Combining two of Newfoundland and Labrador’s finest minds and hearts, providing a look back as well as an opportunity to inspire future generations
When NFB’s (National Film Board of Canada) enlisted writer Michael Crummey to create the interactive mobile feature, Far Away From Far Away, they were hoping the award-winning author and poet would tell the incredible story of Fogo Island’s Zita Cobb.
‘What not to do’
He succeeded in that and so much more. Haunting. Compelling. Touching. Inspiring. Far Away From Far Away is a tale that takes viewers back to growing up on Fogo Island in the 60s and 70s.
When The Herald spoke with Cobb, a David Blackwood rendition of Joey Smallwood, Newfoundland and Labrador’s first premier, was over her shoulder. “There he is,” Cobb opened.
“I keep him there to remind me what not to do. Don’t go resettling the outports,” she said.
That painting stands as a complex inspiration of sorts. If Joey is poster-child for what not to do, then Blackwood is perhaps the impetus for what she has dedicated her life to. In simple terms, she’s determined to not forget.
Globally adaptive tale
David Blackwood had once said he created the way he did because he didn’t want to forget what happened in the past. Cobb gets that sentiment.
“So why do I do what I do? I just don’t want us to forget either, but it’s a bit different for me. I don’t want us to forget what these people knew.”
Her approach to the Fogo Island Inn is a good example of that, though the Inn isn’t the story told in Far Away From Far Away. Instead, it’s the tale of what came long before.
Last week, we met Cobb’s father and while 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, the introduction of Cobb’s father and his magnificent originality became the brilliance that set this yarn apart.
“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,” Crummey said. “He was someone who worked under incredibly difficult circumstances to put food on the table.”
Cobb smiled when thinking 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 being 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 is 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 that maybe complex 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.
A happy ending?
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 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,” he said.
When Cobb thinks of anyone watching Far Away From Far Away, she hopes they get how very personal it is, but also how globally relatable it is as well.
“Something about it kind of draws you in. I love the intimacy of it. I love the fact that we watch on our phone, a very personal device. I feel like, in a way, it’s telling you a secret and it is a secret. I mean, it is deeply personal on some level. But on another level, it’s also a story so many share,” she said.
‘Built for us’
Cobb has hopes for Far Away From Far Away and it involves a mission of inspiration.
“Maybe this is just too much to hope for, but I hope that people see the relevance of that cultural knowledge piece and come to understand that history and heritage is important. I hope that we start to see relevance in that era and start to see that we shouldn’t be trying to carry around the ashes of our past. But we certainly should carry the fire.”
Carrying the fire can take many forms, she continued.
“I wish more people could see that those little artists studios that dot Fogo Island, which look so contemporary, and that Inn, which looks insane, is actually all about us. And I think not enough people have maybe experienced it physically themselves to kind of get that this wasn’t built for Oprah. It was built for us. Because this is telling our story.”
‘Made of wood’
The Inn is what came from Cobb growing up, and having to leave, Fogo Island.
“All I was trying to do was to find a forum and a business model that actually helped create economic dignity while telling the story. We’re not going to have an economic future by selling ugly sticks to 20 people getting off the ferry. But if we can bring people here who experience the people, and the place, and the way of life, then there’s value in that piece. Yes, it’s a stay at a world-class Inn. But they also experienced what it is, and always was, like here.”
There’s a method to the madness, as the saying goes. “The Inn and the radical kind of architecture was meant to do what it’s done, which is to make a statement about; we’re here, we’re not dead yet, and we have something to contribute to the global world of design. And the hack is, you open the door and it’s made of wood.
“It looks like it’s this cold, contemporary thing from a distance, but you walk up and you realize it’s just made of little sticks. It’s just made of wood. I mean, it’s got a steel frame that holds it obviously together, but when you walk inside, it’s all handmade textiles, handmade furniture. It’s a bit like your grandmother’s house without the kitsch. That’s the hack. If we made it to look like grandma’s house, it would have never had the attention it got. People paid attention in this very noisy, global world of imagery and design and brands and it made the place noticed. But once we get them inside? It’s just sticks of wood,” Cobb said.
Crummey says he’s walked away from this experience with as many questions as answers.
“It feels like, to me, the way that the fishery has been prosecuted for the last 50 years, there was no other possible outcome than the end of an era. And what did we learn? It does feel like we’re just moving down the food chain in some ways and doing the same thing. Why is there a capelin fishery? It makes no sense.
“We don’t know how many capelin are out there. There hasn’t been enough science done on it, but we know there are a lot less than there used to be. Capelin are at the root of every biomass in the ocean. All the seabirds, the whales, the cod, none of those things exist without the capelin. And I feel like we’re doing the same thing to the capelin that we did to the cod,” he said sadly.
The simple things
We ask Crummey if he felt he told the story of Cobb as completely as he could. He paused. “My sense of Zita is that nothing is left unsaid. I said to someone else a little while ago, she’s intimidating to speak to because it feels like there’s nothing that she hasn’t thought about already, and thought about deeply, and has this considered and airtight opinion about everything. There’s nothing she hasn’t covered or that I feel like I wish I had asked.”
The only thing he wonders now? “The biggest question mark hanging over this is, what’s happening with the Inn with the pandemic,” he said.
With travel restrictions, obviously the Inn isn’t currently a destination. But it will be again.
For Cobb, the demand for the simple things from the past still exists.
“They’ll always be an interest in Newfoundland and that way of life we knew. If we can’t share that, then that means we can’t express ourselves culturally. And we have to find a way to make that happen.”
To see more visit faraway.nfb.ca