Uniting for so many the tale of what was and what is for those with rural NL roots, Far Away From Far Away’s unique and haunting storytelling style inspires
Combine two of Newfoundland and Labrador’s finest minds and hearts, and you get exactly what you’d expect: brilliance. If that’s what the minds behind NFB’s (National Film Board of Canada) interactive mobile creation, Far Away From Far Away, were hoping for when they enlisted award-winning author and poet Michael Crummey to tell the incredible story of Zita Cobb, they no doubt are beaming with pride.
Touch’n story telling
Haunting. Compelling. Touching. Far Away From Far Away is all those things.
Yes, this only for smart phone creation is unique in its ‘touch here’ story telling, but there’s so much to this yarn.
The Herald chatted with Crummey and Cobb to go behind the tale’s telling of Cobb growing up on Fogo Island.
When we spoke with Cobb, she sat in front of a David Blackwood rendition of Joey Smallwood, NL’s first premier.
“There he is,” Cobb opened, pointing over her left shoulder. “I keep him there to remind me what not to do. Don’t go resettling the outports,” she said firmly.
If Joey is inspiration for what not to do, then Blackwood is perhaps the impetus for what she has dedicated her life to doing. In simple terms, she’s determined to never forget.
Blackwood’s art, she explained, was known for “darkness.”
“Powerful work. The loss of the sealers, and all that. Rex Murphy was interviewing him and was trying to get out of him, ‘what drives you to do this?’ And it was a very emotional moment for me when I heard his response. He said, ‘I just don’t want us to forget what happened to these people.’ 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.”
She’s certainly dedicated her adult life to making sure that hasn’t happened.
Cobb graduated high school on Fogo Island before leaving home to study business in Ottawa. Following a successful career in high-tech, she returned to Fogo Island, at first on a personal journey to restore her uncle’s home. That soon evolved. Shorefast was created as a way to give back, and its notable achievements to date comprise a holistic set of charitable initiatives, including the world-class artist-in-residence program, Fogo Island Arts (fogoislandarts.ca), and the award-winning, 29-suite Fogo Island Inn (fogoislandinn.ca).
A human response
All of that work is motivated by a desire to respect this place and its people.
“Culture is nothing more than a human response to a place. Where did our culture come from? That long, deep and sometimes dark entanglement we’ve had with the North Atlantic is how we know what we know. Given that we are spending more time at Costco than we are on the North Atlantic, we really risk losing all the knowledge. So that’s the motivation for me, if I could summarize it.”
As for Crummey, born in Buchans, he also comprehended the importance of rural NL.
Brought on for this project, the natural place to start was with a visit to Fogo Island, he began.
“Zita and I would meet in the day to discuss where we would go with this, and she spent a lot of time talking, as she does in many different forms, about economics and about globalization and about community economic development. But in the evenings, we would just sit around and talk about our lives and about growing up in rural Newfoundland,” Crummey shared.
While their day chats were supposed to drive storytelling, it was the evening conversations that moved him the most.
“She spent a lot of time talking about her family’s story and in particular her father’s story. And I was immediately hooked by his experience of the world and her relationship to him. And it seemed to me, that personal story encapsulated all of the economic things she was talking about. All of that came out in the story of her father’s life. And I think a lot of what she thinks about the world and about economics and about community economic development grew out of watching what happened to her family in the 60s and 70s. So it seemed to me, that was the obvious place to go with this,” he said.
‘Cogs in the wheel’
Knowing that wasn’t what Cobb had wanted was a little off-putting, he offered, but he took the risk anyway.
“I was very aware that was not at all what she wanted because she’s fairly private and she does not want to be placed at the center of things. I think in her mind, she is just one of the cogs in the wheel that’s trying to turn things around. So I knew that she wouldn’t want her story to be the place we went with this, but I basically just went ahead and did it anyway and hoped for the best because it was obvious to me as a writer, that was where all of the meat – that’s where all of the good material was.”
‘A personal story’
He wrote Far Away From Far Away and sent it to Cobb. He waited. And waited.
“I was kind of terrified because I didn’t know how she was going to respond to it,” he said. “And there was a significant period of silence when I didn’t know what she thought. And I think it did take her a while to recognize that while what I had written was a personal story, it also wasn’t because it was a common story. Yes, it was a personal story, but it was also a microcosm of the story of everyone on Fogo Island. And that Fogo Island story is in its way, a microcosm of the story of everyone living in small rural places in Newfoundland or throughout North America when economic globalization was really taking hold.”
When he finally heard back? Relief. Cobb smiled thinking back. “You know, I don’t want to spend one ounce of my life or time in resistance. I only want to use the time I have to try and build something, doing something that’s going to be of some use to someone, and when you look at all of what happened to us collectively in Newfoundland, Labrador, and is happening now, it’s a failure of the economic models. It’s a failure of all of us, our own failure to wake up and understand what’s happening around us.”
The fishery changed right before our eyes, for one thing, she continued.
“When those factory draggers arrived, to my father, they may have as well come to the moon. He had no idea that this is what was going on in the world. And so we were at its mercy because for the almost 19th century life he and people like him were living at the time, it didn’t really matter, but over time, it started to matter a lot,” she continued.
By the time folks figured out how much it mattered, it was too late.
“We need to know what’s going on to survive. It was too late for him back then and, for a man with no education, that’s when he became very passionate about us getting an education. He said to me, ‘I don’t understand why they’re fishing night and day and day and night, they’ll take every last fish,’ which, of course is what happened. Before he died, he was still thinking about this, and he said he figured out that they must be turning the fish into money or they wouldn’t be doing it.”
Cobb said she spent time pondering this. It inspired her in a way, she continued.
“I always think about our work as trying to turn money into fish. It’s that broken relationship between money and the way it’s used and the things that matter, the things that have inherent value.”
There’s a book called The Leopard, a novel by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa that Cobb thinks of often, she shared. One line, “everything needs to change, so everything can stay the same,” keeps returning as she ponders what’s next.
“How do you get your culture out there? It’s not as simple as keeping or holding onto what was. If we, as Newfoundlanders and Labradorians, want to love the place we love and live with some kind of dignity the way we want to live, we have to change what we’re doing. And that’s what I was talking to (Crummey) about in the daytime. And in the evening we would have supper together and we’d talk about our past. And when he left I said to him, ‘what are you going to do with all this?’”
Modern way of living
As the months passed and she waited, she wondered more about what she had hoped for. When she received the first draft, she spent time figuring out what she felt about what had been created.
“It took a long time for me to kind of figure out, wait a minute, I need to get out of my own way. This is actually not a story about me or my life. It’s a story of our lives. In his very clever way, I think he’s actually told the economic story more powerfully than I could have imagined.”
Crummey was relieved of course. But there was more.
“Her 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.
Cod stock crucifixion
It’s not just about being generic. It’s about being unique and embracing that. Cobb, he added, has mastered that.
To sum up his work on Far Away From Far Away, Crummey put it this way.
“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.”
To see more visit faraway.nfb.ca