Our first evening of this year’s Distinguished Speaker Series was a special one indeed. Journalist Samantha Rideout presented a beautiful animated film called “First Contact.” She is the author of the screenplay of this film, which was produced by Canadian multimedia artist Scott MacLeod. Samantha thanked the CNS for its support in producing the film, noting that CNS members provided financial support as well as advice and encouragement.
Samantha explained that her interest in things Norse led her to spend a year studying in Sweden and then two more in Iceland, where she focussed her studies on the Icelandic sagas. She became particularly intrigued by the Saga of Erik the Red and the Greenlanders Saga, both of which describe North American geography very well. Some scholars believe that the two sagas describe voyages to Newfoundland, while others believe the voyages were further south. There is now clear archeological evidence of Viking visits to Nunavut and l’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland. Recently discovered evidence also suggests possible Viking visits to the southwestern part of Newfoundland.
The sagas describe meetings with native people wearing animal skin clothing, paddling canoes, and with certain facial features that correspond with native peoples of North America. Although it is impossible to know for sure if such meetings actually took place in Newfoundland, the film is based on that premise. The people depicted in the film are based on the ancestors of the Beothuk, whose culture and language were lost after the settlement of Newfoundland by Europeans. The filmmakers used archeological evidence and surviving written accounts of the Beothuk culture to portray this lost culture.
I found the film’s screenplay to be both lyrical and imaginative and the haunting music complemented it beautifully. It included traditional Icelandic folk songs and a lullaby that is believed to be in the lost Beothuk language. (The lullaby was collected by a music ethnographer in the early 1900’s from a Mi’maq-speaking woman who had Beothuk ancestors.) There are two narrators in the film. One represents the voice of a mature Viking woman who, along with one other younger woman, accompanies the men on their voyage. The other represents the voice of a native woman. Of course they both narrate in English, but the Viking woman speaks English with a foreign accent. The native woman speaks English with no accent, which subtly but effectively makes the point that she is not the foreigner in this story.
The film is partially animated by Scott MacLeod’s coloured pencil drawings. They evoke scenes from the distant past by emerging from initial sketches gradually into more and more detailed drawings until a clear picture appears before us. Many beautiful film images of the stunning Newfoundland landscape help to give a sense of being present in the story.
As the gentle voices of the two women tell the story of the first contact, we hear how each perceives the situation from a completely different point of view, informed by their own cultural background and expectations. The native people bring gifts of furs to establish good relations with the newcomers. The Vikings bring red cloth but see it as an economic exchange and wonder at the naïveté of the natives as they accept smaller and smaller strips of cloth in exchange for their furs.
The conflict with the native people that is described in the sagas is depicted in the film, but it is not the focal point. The narrators have other, everyday concerns that are common to all women and must be dealt with, regardless of any conflict between the men. As Samantha explained, the film explores the broader truths of meeting people who are different from ourselves, of learning new perspectives, and of the dangers of misunderstanding that must be overcome to build new relationships. The history of Canada is built on all of these things and because of this, Samantha sees the current Truth and Reconciliation work in Canada as being of paramount importance to our country. That work and the film are both about the human capacity to survive human conflict, misunderstanding, and tragedy. An Icelandic version of the soundtrack is now being produced, as is an educational guide to the film for use in schools and libraries