Despite the title, this DVD is not about canoeing, it’s about canoeists, the people who canoe.
A major part of Justine Curgenven’s documentary-making skill has been to find the right characters and these chosen individuals are relaxed, quirky, interesting and utterly captivated by their chosen sport.
It’s obvious Justine likes them and they both like and trust her. The results are quality documentary making.
Then there is the photography, which divides into two types. First, there are the films where the subject can be shot time and again, asked to repeat sequences from a different angle. These are lovingly directed and photographed from boats, canoes, shore and high cliffs - I had no idea a canoe could be filmed in so many different ways.
Secondly, there are the films where events happen so fast there’s just one chance to capture them. These require a very different approach to camera work and here Justine’s expedition experience is evident. Obviously, I don’t know what she missed, but I’m guessing it’s not much.
It’s not so much a DVD as a film-festival in a box.
A staggering three hours of material is contained in this two DVD set, too much for me to watch in one sitting, which is a good thing. In the style of This Is The Sea, there are twelve films, six on each disc, and I’d roughly categorise them as follows: 2 ‘expedition’ films; 2 white-water ‘jumping-off-waterfalls’ films; and 8 films profiling canoeists.
Only in the expedition films does Justine include herself as a participant in the action.
The first is a journey from Rannoch Moor to Loch Tummel in Scotland. Justine and her partner Barry Shaw, both experienced kayakers but new to canoes, are guided by top coaches Scott Simon and Dave Rossetter.
With cameras clamped to canoe bows and the side of helmets, I felt I was in the canoe with them. Right up to the point where the canoe became trapped between a tree and a rock - that’s when I bailed out. Justine did too, and we see her clinging to that rock in the middle of a rapid while Scott and Dave attempt to recover a fast flooding canoe that’s in danger of being torn to pieces.
The other expedition film is a multi-day descent of the Mountain River in Canada’s remote North West Territories, where canoes, equipment, provisions, and people are flown in by Twin Otter float plane.
Justine joins a outfitted group, organised by Blackfeather Adventure Company, and we watch as guides and paying clients drag, paddle and portage their craft the entire length of the river; from an infant trickle, to a fast flowing adult before emptying into the mighty Mackenzie River.
The side-hikes up neighbouring peaks reveal nothing but wilderness in every direction. What a place.
Two films I’ve classed as white-water ‘jumping off waterfalls’, but that’s not really fair. Only The Moose involves waterfall jumping, something that normally makes me yawn, but since these guys are in canoes it has to be seen to be believed.
The other white-water canoe film is Open Canoe Slalom, which offers all the excitement of a major slalom event with the added difficulty that these boats become increasingly hard to handle as they fill with water. There’s a limit to how much slalom a viewer can watch, so Justine focuses on the competitors’ characters. There’s a real tussle underway between an ageing master, winner of 95 events, and a relatively young upstart who is trying to stop the master reaching 100. It underlines the friendliness of this sport when Justine reveals that the rivals share each other’s canoes.
Almost all the other films are people profiles, beautifully crafted portraits of individuals for whom the way of the paddle is a passion. Birchbark Man is nearing the end of a one thousand mile paddle in his traditional craft. Becky Mason is the daughter of Bill Mason, the man who did so much to popularise canoeing. In Wales, Ray Goodwin demonstrates effortless control of his craft in challenging conditions.
However, the outstanding film is Dougie Down the Pet in which Scott Macgregor takes his four-year old son down the Petawawa River in Canada.
In less accomplished hands, this film could degenerate into soggy sentimentality. Instead Justine delivers a documentary that allows us to see Algonquin Provincial Park through Dougie’s eyes, gazing in child-like wonder at the natural beauty.
Scott has been criticised for running rapids with a three year old on board, but this film is an eloquent answer to such narrow mindedness. This film is a worthy winner of Best Professional Documentary at the USA’s National Paddling Film Festival, and the whole DVD a winner at the Reel Paddling Film Festival and Waterwalker Film Festival.