I decided to shoot a majority of the film sequences in rural Alberta where Robert Kroetsch's family farm still stands in a small town called Heisler. We arranged for Bob's cousin Jane Kroetsch to fly to Edmonton, where we picked her and Bob up and took them to the family reunion we had planned at the homestead in Heisler. It was all a bit rushed because we wanted to film during the harvest - the most beautiful time to see rural Alberta. Jane was a wonderful addition to my plan because she was the family historian, having written a book tracing the Kroetsch family roots. She helped me understand the complex migration and evolution of the family: from wandering Bavarian millers to Ontario and then Alberta homesteaders, to great-great Grandson Robert, the award winning Canadian poet and novelist.
The farm was about 2 hours outside of Edmonton. On our way out, I stopped periodically to film visual sequences of the gorgeous rural landscape. I am a bit of a cinematography addict, so I can't resist filming when the light is right. One particular old farmhouse caught my eye, so I pulled the truck over and ran out into the field with one of my cameras to get a few shots for a montage I was planning. On my way back to the road I saw something incredible. On the other side of the highway, right behind the backs of my crew, were two historical farm implements which looked and operated as though it were 70 years ago, complete with farmers in period costume! I grabbed an old super8 camera and filmed a number of "authentic" archival sequences that appear in the film, complete with scratches and film grain as though they were shot 70 years ago!
All the Kroetschs we met were extremely hospitable and eager to talk on camera about the past, their large extended family, and the journey from Europe. The land and the spirit of Heisler was especially captivating for Bob, who somehow was able to transport himself back to all the memories of his childhood. After a couple of days, he began to philosophize about his great, great Grandfather and his probable reasons for leaving Europe and what it meant to be in constant motion, to be an immigrant in a new land and to be a writer looking back on the enormous journey from "the old country". When the shooting in Alberta ended, I thought I had completed the film. In some ways, Bob had said everything that needed to be said, and I thought there was very little left to shoot.
I had planned to use Bob's writing as a kind of narrative for the film, but his fascination with the homestead in Germany and his extraordinary connection to these people long dead in Europe kept haunting me. I wasn't sure what we would find, but fate was driving me to Northern Bavaria in Germany for additional shooting. It was a shot in the dark. As both director and the cinematographer, I could get there cheaply with a pared down camera package, one wireless microphone and a heap of faith that we would find what we were looking for to complete the film.
Luckily, Bob had a conference in Holland and by pure chance, he was free and eager to meet me in Frankfurt where we would begin by looking at the remarkable main train station that had inspired one of his great poems. The poem is the story of meeting his double, a man who looks very much like him at the time, but who was entirely German. Bob still feels this pull to the old country - and a connection to the people that still work the mills in small Bavarian towns.
Just before I left for Germany I spoke again with Jane Kroetsch at her home in Ephrata, Washington, just to thank her for all her help in Alberta, and her kind words for the camera. She insisted that I call a man named Kurt Sheuer when I got to Germany, because she recalled that he had been very helpful when she was researching her book on the Kroetschs. She also warned me that he wasn't very fluent in English. I was a bit apprehensive, but I thought he could at least help me identify some of the villages and names that would bring us to the old family homestead. The voice I got on the phone sounded like an older gentleman, quite self-conscious of his English skills and very difficult to understand. But since everything in Europe is close by, Bob and I thought we'd pay him an afternoon's orientation visit just to get started.
What a surprise to find that Kurt was such a young, enthusiastic trooper. He insisted that he would come as our guide. He packed his maps and drove with us on a great quest for the Kroetsch family homestead, and Bob's inspirational roots.
In retrospect, Kurt was an essential, and totally unexpected, part of our adventure. He was invaluable because of his fluency in all the dialects necessary to communicate with the local people in Northern Bavaria, and because he was so good at digging up the past. Thanks to Kurt, Bob and I were able to see the actual mill and some of the precious artifacts that his family had left behind so long ago on their voyage to Canada. Kurt also opened the door to his country, introducing Bob and I to a place that both our grandparents and great grandparents had always talked about.
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