Doc about ghost town stirs emotions, filmmaker says

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After appearing at the Cannes International Film Festival last year, a documentary about a western Manitoba ghost town is still haunting the indie film circuit.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 05/02/2015 (2753 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

After appearing at the Cannes International Film Festival last year, a documentary about a western Manitoba ghost town is still haunting the indie film circuit.

The story of McConnell, now nothing more than a handful of abandoned buildings and a cairn that serves a reminder of the shuttered railroad town, has been seen by festivals in Edmonton, Vancouver, Fargo, N.D., Victoria, Colorado, Italy and the highly competitive Uppsala Film Festival in Sweden.

And this month Catherine Parke, the Vancouver-based filmmaker behind the film, will once again return to Manitoba for the doc’s showing at the Winnipeg Real to Reel Film Festival.

Submitted Grain elevators still stand in McConnell, a ghost town which is the focus of “Very Good Dirt,” a documentary by filmmaker Catherine Parke, that was featured at the Cannes International Film Festival last year and has been featured in several others since.

While the film makes its way around several countries, Parke said the story about a non-existent Manitoba town in the middle of nowhere seems to evoke strong feelings from the audiences, perhaps because the film deals with the theme of mortality.

“The idea that everything in our life is permanent is an illusion — the towns we grow up in, the schools we go to, maybe the churches that we attend,” Parke said, who runs Curious Cat Productions as a side project to her day job working on television documentaries for the Discovery Channel.

“I think what resonates for people is this kind of loss of part of our history,” Parke said. “There were many more farming communities that were very tight-knit communities, and that has changed remarkably in a short time.

Catherine Parke

“All that stuff could disappear eventually, along with the community and the people that were part of that community.”

And the town that served as a backdrop for the film did indeed all but disappear.

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, about 90 kilometres northwest of Brandon. 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 faded away.

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.

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

And since the film’s release, Parke has returned to the Hamiota area to show the residents the finished project. And rather than summoning sadness as she expected from the moody 13-minute doc, they were just proud to see their little old town on screen.

“The older timers really enjoyed reminiscing and recognized people in the photos and brought them back to that time when their town was thriving,” she said.

“I thought there would be more sadness, but I think they just enjoyed remembering those days.”

» gbruce@brandonsun.com

» Twitter: @grjbruce

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