The film opens with the call of a loon, much of the action takes place inside a canoe, and at its core is a family's quest to meet up with Farley Mowat. Oh, and it's produced by the National Film Board. If Finding Farley isn't the quintessential Canadian film experience, it's hard to think what would be.
The NFB documentary has its world premiere at the Vancouver International Film Festival Tuesday, and will open the Planet in Focus International Environmental Film & Video Festival in Toronto on Oct. 21.
The film was born out of a bit of star-gazing on the part of author Karsten Heuer, who thought Mowat might enjoy his book Being Caribou . He sent it to Mowat's publisher, asking that it be forwarded to the iconic Canadian author. Mowat read it – and loved it. He called Heuer and invited him to visit his home in Nova Scotia.
"He had always been kind of a childhood hero of ours," says Leanne Allison, Heuer's wife and Finding Farley 's director (she also directed a film version of Being Caribou ). "So we were just like kids – so excited that he'd actually invited us to visit him."
Getting in the car or on a plane for the visit just didn't feel right. So Allison and Heuer plotted out a canoe route that would take them from their Alberta home through the settings of some of Mowat's famed stories, including People of the Deer , Never Cry Wolf and Owls in the Family – the first chapter book Allison ever read and a book so dear to Heuer that he still has his childhood copy.
"We just got caught up in the idea of the adventure and just went from there," says Allison.
They took along their then 21/2-year-old son, Zev – and an HD video camera.
The result is Finding Farley , which traces their challenging five-month journey across the country: from Canmore to Hudson Bay in a canoe, and then from Newfoundland (the setting of A Whale for the Killing ) to Mowat's home in Cape Breton on a sailboat. (They took a train from Ontario to the east coast.) The story unfolds in part through letters Heuer and Mowat wrote to each other throughout the journey.
"I was filled with admiration," says Mowat. "I was scared at some of the things they were going to do and I wrote back and I said, 'No, no, don't do that, don't do that.' I felt like an old mother hen. Or mother cock? Father cock. Let's get our sexes straightened out here."
Mowat, 88, still has a sharp wit but he knows his days of using it to get out into the wilderness are behind him. And that was part of what attracted him to this project.
"It would give me a chance, I thought, to sort of revisit some of the places I had been in my youth and my younger years; kind of a look back through the tunnel of time."
Mowat is not just the pot of literary gold at the end of this rainbow, he was also a participant in the film: reading his letters for the film's voice-over, and offering his thoughts on the journey in interviews.
He jokes, though, that he plays second-fiddle on film to Zev and the family dog, who also came along for the journey.
For Allison, the trip was certainly challenging. She was there as a filmmaker, but also a mother. When her toddler's neck became swollen with multiple bug bites, she suffered too. And when they had to quietly paddle by a sleeping polar bear, she was torn between her two roles: film the polar bear – which would have made for exquisite footage – or stay as quiet as possible, to protect her family. She kept the camera packed away.
Still, she has no complaints about taking a toddler along on a journey like that.
"For me, taking a two-year-old to a shopping mall is a heck of a lot more stressful than going down a river."
This project is intensely personal for both Allison and Heuer. Mowat's stories were inspirations for them as children, and probably contributed to their decision to write and direct nature-focused stories. (Heuer is writing a book about the experience which will be published next fall.)
"I think part of the motivation for doing the trip as sort of fledgling storytellers ourselves was that it was a chance to really study one of the masters in a way, and really spend a lot of time thinking about stories and the power of stories," says Allison.
Mowat has not yet seen the film, but will be at the Toronto screening later this month.
"I'm really anxious to see it," he says. "I think it will probably move me to tears."
Finding Farley screens, along with This Land, at the Vancouver International Film Festival Oct. 13 at 6 p.m. and Oct. 15 at 4 p.m. at the Empire Granville 7 (www.viff.org); and then at the Planet in Focus International Environmental Film & Video Festival in Toronto at the Royal Cinema on Oct. 21 at 7 p.m. (www.planetinfocus.org).