After 15 years away, I made a film about where I grew up – and learned that change is inevitable

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Cutaways is a series of personal essays by filmmakers, asking them to tell the story of how their film was made. This Hot Docs edition from the director focuses on her film Shelter, in which the filmmaker returns to the area where she grew up to explore our basic human need for a home.

After fifteen years without returning home, I was recently forced to revisit my roots. I grew up in the northern part of the Headwaters area, just over an hour north of Toronto. My parents left soon after I left and I had since lost most of my ties to the area. By the time I started thinking about my old home, I was going through personal struggles and had a lot of questions, including whether I wanted to continue making films.

I was first drawn to the story of a large bomb shelter in the community known as Ark Two. It was created by an eccentric old man named Bruce Beach. My family knew Bruce. Not only is he famous all over the world for his refuge, but my mother also worked with her son many years ago. I was fascinated by the concept of someone who was at the end of their life, preparing for the end of the world. Maybe by looking at other people’s stories, I could understand the questions I was asking myself at the time – even though I didn’t know exactly what those questions were. The plan was never to make a movie; I just wanted to point the camera at things I was interested in as a way to mentally process my thoughts at the time.

Although I barely knew Bruce, he and his wife, Jean, immediately welcomed me as a member of the family, first into their home and then into their refuge. I have made several tours of the establishment. Ark Two is a fallout shelter meant to rebuild the community after a nuclear war. It is constructed from 42 school buses encased in concrete and buried 14 feet underground.

As we slowly descended the long corridor into the darkness of the shelter, I began to sense what exists beneath the surface of the world as we know it. Inside the shelter, its endless hallways are filled with stocks of expired canned goods, buckets of dried food and Cold War relics. Collection after collection, the goods stored around them had become time capsules and relics of past eras. Today, the refuge itself is deteriorating. The structure that is supposed to save us from our annihilation is itself impermanent, like everything in the world above it.

When I came back to the surface, I couldn’t see reality the same way. Ark Two sits in a farmer’s field behind the historic village of Horning’s Mills and next to a cliff carved by centuries of erosion. At the foot of the cliff are the remains of one of the village’s original mills. Knowing the region and its rich history, I was able to see all the layers of time, all the periods that preceded us. And I understood that our era, too, would come to an end.

Two doors down from Bruce and Jean are my childhood friends, Jocelyn and Jim. They live in one of the first mills in the village, which is also Jocelyn’s childhood home. After her father passed away and the building sat unoccupied for a while, she and Jimmy restored it and call it home today. It is a container for the collective memories of the village as well as Jocelyn’s personal memories and a representation of their future dreams too. Similar to Bruce’s project, their home contains an assortment of antiques and other collections, but these items are perfectly displayed and curated – the couple’s way of preserving past eras while repurposing them in a new context for the future. . If Jocelyn and Jim’s house is a container of time and preservation, their underground neighbor, Ark Two, is the ghost image of that idea. At some point I realized that these concepts were connected and, by accident, I was making a movie after all.

Dividing my time between the two households, I began collecting personal stories about the area over a period of five years. It helped me understand the concept of home and how an area shapes a person’s perspective from an early age. I spent many visits in contact with these four people, each of whom could help me better understand the nuances and depth of time.

Shelter. (Hot Docs)

When I started filming, Jean was 90 years old. Although she looked like a frail woman, she had a frank way of speaking that showed her strength. I fell in love with her instantly. As a descendant of some of the early settlers in the village, she had a wealth of knowledge about the history of each house as well as the stories of the community. But even as I filmed, her memory faded, taking with it the rich oral history she had. Jean is an irremediable link with a past that is fading.

Jimmy’s roots in Horning’s Mills are also ancient. His family is one of the first settlers in the village. At the time, he was the local gravedigger and he is related to half the people in the cemetery. As he digs beneath the surface for the camera, he reveals the layers of time and place. His work is a living reminder that past, present and future all exist simultaneously.

Over many visits with Bruce and Jean, and Jimmy and Jocelyn, I began to understand and acknowledge the struggles I was going through, and I began to work those stories into the film as well. Coming out of the underground darkness of Shelter, I came out changed. It forced me to look at everything I know in a completely different light – one that accepts the impermanence and inevitability of change.

Shelter is screening both in person and virtually at the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival. Get tickets here.

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