The work of pioneering Nova Scotia filmmaker Margaret Perry comes under the lens

Without a tragedy, a pioneering Nova Scotian filmmaker might never have made dozens of films about life in post-World War II Nova Scotia.

Margaret Perry was pregnant when her husband, a professor of geology at the University of New Brunswick, died after being hit by a fire truck in 1936. Widowed and pregnant with their child, Perry was forced to find a way to earn money.

Formerly a stenographer – a job she hated – Perry turned to photography. Her love of the outdoors meant she had no desire to be locked in an office. She sold photos to magazines and wrote articles. She also took a correspondence course in still and film photography and started making films.

This interest in film would blossom into a decades-long career, which produced an extensive catalog of work that Nova Scotia archivists are now digitizing so it can be better recognized and viewed again by a wide audience. .

Margaret Perry has made over 50 films for the Nova Scotia Film Bureau. The films were used to promote Nova Scotia as a tourist destination and a place for industrial development. (Archives of Nova Scotia)

During World War II, Perry worked as a rural projectionist for the National Film Board, a job that involved showing films in community centers and church basements.

Perry’s work caught the eye of John Grierson, the founder of the National Film Board. (He’s also the person who coined the word documentary.)

Perry moved to Ottawa in 1942 for 2½ years and worked for the Film Board. In 1945, he was asked to head the Nova Scotia Film Bureau.

Perry works with the film in this undated photo. (Submitted by Leanna Griffith)

In this position, she made more than 50 films for the province between 1945 and 1969. The films served a variety of roles, from promoting Nova Scotia as a tourist destination to a place of industrial development, and they have sometimes been used in classrooms.

The Nova Scotia Archives has already digitized several of Perry’s films, and work is underway to have them all available online this fall.

“An incredibly physical operation”

While the department was called the Nova Scotia Film Bureau, until 1959 its only employee was Perry. This one-woman operation saw Perry act as director, cinematographer, scout, scriptwriter, sound recorder, driver and editor, to name a few roles.

“She’s not going out with her iPhone, she’s dragging a huge camera around with her and a big clumsy tripod and all her film that she should have taken with her,” said Jennifer VanderBurgh, a professor at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax. who has done biographical research on Perry’s life and is part of efforts to raise awareness of his work.

Perry is shown on a film set in this undated photo. (Submitted by Leanna Griffith)

“It was an incredibly physical operation.”

A film that highlights this is that of 1947 Fight Blue Finsabout tuna sport fishing in Wedgeport, a small fishing village near Yarmouth.

“Think about it, this woman works solo, gets on these fishing boats and fishing is one of the most dangerous occupations to date,” said Darrell Varga, professor of film studies at NSCAD University at Halifax.

“It’s very tough work on the high seas, crazy weather all the time, very difficult conditions, and she’s there with a camera.”

The physical nature of the job wouldn’t have been the only challenge Perry faced, Varga said. He thought of her recently when politician Alexa McDonough died. McDonough became leader of the Nova Scotia NDP in 1980.

Jennifer VanderBurgh is a professor at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax and is working on a project to help preserve the work of filmmaker Margaret Perry. She says Perry’s films often show a Nova Scotia that’s modern, but retains its traditional heritage. (Ian Selig)

“This is decades after Margaret Perry, so I can only imagine the difficulties this woman would have had in dealing with the machinery of government and the civil service, which would be entirely male-dominated,” Varga said.

VanderBurgh said sometimes the subjects of Perry’s films were things she wanted to explore, while other times the subject matter was requested by a government department.

Because Perry’s films were made by the government, they are sometimes criticized and dismissed as propaganda.

Darrell Varga is Professor of Film Studies at NSCAD University in Halifax. He wrote about Margaret Perry in his book, Shooting from the East: Filmmaking on The Atlantic. (Submitted by Darrell Varga)

“Do these films tell the full story of Nova Scotia? said Vander Burgh. “Absolutely not, but they tell Margaret Perry’s perspective on what was remarkable about the place at the time.

“To cancel these films because they are government films is kind of to miss the fact that they are works of artists there. They reflect the vision of this pioneering filmmaker and the one of the most important film bureaucrats in Canada.”

Although the credits may have listed Perry’s name, a male narrator was used, as was customary at the time.

“His pitch for what made Nova Scotia great”

The Nova Scotia reflected in Perry’s films is one of nature lovers’ paradises, filled with forests, lakes and oceans, but it’s also modern.

Whether it’s building the Canso causeway linking Cape Breton Island to the mainland, or housing “the largest self-contained steel mill in [North] America” ​​in Sydney, Nova Scotia is described as a place where the past meets the present.

“Part of his talk about what made Nova Scotia great was the fact that it had this tension between modernizing and maintaining its traditions and history at the same time that it gave people a incredible access to the natural world,” Vanderburgh said.

Perry is shown in this undated photo taken at Ingonish Beach in Cape Breton. (Submitted by Leanna Griffith)

Another way to communicate this vision of a modern Nova Scotia is through the way films use movement.

“A lot of photos taken from cars, photos of cars, boats, vehicles,” Vanderburgh said. “This is a moving, shaking, moving Nova Scotia.”

Varga said when watching the movies, it’s important to think about what’s not included. It points to Road to Kelticwhich extols the virtues of the Canso Causeway in how it opens up the continent to the pristine tourist destination of Cape Breton.

What is not mentioned is how the causeway made it easier for people to leave the island to go to work.

“The movies are fascinating and super interesting, but also for what they don’t show or talk about,” Varga said. “Those are the kinds of questions viewers can ask them.”

The last years

After retiring from the Nova Scotia Film Bureau, Perry remained in Halifax until her death in 1998, her granddaughter, Leanna Griffith, said.

Perry never remarried after her husband’s death and had no children other than Stan, who is named after her late husband.

“She just put her head down, said to herself ‘I have to do this, I have to be the best of the best of the best, I have to make sure that I’m doing my best and I’m going to strive to do something to me and my child,” Griffith said.

Perry appears in a still from the 1987 National Film Board documentary: Margaret Perry, Filmmaker. (National Film Board)

She said Perry was a private person and was very realistic about his job. Much of what she learned about her grandmother’s work comes from the stories her father told her, such as the time she was chased by a bear while filming or the time she ran away. is shown in a helicopter while at boarding school.

Griffith said his father was in class one day and the students noticed a helicopter landing on a sports field next to the school. When he landed, Perry got out.

“Everyone was like, ‘That was so exciting because that never happens,'” Griffith said. “And my dad was kind of like, ‘That’s my mom. She just came over to say hi.’

Perry was working on a movie and wanted to watch her son, so the pilot brought her to school.

” Who do this ? said Griffith. “Who just showed up in a helicopter?”

Griffith said it’s not unusual for family members to be used as “props” in movies.

Some of the people present in this shoot are relatives of Perry. (Submitted by Leanna Griffith)

When asked what Perry would have thought of the recognition she is getting today, Griffith thinks she would have been surprised and proud, but would have accepted the accolades with modesty.

She thinks her grandmother would have said something like this: “You prove your worth by doing your job and you do it well,” Griffith said. “And when people notice it, that’s fine, but don’t let it go to your head. You have to continually be humble.”

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