Winds of Heaven: Emily Carr, Carvers & The Spirits of the Forest

March 17, 2011

Directed by Michael Ostroff
Reviewed by Frances Backhouse


Like many contemporary British Columbians, I can’t hike on the West Coast without Emily Carr ghosting along beside me. I don’t even realize she’s there until suddenly a shaft of light strikes a cedar in just the right way and the scene before me transforms into an oil painting on canvas. Ottawa-based director Michael Ostroff seems to be subject to the same kind of double vision and has turned it to magnificent advantage in his latest cinematic offering, Winds of Heaven, which premiered at the Vancouver International Film Festival (VIFF) in October 2010.

After struggling for recognition as an artist for most of her life, Carr is now widely acknowledged as one of Canada’s pre-eminent 20th-century painters. Ostroff could have simply chronicled her rise to fame, providing a comfortable diversion for her many admirers. Instead, he chose to explore Carr’s relationship to the First Nations culture that so strongly influenced her creative journey. The resulting 90-minute documentary is a nuanced and original take on her work and life, which ViFF executive director Alan Franey calls “[o]ne of the most important films ever made about our province.”

British Columbia joined Canada in 1871, the year Carr was born; by the time she died in 1945, the province had assumed its modern identity. As Carr was growing up, B.C.’s original inhabitants were being increasingly marginalized. Yet, unlike most of her contemporaries, Carr was fascinated by indigenous culture, particularly the work of First Nations carvers. Her paintings of totem poles are among her most famous.  Klee Wyck, a memoir about her visits to First Nations villages, won the 1941 Governor General’s award for nonfiction and continues to sell well. According to First Nations art critic Marcia Crosby, however, Carr’s ongoing popularity does no favours to the people who furnished her inspiration.

“The way [Carr’s] history has been collapsed with aboriginal history has the power to teach very old ideas,” observes Crosby, who, along with ’Ksan museum curator Laurel Smith Wilson and art historians Gerta Moray and Susan Crean, provides commentary through the film. One of Ostroff’s main goals, an admirable one, appears to be refuting those out-dated ideas about the obsolescence and inferiority of First Nations culture. At times this narrative thread threatens to eclipse Carr’s story, but ultimately the integration is successful. My only objection to the film  is that Ostroff comes close to holding Carr responsible for an entire generation’s racist attitudes and hurtful behaviour, not just her own.

Fittingly for a film about art, Winds of Heaven is a treat to watch. John Walker’s fluid camerawork gives us sumptuous footage of wild coastal landscapes and luminous rainforest close-ups that perfectly complement shots of Carr’s paintings, while archival footage and photographs and period recreations fill in historical background.

The dramatizations never show Carr in full—usually only her hands are visible: sketching, painting, typing—but we hear her through the voice of veteran Stratford actress Diane D’Aquila, who reads selections from Carr’s letters, diaries and published writings. What we do see are vivid, believable reconstructions of Carr’s world, including her childhood home, the pension where she lived while studying art in Paris and the Victoria boarding house that she ran for years and memorialized in The House of All Sorts. Scenes of her 1930s painting expeditions into the semi-wilderness around Victoria, with a caravan she dubbed “The Elephant,” are especially striking.

For anyone who is unacquainted with Carr, Winds of Heaven offers an excellent introduction. More important, it challenges those of us who think we already know her to take another look at the artist and her art — and to fully appreciate where both came from.

For more insights into Emily Carr, check out The Other Emily: Redefining Emily Carr, March 2 to October 10, 2011, at the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria.

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