There's No Place Like This...

The National Parks Project ★★★
(Canada, 120 min.)
Dir. Scott Smith, Stephane Lafleur, Peter Lynch, Daniel Cockburn, John Walker, Keith Behrman, Louise Archambault, Zacharias Kunuk, Hubert Davis, Sturla Gunnarsson,Catherine Martin, Jamie Travis, Kevin McMahon.
To celebrate the centennial of Parks Canada, thirteen Canadian filmmakers collaborated with forty musicians to pay tribute to Canada’s first National Parks system. The result is the anthology film The National Parks Project, in which each director takes a province and selects a park, and then works with a trio of musicians to produce a brief celebration of the Canadian landscape in all its cinematic glory. It’s sort of life Paris, je t’aime, except with the Canadian wilderness in place of the boroughs of Paris.

While Paris, je t’aime relies mostly on recognizable auteurs, The National Parks Project brings together some well-established talents, such as Zacharias Kunuk (Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner), Sturla Gunnarsson (Force of Nature: The David Suzuki Movie) and Kevin McMahon (A Winter Tan), it also highlights some up and coming talents. The film opens strongly with the short “Looking Around without Blinking” by Scott Smith (director of the fabulous 2003 film Falling Angels). Using music by Sarah Harmer, Bry Webb, and Jim Guthrie, “Looking Around without Blinking” is an eclectic salute to the Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve & Haida Heritage Site in British Columbia.
Among the other more notable sequences in the film is Gunnarsson’s rendering of Newfoundland’s Gros Morne Park. In collaboration with Melissa Auf der Maur, Jamie Fleming, and Sam Shalabi, “Gros Morne” is a hypnotic view of the majestic landscape at sunrise/sunset. Gunnarsson’s sequence arguably has the strongest blend of panoramic scenery and musical inspiration. Also strong are Jamie Travis’s odd look at a woman’s trip to Kouchibouguac National Park in “Mystic Morning”, Louise Archambault’s inspired depiction of Kluane in the Yukon Territory, and Kevin McMahon’s stunningly shot look at Nahanni National Park Reserve, which provides a strong finish to the film.
The best sequence in the anthology is Peter Lynch’s offering for Waterton Lakes National Park in Alberta. Titled “Paahtomahksikimii (The Place Where Lakes Go into the Mountain),” this sequence incorporates the Indigenous culture that shares strong ties with the park, and the short film is an ingenious mix of contemporary portraits and archival footage synced to an entrancing drum beat. It is easily the most ambitious and contemplative entry in the film.

As is the cast with most travels, though, some visits are not as memorable as others are. Unfortunately, despite the wide diversity in the landscape, many of the shorts are quite similar. A few too many of the shorts merely pan around the vistas and splice the shots together to a new beat, and these sequences are vastly eclipsed by the stronger entries mentioned above. Moreover, some of the soundtracks are completely incongruous with the visuals, and muddle one’s enjoyment. Luckily, only one of the sequences encourages clear-cutting of a National Park: Daniel Cockburn’s “Material”, which profiles Bruce Peninsula National Park in Ontario, is an annoying and juvenile attempt to infuse trendy new-age philosophy into its poorly shot views of nature. However, the lackluster shorts in the film provide respites for bathroom breaks, which are most appreciated given the constant flow of water onscreen.

Overall, this mix of landscape shooting and catchy soundtracks is not as contemplative or aesthetically refined as, say, Tree of Life, but it nevertheless captures some stunning scenery in its natural glory. There are enough worthy salutes in The National Parks Project to make the effort a noble one. Moreover, the strong entries will doubtless inspire mental note taking for visits to some of these breathtaking sights and thus hopefully make the project a successful one as well. 

The National Parks Project is currently playing in limited release, but all the shorts can be seen at www.nationalparksproject.ca 
*Plays at Toronto's Open Roof Fest July 14!