by Carl Wilson
The furthest north I’ve ever been was in Grade 10, when I played second trumpet in the high-school band and we went on an exchange to Pine Point in the Northwest Territories. The dominant feeling of the trip was the sheer anxious thrill of being so far from home, billeted with a strange family, and playing concerts to audiences full of strangers. The kids in Pine Point were really fun and kind. But the other notable thing was that their town seemed kind of fucked up.
This wasn’t a secret: It was a mining town, and the mine was closing down; there was a big sign that we saw every time our bus drove out of the city limits to go play Hay River or some other neighbouring community, which read, “WOULD THE LAST PERSON LEAVING PINE POINT PLEASE TURN OUT THE LIGHTS?” I’ve always remembered that, as an unusually robust instance of gallows humour – in a town down south, the city and the cops would never have left the sign standing. Since then, people from other resource- or industry-dependent towns that dwindled have told me that someone there pulled the same prank.
But it wasn’t just that the town was in decline. It was also that some of the young teenagers in the band at the Pine Point school had their own apartments, where they lived on their own. After band practice we would go over there and party, and they had a lot more booze and drugs around than at the parties I went to back home. They threw around a lot of dirty language within earshot of their teachers and didn’t get hassled for it. All of this was pretty shocking to us, the Catholic high-school band that played adulterated versions of Handel and such (because “high-school band” actually is a genre of music that doesn’t quite correspond to anything people really listen to). It wasn’t just gallows humour here, but a kind of gallows culture.
We’d thought the town we came from, Brantford, was fucked up. And it was: It had been an industrial centre, home to one of North America’s biggest farm-equipment manufacturing plants, where half the town had worked. And when I was a kid, Massey-Ferguson shut down, plunging the city into a spiral of unemployment and underfunding that it didn’t really claw its way back from until well after I’d left town. Our downtown was a ghost town, battered by a series of unsuccessful renewal schemes, to the point that even now it’s a popular location to shoot horror movies. And I’m sure some of the kids who dropped out of school in Brantford ended up fending for themselves in shitty apartments, too (in fact I know a couple who did). But it wasn’t a fact easily taken for granted, whereas up here it seemed to be.
I just got a quick and confounded glimpse of what was going on in Pine Point, but it was enough to slap me awake a bit, punch some holes in the roof of my sheltered existence, get a mouthful of that taste that’s the vastness of the world. But those were days before the Internet, when long-distance phone calls were still expensive, and I didn’t keep in touch with any of the kids I’d met up north. I think a couple of my bandmates did for a bit, but I don’t remember getting many reports.
So when I stumbled across this beautifully made NFB interactive documentary called Pine Point, I had to struggle to remember for a bit – “wait, isn’t that the place …?” And then, there on the third page of the documentary (I’m sure there’s more accurate technical language in which to talk about this young medium, but I don’t know it) is a sequence that leads up to that sign: “WOULD THE LAST PERSON LEAVING … “
The narrative begins with a statement by its maker, Mike Simons: “Pine Point was the first place I ever went alone. I was 9, living in Yellowknife and travelled there for a hockey tournament.” So in some ways, he’s coming from the same perspective, as someone to whom Pine Point was a vivid but fleeting youthful flash. There were differences, of course: His was a 45-minute trip, while ours must have been the better part of a day – a 90-minute bus ride to Toronto, some four hours to Edmonton, another couple of hours to Yellowknife, then a terrifyingly small, rattling plane across Great Slave Lake to Hay River and another bus to Pine Point. He came for sports as a kid, me for music as a teen. And I think he was there a few years earlier than I was.
But he went searching for that memory on the Internet, and discovered that Pine Point no longer existed – not that it had just faded into non-existence, but that it had actually been totally demolished and carted away in the year after the mine closed in 1987. But many of its former residents had banded together on the Internet and started having annual reunions.
As Simons notes, the blurriness of hometown memory takes on a particular poignancy when there is nothing left to compare with it, when that place has really become just a concept, hung precariously on the consensus among a limited group of people that it was real. My uncertainty that Pine Point was the place I visited, that’s almost like a vulnerability in the system – like Tinkerbelle, or God, or other characters in stories that will flicker out of existence if no one believes in them. I reach crucial points in the documentary and think, “Woah, the high school burned down six years before I was there? I vaguely remember hearing that – or am I just synthesizing that memory now on the spot?”
Fortunately, Simons’ thoughtful, deeply textured project takes that private tapestry of images and stories and transplants it squarely into the more secure public realm. (This week it won a Webby, which is a medium deal.) Of course, it gets there through the work of an outsider, but Simons puts in the foreground the tenuousness of memory and the difficulty of preserving let alone communicating it. And that fragility finds an echo in the wounds and tragedies that many Pine Pointers turn out to have undergone in the decades of their dispersal.
They’re the kinds of stories you’d find if you followed any random collection of people over a few decades, as Michael Apted has shown, but just as having seen his characters as children renders even their more banal adult misfortunes wrenching for the viewer, somehow the way each individual Pine Pointer’s roots extend into the fallow frozen dirt of the vanished town (with its “beauty you almost feel guilty for noticing,” as Simons puts it), makes every further deprivation they suffer feel like a greater injustice. At the same time, though, he argues, there’s also a blessing in the fact that Pine Point is gone, as it can never betray them, by changing, or even being different than they imagine it. It is theirs forever, or rather as long as there’s a them to have it.
And this is the reason you never have to have been to Pine Point to appreciate Simons’ achievement here: Really it’s about mortality. The death of the town symbolizes any death, and the way that we each will be remembered, until we’re not. It’s why the interactive nature of the project is so suitable – it gently forces you to get your hands in there, not to try to stay out of this fray of life and death.
The documentary counsels appreciation of little things like teams, tournaments, hobby groups and parties, as well as those big bits of history that unite us, because they all serve as pegs to hang our quilts of memory on (Simons remembers the day a Russian satellite crashed near Yellowknife the way the Pine Pointers remember the high-school fire and the way we’ll all remember getting the news of Osama bin Laden’s assassination this week). And some day when they pack each of us up and cart us away, you want to have accumulated a nice healthy collection of those involvements large and small, so you leave people more to think about, more to recall you by, than that you seemed kind of fucked up, in that period when you were closing down.