Film follows Algoma researchers on Group of Seven adventure
by Lindsay Kelly
A new documentary about the Group of Seven is bringing to the screen the long-running research of a trio of Algoma enthusiasts, introducing new audiences to the region that inspired some of Canada’s most endearing artistic works.
Painted Land: In Search of the Group of Seven follows adventurers Joanie and Gary McGuffin and historian Michael Burtch as they travel Algoma in search of the sites depicted in paintings created by the famous Canadian artists in the early 1900s.
Directed by Phyllis Ellis and produced by White Pine Pictures, the 90-minute film weaves together footage of the adventurers during their quest with archival film footage, snippets from letters and journals, and photographs, some of which haven’t been made public before.
The documentary is now being shown at screenings across the country, including at the Vancouver International Film Festival and the Algoma Fall Festival.
Yet, before it ever came to the big screen, this updated look at the Group of Seven was originally destined to become a book. “The whole project started as research project to find the sites where the Group of Seven painted in their formative years”, said Joanie McGuffin.
The McGuffins and Burtch, a retired director of the Art Gallery of Algoma, began collaborating on the project in 2008, researching the artists’ painting sites and then travelling around Algoma and the North Shore to locate and photograph those sites, matching the photographs with the paintings.
When their work caught the attention of White Pine Pictures producer Peter Raymont three years ago, the researchers led Raymont and producer Nancy Lang into the Agawa Canyon, via the Algoma Central Railway passenger train, pointing out painting sites and relating the story as they went. By the time the trip was over, the producers wanted to make a film.
The documentary was shot over 21 days during three trips into the Algoma wilderness. As film-industry neophytes, the McGuffins said they quickly forgot a film crew was following them, focusing instead on the thrill of finding new sites.
“When the film crew was with us, they were tagging along, and we were telling the story as we were finding these painting sites, and that’s why it comes off as very authentic,” Gary said. “It’s real time. It’s better than reality TV.”
The pair believes a renewed focus on Algoma and the North Shore could be an ideal opportunity to build up immersive, experiential tourism opportunities for fans of the internationally renowned Group of Seven.
For example, visitors could travel into Group of Seven territory, take a guided canoe trip to a painting site, and listen as an interpretive guide speaks about the history of the Group in the area, giving travellers full insight into how the artists experienced the region.
The goal isn’t mass tourism, the McGuffins said, but high-value experiences that protect the natural surroundings and build up cultural value, creating employment and boosting economic development along the way.
“The type of tourists we’re trying to attract already know who the Group of Seven are, and they’ve been to the galleries, they’re real fans of the Group of Seven, they grew up with the Group of Seven,” Gary waid “What we’re able to give them here is a true, on-the-landscape experience.”