by Jeff Webb
On February 24th the celebrated National Film Board filmmaker Colin Low died at the age of 89. Over his career he had made some 200 films, and was twice nominated for Academy Awards. Besides these accomplishments, he is best remembered for his role in developing the Fogo Film Process. His many laudatory obituaries put his contribution to Newfoundland at the top of the list.
Low pioneered what became known as the “Fogo Process,” by which filmmakers talked to people about their community’s needs and challenges. As part of the NFB’s “Challenge for Change” program, he arrived in Fogo in 1967 and made a series of 67 films about the lives of the people of the island. The films are an important part of the history of Canadian film, and important episodes in the history of economic development. The essence of the Fogo Process was to make films in which working discussed the challenges they faced in their lives and the things that they hoped to change. The films were not made so much to be shown to audiences outside the community, but the cameras were meant to hold a mirror up to the people of the island. The film making itself enabled people to speak to their neighbours and thus encouraged them to articulate feelings that were otherwise not expressed. The obituaries, and much of the historiography, agreed that without Low and the NFB, Fogo would not have thrived and would have been a victim of the provincial resettlement program.
Low deserved praise both as a filmmaker and for his contribution to Fogo, but there are problems with this common interpretation. As my friend Susan Newhook pointed out in articles, in both Acadiensis and Newfoundland and Labrador Studies, the NFB had partnered with Memorial University’s Extension Service. The Fogo Process emerged out of collaboration between Low and Donald Snowden of the Extension Service. Snowden and the Extension fieldworker in the area, Fred Earle, had encouraged the development of the Fogo Island Improvement Committee and sowed the seeds of the co-operative movement long before the film crew came to the island. It seems that Low selected Fogo for the film project because of the groundwork that had already been done.
The films themselves are remarkable documents; individuals and groups discussed their lives before the camera, the film was processed, cut roughly, and showed to people on the island to stimulate discussion. In a particularly interesting example, the films were shown to provincial government officials, whose reactions were filmed and that film shown to people in Fogo. This exercise in interactive media has merited the attention it has gotten by film scholars. What few of them have recognized, except for Newhook, is the degree to which the success of the films reflected Earle’s effort and the trust the people of Fogo had in him.
As one of my current MA students has been arguing, most of the scholars who have written upon the films also miss the hard work of the individuals of the Fogo Island Improvement Committee, and that of the other residents of the island. Scholars have been too quick to see the island’s experience through the eyes of other outsiders. The standard interpretation assumes working people were powerless, and without hope, until filmmakers and development workers came to the island and rescued them. Much of the work of forming the Fogo Co-operative predated the arrival of the NFB film crew, and it was the people of the island who built the Co-op.
The deaths of prominent people often prompt us to reflect upon the past. Colin Low was highly accomplished filmmaker who played an important role in the history of Fogo. We should remember, however, that understanding history through noteworthy individuals is incomplete.
Jeff A Webb is a historian at Memorial University. His most recent book is Observing the Outports: Describing Newfoundland Society and Culture, 1950-1985.