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A Glowing Dream: The Story of Jacob & Rose Penner

Director's Diary - Cathy Gulkin
on "A Glowing Dream - The Story of Jacob & Rose Penner"

It has always been in the back of my mind to one day tell my grandparents' story on film. Of course I imagined making a multi-million dollar epic feature, featuring a cast of thousands, shooting locations in Southern Russia, across Europe, on a ship crossing the Atlantic, and finally Winnipeg. From time to time I would be inspired to write an opening scene or two: The thundering hooves of the horses of the Cossacks shatter windows as twin 9-year-old girls, (my grandmother Rose and her sister, Becky) run to hide from the latest pogrom. Meanwhile, a few hundred kilometres away, young Jacob is conducting underground socialist meetings.

However, I have been a documentary editor for over 20 years and clearly it is in that field that my skills and talents lie. So when I was asked to edit two episodes of A Scattering of Seeds in 1998, I soon realized that my grandparents' story would fit this series perfectly.

The next challenge was to figure out which part of their story I would tell. Collapsing a tale sufficiently complex and rich for a feature film into 22 minutes is a daunting task. This was our family legend but I would have to let so many great stories go: Rose's flight across Europe, her step-mother's reaction when she arrived unexpectedly in Winnipeg, how Rose and Jacob were forced to send their son, Alfred, who had Down's Syndrome to an institution; Jacob's disappointment when his children left the Communist Party after Kruschev denounced Stalin in 1956, and many others.

Researching and writing the script was a wonderful process. I got to spend most of the summer visiting with my uncles and aunts, all wonderful story-tellers. Memory is a most subjective phenomenon and the next challenge was to choose whose version of events I would include. I innocently asked my mother and uncles to prepare a list of addresses of the homes that they had lived in during the Depression, foolishly thinking that this would be a straightforward bit of research. They're still debating it, more than a year after the fact. Roland, who has lived in Winnipeg all of his life, had the advantage. Since he was the one (along with my mother, Ruth) who would be taking us on a tour of North Winnipeg, his list took precedence.

As a feminist, I wanted to give Rose's story as much prominence as Jake's. She was an intelligent, feisty and strong woman but had lived, to some extent, in the shadow of Jake's public life. However, public lives live on in archival records where private ones do not. I uncovered a wonderful interview that Jacob had given to the CBC in Winnipeg in 1962, photographs and archival footage of the camps in which he was interned from 1940-1942; the 1939 May Day Parade in Winnipeg and lots of well known footage of the Winnipeg General Strike. "A Scattering of Seeds" is about the legacies of new Canadians and Jacob's legacy was public and concrete, whereas Rose's was more personal and therefore more difficult to convey in a documentary format. In a half-hour television programme only the most visually dramatic and compelling stories make the final cut. To my regret, Rose once again lives in Jacob's shadow. I guess I still have to write and direct that feature film, to give her her due.

My biggest fear, embarking on this project, is that by telling one version of events over another and by leaving out important parts of the story I would alienate beloved family members and no one would be speaking to me by the end of the process. I'm happy to say that not only is everyone still speaking to me, but they are all thrilled with the final film and disappointed that it wasn't nominated for an Oscar.

We had a family re-union in Winnipeg and a public screening on May 1 (May Day). After the screening, Winnipeg Mayor Glen Murray announced the naming of a city park after Jacob. In his speech, Murray noted that Jacob and Rose fought for workers' rights and civil rights. Their youngest son, Roland Penner, brought in Manitoba's first human rights legislation when he was Attorney General and fought for the inclusion of sexual orientation in the human rights code. This helped to create a political climate where an openly gay man like Murray can hold public office. My grandparents' legacy still touches the lives of all kinds of Canadians. I'm proud to have told their story on film.


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