Five years ago, I opened up the novel The Shipping News by Annie Proulx, and I discovered Newfoundland. “The idea of the North was taking him,” she writes of her main character Quoyle. “He needed something to brace against.” Before I had even finished the book, I was also taken by “the idea of the North.” I went to visit Newfoundland the following June, when massive icebergs dominated the horizon. And last October I spent two weeks in St. John’s, falling asleep to the sound of foghorns and taking walks through the mist.
Newfoundland is an island on the east coast of Canada, and it’s approximately the size of Iceland. For four hundred years it was a British colony, populated by fishermen and their families who had moved from the British isles. In 1949, Britain was ready to give up ownership of Newfoundland, and 51% of the population voted to join Canada. The other 49% voted to be an independent nation.
A rapid period of modernization began in Newfoundland, and coastal fishing villages resettled in more populated areas. (Check out the footage at the end of this video of people towing their houses over the ocean.) The waters off the coast of Newfoundland, once rich with cod, became massively overfished. In 1992 the government placed a moratorium on cod fishing, and a way of life in Newfoundland ended forever.
This month, I want to highlight three pieces about Newfoundland, made by independent producers who felt called to the craggy rock landscapes, the watery culture, and the weather that tests you.
The Latecomers by Glenn Gould
Few people know that the famous Canadian piano player Glenn Gould was also a radio producer! In the 1960’s he produced three hour long radio documentaries called “The Solitude Trilogy,” and part two is about Newfoundland. Here’s his introduction to these pieces:
I’ve long been intrigued by that incredible tapestry of tundra and taiga which constitutes the Arctic and sub-Arctic of our country. I’ve read about it, written about it, and even pulled up my parka once and gone there.” Yet like all but a very few Canadians I’ve had no real experience of the North. I’ve remained, of necessity, an outsider. And the North has remained for me, a convenient place to dream about, spin tall tales about, and, in the end, avoid. This programme, however, brings together some remarkable people who have had a direct confrontation with that northern third of Canada, who’ve lived and worked there and in whose lives the North has played a very vital role.”
Here I Am And Here Be Danger by Annie McEwen
Annie works for Radiolab now, but this early piece of hers is one of my favorites. It’s about foghorns and heartbreak.
Last Summer in Grand Bruit by Jiri Slavicinsky
“Last Summer in Grand Bruit” was made by Czech radio producer Jiri Slavicinsky, who travelled to Newfoundland ten years ago at the age of twenty-nine. It’s a portrait of a fishing settlement that has just voted to leave the place where their families have been for generations. I called Jiri in Prague to talk to him about the making of this piece, and how he found his way to Newfoundland.
THE BELIEVER: In this radio story, which is really a portrait of a place, you wait until the very end to give the listener any kind of context or history about Grand Bruit. Did you have a reason for doing this?
JIRI SLAVICINSKY: I wanted the place to reveal itself in the program, and to be told through the people themselves. My decision was to not make it so information based, not a classical style of storytelling. But I also wasn’t trying to keep it secret. My aim was not to make it a riddle.
BLVR: Why did you decide not to narrate the piece yourself?
JS: I had some fear about not being a proper English speaker. I didn’t think a Czech guy coming to reveal his past in Canada. A lot of German documentaries use actors as a narrator, so this technique is out there. I don’t like it very often, but it’s there, you can use it. Especially in the German tradition, it’s normally a heavy voice telling you what to think.
The narrator was a rather intuitive decision. I was trying to play with the narrator talking to different people… sometimes the audience, sometimes the characters in first or second person. I didn’t want the narrator to be a one dimensional character—I was trying to play around with the narrator. I also really like building the program using the scenes, working the field, and getting the field sounds.
BLVR: Where are you from?
JS: I’m from a small mountain town called Rymarov, a remote border region of the Czech Republic. The town is 8,000 people, on the border of Poland.
BLVR: As a child did you run around the woods and picking mushrooms?
JS: I spent a lot of time outside picking blueberries and mushrooms. There was also a high school, a music school, and a movie theater.
BLVR: Were there horses and sheep?
JS: Yes, but it wasn’t so idyllic because I grew up in a communist-style block of socialistic housing. I was born in 1981, and Communism broke down when I was eight. I just remember watching the demonstrations on TV.
BLVR: How were things different after that?
JS: My parents were not in the party. My mom came from a Catholic background, and my father just didn’t like the regime. They were teachers, and if they joined the party they would get better positions. My father could’ve been the headmaster. But I’m really glad that I saw that change in my lifetime.
BLVR: Why is that?
JS: I saw people in the 90s trying to make as much money as possible. And I remembered that I was a happy child, even though we weren’t wealthy.
BLVR: Speaking of not being wealthy, how did you get into radio?
JS: I studied sociology and musicology, and I was doing ethnographic interviews with people. I loved sociology but I felt that I was only using my brain, always analyzing. For feature making I could use everything—both analysis and something I don’t understand that is intuitive. I liked that I could use my brain and my heart as well.
BLVR: In the U.S. we don’t have this term, “feature making.”
JS: I know. It’s European. If you say feature, it means a more artistic approach to documentary making. If I didn’t find features I would have left radio, because I didn’t want to do fast journalism. I recorded my first feature about my hometown, and about the border region. First pieces have something important in your eye, because you’ve thought about them for a long time.
BLVR: How did you end up in Newfoundland?
JS: I was at an international feature conference in Dublin, and that’s where I met Chris Brookes, an independent radio producer in Newfoundland. I asked Chris if I could work with him, be his intern. And after half a year, he said yes. It was probably not an easy decision to have someone travel across the world to work with you.
BLVR: Grand Bruit is on the remote southern coast of Newfoundland, not accessible by road. How did you get there?
JS: I took a full day’s bus ride from the east coast of Newfoundland to the west coast, landing in the town of Port aux Basque. Then I was hitchhiking, and I took the ferry as far as I was able to. Then I was just waiting in a fishing community, and I had to persuade a fisherman to give me a lift. He brought me to grand bruit, and I pitched my tent by the church. I explained what I was doing… some understood, some didn’t like it so much.
The longer I stayed the better it was. I went fishing with a fisherman one day, and I wasn’t recording yet. I got really seasick and I was puking. The fishermen were really annoyed that they might have to come back because of me. But I wanted to stay, and I survived it. After that moment I felt like I was accepted more. I was the strange guy who got seasick and puked, and we were closer because of that.
BLVR: Were you worried that no one would be there when you arrived?
JS: It was a risk that I took. I somehow knew people were spending their last summer there. A lot of people had already left, and were just back to celebrate the birthday party of one of the fisherman. You could drink water from the ponds it was so clean.
BLVR: Was it hard to understand the accents?
JS: Of course it was hard, a big challenge. People there had really strong accents, and I had my strong Czech accent. Sometimes I had trouble buying food in store because people didn’t understand me. There were some people from mainland Canada interpreting for us.
BLVR: Do you wish you’d stayed in Newfoundland?
JS: Yeah, I was going through that for too long. I had a Canadian girlfriend. It was hard. I had to be here because of my family, my father was sick. But I was asking myself all the time if I should go back.
BLVR: What was it like listening to this piece again, ten years after it was made?
JS: When I produced it, I thought I made a straightforward story. Now it looked more like… experiment? I had forgotten some of the production things I did intuitively.
BLVR: Was Chris Brookes a good editor?
JS: Yes. He had a very gentle way of presence. I remember I also asked a few friends from St. John’s to listen to the program, three or four of them, and then twenty of them showed up. We were sitting in a house on the seaside, overlooking the ocean, listening to the program. It was one of the most beautiful moments.