Far Away From Far Away, through a unique and haunting storytelling style, tells the story of Fogo Island’s Zita Cobb, but it’s also a personal tale so many share
Zita Cobb and writer Michael Crummey united to tell a story, and the end result was the interactive, smartphone-inspired Far Away From Far Away. While their meeting of the minds and spirits didn’t initially lead along the path Cobb had specifically thought she wanted to take, at the end, the journey’s destination was well worth it.
Story of Many
Cobb, while thrilled to share Far Away From Far Away with a global audience, admits she had to come to peace with the fact that her very personal journal was actually the story of so many.
“It took me more than a couple of months to figure out … I need to get out of my own way. (My story) is actually not a story about me or my life. It’s a story of our lives,” she opened.
Crummey was relieved to hear Cobb was pleased, of course. He was also inspired.
“(Cobb’s) idea is, in order for Fogo Island to survive in the modern world, we can’t turn our backs on our past. We have to identify what from that past, what in that specific knowledge, what in that specific way of being in the world, is unique and can be transferred into some sort of modern way of living,” he shared.
It’s not just about being generic. It’s about being unique and embracing that. Cobb, he added, has mastered that concept.
“You just can’t offer the world a generic frozen fish stick and say, ‘here, look what we made,’ but create instead high-end, superior quality fish that gets flown to fine restaurants on the mainland. That’s a way of taking knowledge and skills from the past and putting it in a modern context in a way that creates a living wage for people. And (Cobb’s) done the same thing with the (Fogo Island) Inn. It’s not just a stay at a fine establishment. Part of the experience of being at the Inn is that guests are all matched up with people from Fogo Island to really experience the place. That’s the value add,” he said.
Through his work on Far Away From Far Away, Crummey shared he learned much about Cobb’s personal life, much of which, he quickly understood, many with rural roots globally could relate to.
“It’s kind of tragic and sad in kind of an almost biblical sense what happened in the 60s and 70s here in many outports. To be part of a community that watched the crucifixion of the cod stocks happening in real time and to not know the devastating consequences for them and for the people around them? That’s the tragic story many of us know only too well.”
The fishery, in many parts of the world – as it was in parts of Newfoundland and Labrador in the 60s and 70s – was “ancient,” he continued.
But, he added, Cobb knew there was still something of value in that way of life.
“Take this idea of a handline fishery, which is ancient and is the way that, before the codtrap, it was how people survived on Fogo. But, like I said before, don’t just make a frozen fish stick and don’t scrape by. Use the knowledge, and make something of value.”
That’s been Cobb’s philosophy and approach to the very successful Fogo Island Inn, he added.
“Take that skill, take that knowledge, and put it in a modern context. She applies the same lens to the Inn. Part of the experience of being there is that guests are all matched up with people from Fogo Island. And part of the stay involves spending time with those people and either being taken out to a shed party or attending a beach fire or going on a skidoo ride out into the backcountry. It’s about learning about what it is to be from Fogo Island. And as she says it, that part is always the highlight for most people who end up staying at this world-class Inn.”
But the Inn isn’t the story told in Far Away From Far Away. Instead, it’s the tale of what came long before.
Fogo Island itself, as anticipated, became an inspiration in and of itself for both Cobb and Crummey in their telling of this globally adaptive tale, but the introduction of Cobb’s father and his magnificent originality became the brilliance that set this yarn apart form so many.
“I could have spent a month listening to (Cobb) talk and share those more personal stories. Her father, for instance, was an absolutely fascinating person.
“When she told the story about him marrying an orphaned 16 year-old when he was 30 as a way of keeping her from being shipped off to St. John’s or somewhere else and then of her spending two years sleeping alone until she turned 18, I was hooked, and as soon as she told that story, I thought, oh, this is a man that I want to know more about.”
Partly because, as a writer, he had spent a lot of time writing and thinking about his own father’s life, Cobb’s father became part of the complicated story in Far Away From Far Away.
“He was from a different world and there was something about growing up in those circumstances at that time and on that island that made him who he was. And who he was was someone who I admired deeply and he was definitely someone who I think (Cobb) modeled herself on in many ways.”
‘Don’t fit here anymore’
He was someone who worked under incredibly difficult circumstances to put food on the table.
“He was kind of fearless. He did whatever had to be done in the day, whatever the weather was, whatever the world presented to him, he faced it every day and did his work.”
There’s something kind of biblical about the trajectory of Cobb’s father’s story the same as it was about the story of what happened to many rural regions throughout the world, he added.
“That move from this ancient way of life that had been going on in Fogo for time out of mind and then basically people are waking up one day and realizing, we don’t fit here anymore or how we live here, it doesn’t work. And the bravery of putting that spike in the fence and facing those sort of decisions that have to be made, like leaving your home behind and just going, and there’s no going back on it.”
Cobb herself smiles when she thinks of her father. He was, she easily admits, “complicated.”
“Who in their right mind would build our stage on a rock so that at high tide you couldn’t get to it? We would watch when he’d come back in from fishing and he would be up past his waist walking back to the to land. Who would do that? And you know that Newfoundland expression; crooked? Well, he was as crooked as they come and I think I got my way of been in the world from him, though maybe I’m not quite that way. You’d say, ‘nice day,’ and he’d say, ‘what’s so nice about it?”’
Another influential individual from Cobb’s youth was her uncle.
“They were opposites. He was the most agreeable, gentle soul. He was the older brother of my dad and my dad didn’t have a lot of time for him. So I really had these two very extreme versions of men in my life,” Cobb shared.
Her uncle, on a mission to restore his home after his death, was what got her back on Fogo soil.
“My dad wouldn’t have wanted me to go back. He wasn’t a sentimental person at all. I’m not really sentimental, but I’m slightly nostalgic. My father took sentimentality as a sign of weakness, but keeping a place like Fogo Island thriving is important because I think it has value.”
Saying a place has “value” may sound very unsentimental, she added, but its it really, she asked.
“Fogo Island and places like it has value for all humanity. Because I think that there is a dignity in it. I’m afraid we’re losing that dignity some way because I think dignity starts with economic dignity. Economic dignity doesn’t mean that we’re all filthy rich, it just means we have some economic agency in our lives. And where does maybe complex that belief come from? That’s really what I took from my father. He performed this act of finality – placing a spike in the gate of the family home – before we left to move Ontario, to the saddest place on earth as I said in the film, but there was a reality to face. You’ve got to be able to feed your family,” Cobb said.
According to Crummey, if Far Away From Far Away is compelling at all, it’s because it doesn’t deliver what might be expected.
“I certainly feel like there’s a tragic element to the story of her father and her parents. There’s kind of a moment there where it feels like there might be an unexpected happy ending. But they don’t they don’t get that. They live out their lives in the saddest place in the world. But that’s not really tragic, because it becomes part of (Cobb’s) motivation for being so involved in trying to make Fogo a sustainable community. It’s so more people don’t have to experience what her parents did.”
To see more visit faraway.nfb.ca