luckily for me, he was enthusiastic to collaborate.
8) Bronco Moncrief, the former Mayor of Cumberland, was quite informative in his interview. How did you make that connection and how was it filming his segment?
I interviewed Bronco Moncrief while I was still a film student – I think someone encouraged me to call him because of his role in naming Mt. Ginger Goodwin. He graciously offered to drive us up to see Mt. Ginger Goodwin. Like most of the folks interviewed in the film, I was meeting him in person for the first time. But we just hopped into his truck and drove out into the mountains. Driving up to see the mountain was pretty awesome. Those who know Bronco know that he is very frank and honest – something that is always refreshing for a documentary filmmaker, but doubly so if you consider that he is also a veteran politician. So he was very forthcoming about everything I asked, and more. In fact, he is the one who brought up the Ginger Goodwin Way signs and his own role in their removal, not me. I think in retrospect Bronco’s participation in the film added a depth to the portrayal of Cumberland that might not have otherwise been captured – partially because of his nuanced sentiments, but also because of how he was able to represent the viewpoints of some people that are no longer with us themselves.
9) You crowd- sourced this film. What was that experience like? Would you do it again the same way?
Crowd-sourcing initially felt like a last ditch effort, after my hopes of getting broadcaster interest was extinguished. However, it turned out to be an amazing platform to engage with audiences and build alliances with people and organizations that are now really excited to see the film, so I certainly don’t regret it. Generally I would be sheepish to ask for financial help, especially from people I know, but I think pretty well everyone who knows me knew I had been working on ‘Goodwin’s Way’ for a very long time, and was committed to finishing it. That being said, I am still amazed we met our goal. It was a very unique and intensive challenge to try and get the right eyes on our campaign – that is, the people we knew would support this project – as well as to craft a pitch that clearly articulated why this story matters. It was a full time job to be sure, but I would do it again.
10) Film is generally a cooperative art. Who were some of the people behind the camera who helped you make this film?
This film would not have gotten very far without the help and support of the Cumberland Museum & Archives. Right from the start, they made researching this project so accessible, and also acted as a sort of community hub for everyone connected to this history. The Cumberland and District Historical Society also granted me the rights to use their archive photos in the film. Everyone at the Capilano University Film Centre has also been immensely supportive throughout making this film – and again, I am not sure I would have gotten very far without the mentorship of my instructors, and without the technical resources that I was able to access as a grad. Then there is my family and friends who gave their time and energy to help film, fund raise, watch rough cuts and give feedback. The project also received a lot of support from individuals and organizations who share my convictions that the story of Ginger Goodwin is worth telling – whether that has been labour historians, activists, Unions, or even the descendants of Goodwin himself! Finally, I should also not understate the critical role of everyone who agreed to participate in front of the camera – for a documentary like this, everyone is a gatekeeper to a different aspect of the overall picture, so every voice is important.
11) Do you have any role models or heroes in film, specifically documentaries, like Frederick Wiseman or Michael Moore? If you do, what have they taught you?
I am constantly blown away by how the documentary form can be used to tell stories – I think that really strong storytelling helps us relate to our world around and can help cut through binaries and biases in a meaningful way. While I am personally drawn to social justice documentaries, some of the filmmakers I really admire are able to convey so much more than the facts and statistics of the topic. Werner Herzog, Errol Morris, Godfrey Reggio, Alanis Obisinawan, Ken Burns, & Joshua Oppenheimer have all challenged me to think about the notion of truth in a new way with their films, and are all innovators to some degree. I am inspired by their courage to pursue the stories they do, even if the subject matter is not simple or ‘marketable’.
12) How do you come down on the whole objective/subjective debate as regards to documentaries? For example the multiple and at times contradictory statements on the shooting of Ginger up the Cruikshank River was quite illuminating.
Personally, I don’t believe in objectivity in documentary film, or in anything for that matter. However, I do believe in the art of subtlety, and tried my best not to hit the audience over the head with my own beliefs. Initially, I wanted to include narration to tie together some historical facts and context, but in the process of writing the narration I felt too much like I was putting my own voice – or worse, a voice of historical authority – into the film. The interview with Susan Mayse, who lived in Cumberland for a time, really saved me here. Her local perspective and wealth of knowledge about Goodwin filled in those missing contextual pieces, and maintained the consistency of having locals tell the story. Although the facts are important, I found that contradictions actually did not derail the narrative, but actually added a lot. Even though the details of peoples’ accounts were different – surrounding Goodwin’s death, for example – people’s overall feelings about it were almost always the same. This was so powerful because when the individual voices could become unified, the community becomes its own character in the story.
13) Why should we care about Ginger Goodwin, Joe Naylor and all those labour activists? They lived over 100 years ago and most people don’t know them and they have no connection to most people today. What do they have to tell us?
I’ve been amazed at how much learning about the past has taught me about the conditions of the present day. But if readers want to learn about why figures like Ginger Goodwin & Joe Naylor might be relevant in today’s world, I would encourage them to come watch the film!
14) You wrote in one of your blogs “Documentary film making is an all-encompassing lifestyle, not a weekend project. It requires passion, obsession, time, energy, and a complete openness to the universe and those that inhabit it.” This sounds like both a positive; in that it is a good way to approach life, period, and as a negative, in that it sounds like you have to be willing to sacrifice a lot to be a filmmaker, an artist. How are you feeling about making films these days? Would you encourage others to become filmmakers?
I think any artists makes a lot of trade-offs in their life for the sake of their art, but only because so much fulfillment and meaning is derived from creating. Sure, those trade-offs can sometimes feel like sacrifices, and I think when that has come into question for me – especially as I was beginning life as an adult – it’s been good to take a break and reflect. Personally, I recognize the immense amount of privilege that has allowed me to have the time and resources to make films, but I also think that no matter what your background, there will always be forces pulling people away from creating art, because it is generally not a practical means of meeting our basic needs. So every artist has to find a balance that makes sense for them. For now, film-making is the best way that I know how to express myself as a storyteller, so I’ll continue to endeavor with this medium to the best of my ability.
15) What projects are you working on in the near future or projects you have in your head?
Right now I am focusing on a number of short documentary projects in Vancouver, and I am also starting a media company that works with local non-profits & community organizations. One story that has piqued my interest recently is the melting of Queneesh, the Comox Glacier. Like so many in the Valley, it’s a topic that is very close to my heart – I went to Glacier View Elementary after all. So who knows, maybe I’ll be coming back home to the Valley with my camera again soon.
‘Goodwin’s Way’ – Cumberland Yesterday and Today
by Brian Charlton