A familar voice on the radio (regular contributor and guest host for CBC) and a face you'd recognize from film and TV as well, Jackie Torrens is also a documentary filmmaker. Her most recent work EDGE OF EAST is set to premiere this weekend on CBC Maritimes - Absolutely Maritimes - Saturday July 19th at 8pm AT to be exact.
We caught up with the ever busy Jackie Torrens to get the scoop on this project that shows there is more to life on the East Coast than fiddles and fish.
SABS: In your documentary EDGE OF EAST, you feature 3 groups that wouldn't normally come to mind when thinking of Nova Scotia. What made you decide to investigate the UFO People of Shag Harbour, The Steampunks of Halifax and the Yodellers of Kings County?
JACKIE TORRENS: Growing up in the Maritimes I felt I was always coming face to face with recurring regional stereotypes that I personally found confining and, in my own case, weren’t even applicable. Like we all play fiddle and we all fish and we all go to ceilidhs and so on. East Coast identity is about some of those things, of course – but not all of it. Not by a long shot. So I thought, I want to do a documentary where I look at three groups that exist here that you never hear about – and see what they tell us about East Coast identity that we haven’t heard before.
SABS: What is it about these groups that speak to you? What made you decide to put them all together?
JACKIE TORRENS: Any time a group of people come together because they share an interest in something off the beaten path then chances are you’re going to find some good stories about what brought them there. The idea originally (and still is) to do a series on subcultures but CBC said, “What if you did a doc where you look at three groups?” And I thought okay, I’ll look at three groups and I’ll see how they might be connected.
So the yodellers and the UFO believers I had known about for a while. With yodelling, I love the art form and I knew that, with the legacy of Wilf Carter and Hank Snow, we must have a yodelling cowboy culture here, following in Wilf and Hank’s footsteps. And turns out, that hunch was right.
With Shag Harbour it wasn’t so much that I believe in aliens or UFOs – I describe myself in the doc as a “paranormal agnostic” – but I liked the idea of a place that decided to hang its hat on a mystery. In this case, a UFO mystery. I think that’s really unusual and I wanted to know more.
And then I picked the Steampunks because, in contrast to the yodellers, they’re a younger, more urban demographic and also because they’re a sci-fi group that looks at the future through the lens of the past. So I thought there would be links between them and the world of the past that is NS yodelling cowboy culture and the futurism of UFO mythology. But there are many subcultures that exist out here. It could have been a bunch of others – I was looking at survivalists and wrestlers, for instance. For this project, it ended up being these three.
SABS: At first the 3 stories seem unrelated. When you started did you know they would connect?
JACKIE TORRENS: I thought there was a connection between the history of the yodelling cowboys, the futurism of Shag Harbour’s UFO mythology and the Steampunks, who exist in all three time zones; the past, the present and the future. And then as I went along other connections started to become apparent; marginalism for one. Imagination was another. And so on.
SABS: When you started, did you have any preconceived notions about any of the groups, and if so, did they change as you came to know them better?
JACKIE TORRENS: I try not to have preconceived notions. I do research and then I go out there with an open mind. Some of the UFO’ers at first were a little paranoid about my intentions and I wasn’t expecting that. But then I realized that they have these stories, these profound, personal experiences that they believe have happened to them, that a lot of people have rolled their eyes at – and so it made sense that they would be skittish about where I might be coming from. But I don’t have to believe the same thing as someone I interview to respect them. I’m just interested in why they believe what they believe. And it became apparent that UFO culture is, in many ways, a faith-based culture – if you’re looking for it, there’s just enough evidence to suggest something is out there, and the rest you have to take on faith. And the vision of the world that many UFO’ers I talked to is one I get – they recognize the universe is a vast place and we’re just a tiny part of it.
I actually found it hardest, at first, to get into the Steampunks. I’ve never been into sci-fi and I’m an actor so, for me, dressing up in a costume means I’m working so it’s not something that interests me in my off-time, know what I mean? But as I got to know them I was blown away by their love of their chosen aesthetic which is blend of Victorianism and futurism. And to look the way they want to look that means they have to be talented craftspeople – so they can create the world they want to live in. And so many of them are. They are inventors of crazy gadgets like portable telegraph machines or they painstakingly sew corsets and make elaborate clothing. They are people who are in love with flights of fancy – and realities can come about when you dream big.
SABS: What have you learned about Nova Scotia by talking to these three groups, and has it changed your view of the province?
JACKIE TORRENS: I think it’s confirmed my view of who we are here on the East Coast. The Cowboy Yodellers are about the ability to make art out of the flaw, ie the crack in the voice. The Steampunks are about making dreams come true. Shag Harbour’s UFO story is about our love of story and an openness to the mystery of life. And all three groups are about having the courage to be who you want to be.
SABS: How long did the project take?
JACKIE TORRENS: The project took a year and that includes research, finding the people and going to major events that each group put on. For the yodellers we went to a yodelling jam session in King’s County, for the UFO’ers we took in the Shag Harbour UFO Festival that they have every year. With the Steampunks we went to their Time Travelers Reunion down at Sherbrooke Village. Then we had a group discussion with key members of all 3 groups. Then we did individual follow ups with one or two members of each group whose personal story really caught our attention.
SABS: As an artist, how does the documentary process appeal to you and what did you learn about the process, in the process?
JACKIE TORRENS: My background is in telling fiction stories, both as a writer and an actor, so I think my creative background brings a distinct element to how I tell a documentary story. For EDGE OF EAST I wanted there to be an odd, surreal, dreamy quality to visiting these three worlds. I’ve done radio documentaries for the last 5 years, this is my first television documentary. It was certainly a challenge to host the doc, conduct the interviews and simultaneously direct a two camera crew while on camera myself – certainly my D.O.P. needed to be in sync with my vision for how I wanted the doc to look, which is why we went with the beautiful eye of Kevin A. Fraser (with Cody Morris on 2nd camera and Dan Stewart doing sound, produced by my production partner Jessica Brown). And then I am the kind of director who sits side by side with the editor. It had always been my plan to use old footage of sci-fi and cowboy movies in a non-traditional way to further enhance the connections between the groups, so I needed someone who could mind-meld with me in the editing suite – and Dave Mullins and Postman Studios did a great job with me there.
You can watch EDGE OF EAST this Saturday night, July 19th, on CBC Maritimes at 8pm as part of the Absolutely Maritimes series - to check out the trailer click here.
For more information and updates on the EDGE OF EAST visit their site here
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