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McConnell documentary showing at Cannes

A cairn commemorating McConnell, a ghost town that is the focus of “Very Good Dirt,” a documentary by Vancouver-based director Catharine Parke, which is being featured at the Cannes International Film Festival.

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A cairn commemorating McConnell, a ghost town that is the focus of “Very Good Dirt,” a documentary by Vancouver-based director Catharine Parke, which is being featured at the Cannes International Film Festival.

The story of an extinct western Manitoba whistle-stop town is making its debut at the world renowned Cannes International Film Festival today.

Catharine Parke

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Catharine Parke

Grain elevators still stand in McConnell, a ghost town which is the focus of “Very Good Dirt.”

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Grain elevators still stand in McConnell, a ghost town which is the focus of “Very Good Dirt.” (SUBMITTED)

McConnell about 90 kilometres northwest of Brandon, is the subject of "Very Good Dirt," a short documentary by Vancouver-based freelance writer and director Catharine Parke, whose ancestors settled the now-ghost town.

Parke describes the "visual poem" as an homage to the people who once lived in McConnell, piecing together its history through audio interviews, photographs and museum artifacts.

"It links into the whole cycle of life and growth and death and how things never stay the same, they’re continually changing, just like crops that are growing," she said.

"Just like that town, it was born, it grew and then it died."

In 1912, when the community of Viola Dale was bypassed by the newly constructed Canadian Northern Railway, most of the buildings were moved, establishing the village of McConnell. It was named for Andrew Delaney McConnell who sold land for a townsite to the railway. With the loss of the railway in 1979, most of the town disappeared.

What remains of the town is now a single farmer, but Parke said the some 20 people from Brandon and Hamiota she interviewed for the film still take great pride in the blip on the railway line.

"I just know they’re the most fiercely proud people ... to this day. They’re so passionately attached to that little piece of land, but there’s nothing left. I thought that’s so cool you can be so attached to something that’s not there."

Even though its namesake no longer exists, the McConnell 4-H club remains alive — and has the title of the longest-running continuously active club in all of Canada.

"It was really sad to see a place that was such a vibrant community, and such an important part of my relatives’ lives, just pretty much devastated ... not much a community is left there anymore," Parke said.

"Everything that we hold dear will fade back into the dirt."

The documentary was researched and shot over a year-and-a-half period, with Parke taking her spare time to work on the project.

In her day job, Parke has worked on Discovery Channel’s "Highway Thru Hell" and "Ice Road Truckers" on the History channel among other non-fiction shows.

All the interviews for the film were recorded on audio only and intermittently throughout the film, photos are projected on the present-day derelict buildings and blank-slate Prairie land.

"I wanted to give the viewer the sensation of being on the Prairies, with the sounds and looking at the scenery because personally I think it’s quite stunning, so I wanted people to feel what it was like to be on the Prairies.

"Very Good Dirt" was chosen by federal agency Telefilm Canada to be part of the "Not Short on Talent" program featured at the Cannes Market which runs several smaller productions from around the world at the Cannes International Film Festival.

The experimental documentary makes its official debut at a Cannes theatre today and will be available to the public later this year.

» gbruce@brandonsun.com

» Twitter: @grjbruce

Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition May 20, 2014

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The story of an extinct western Manitoba whistle-stop town is making its debut at the world renowned Cannes International Film Festival today.

McConnell about 90 kilometres northwest of Brandon, is the subject of "Very Good Dirt," a short documentary by Vancouver-based freelance writer and director Catharine Parke, whose ancestors settled the now-ghost town.

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The story of an extinct western Manitoba whistle-stop town is making its debut at the world renowned Cannes International Film Festival today.

McConnell about 90 kilometres northwest of Brandon, is the subject of "Very Good Dirt," a short documentary by Vancouver-based freelance writer and director Catharine Parke, whose ancestors settled the now-ghost town.

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