Interactive web-doc rethinks past, future of Giant Mine

Interactive web-doc rethinks past, future of Giant Mine
A new, interactive documentary on the legacy of Giant Mine, Shadow of a Giant, launches online this week.Photo: Lesley Johnson.

Decades after Giant Mine stopped producing gold, the abandoned structure and the 237,000 tonnes of deadly arsenic trioxide that remain trapped beneath it continue to cast a shadow over the community of Yellowknife and surrounding First Nations.

Now, as remediation crews attempt to clean up the toxic area, hoping to freeze the arsenic underground for at least the next hundred years, one team of filmmakers is hoping to get people thinking about the legacy of the mine and what could possibly become of the site that has impacted so many people.

“I think this site is a reminder going forward as a society developing extractive industries in our own backyards or other people’s backyards,” says director Clark Ferguson, whose film Shadow of a Giant launches online this week.

“It’s a reminder of what we shouldn’t do.”

The interactive web-documentary features interviews with a cross-section of residents, each invited to share their perspectives on how the now-defunct hotbed of toxic arsenic has impacted their lives and communities over the years, as well as their reimaginings for the site that is now undergoing extensive remediation.

Viewers are able to see the dreams of people like mine heritage spokesperson Walt Humphries, environmental monitor Kevin O’Reilly, former chief Fred Sangris and Erin Freeland-Ballantyne, who grew up playing in Yellowknife’s Back Bay behind the mine, artfully animated over the film images, breathing colourful new life into the dilapidated structures.

Ferguson said the idea for the reimaginings was inspired by a previous project where he asked inner-city residents of Saskatoon to imagine what they would do with empty downtown lots.

“With the Giant remediation, there’s not necessarily a plan for what happens next with the site, so why not ask the people who were most affected by it to tell us what they want to see happen with it?” he said.

Designed in coordination with Yellowknife-based web developer Sailing on Sound, the project overlays animation with video and online navigation tools like maps and fact boxes that allow viewers to explore the area around Giant Mine, learning more about its history, the extent of the contamination and the plans for remediation.

For those from the North, including ones who’ve grown up around Giant Mine, the film gives a personal touch to a familiar story illustrated by well-known local characters. For those who are just learning about Giant Mine, it serves as a primer to a complex set of stories: the creation of a city from a gold rush boom town; a bitter strike that ended in tragic murder; enough arsenic to wipe life off the planet; and the $1-billion plan to make sure that never happens.

“Part of it is to reflect on the legacy of these types of projects and what they mean to the community, to people’s lives and what they mean to the Northern economy in general,” said producer Lesley Johnson. “I think it’s really important to examine how we got here in the first place and to think about whether this is, given the result, something that could happen in the future, and if so, what have we done to change those possible outcomes.”

Putting together the complex online piece posed a tough set of challenges for the team over the past year, but the many benefits offered by the web format make it worth the effort.

“There are a lot of advantages to having an interactive platform,” Johnson said. She said the online format eliminates some of the problems of distribution experienced by documentary filmmakers, and allows access to a wider audience. It also provides a new, innovative way of sharing and receiving information outside the traditional documentary formula.

“It’s a very different type of storytelling,” which lent itself well to the kind of story she and Ferguson hoped to tell with Shadow of a Giant. Rather than bombarding viewers with complex technical information, the footage focuses on the personal while fact boxes allow viewers to click and read at their own pace.

“I think what’s really nice is that we struck a good balance between telling very personal stories and interesting stories from a wide perspective of the community with a lot of that heavy information about Giant Mine, because Giant is a huge topic,” Johnson said.

Along with the website, the film team plans to release a 30-minute film version as a companion to be screened at festivals and other events.

Johnson said she hopes the film can serve as an educational resource and a foundation to be built off of as the story of Giant Mine evolves through time.

“The interesting thing about it is that it will always be timely,” she said. “The remediation process is always going to be happening, and I think it’s really important to understand the stakes and the gravity of the issue, that it’s not ever going to go away, and that’s because of the decisions we made.”

Shadow of a Giant goes live at on Wednesday, Mar. 4.

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