8 mins 30 secs
Directed by Kurt Spenrath and Frederick Kroetsch
Open Sky Pictures and NFB co-production
Now streaming for free on NFB.ca
The advent of spring isn’t really the time to be thinking about the deepest part of the Edmonton winter. That being said, Thursday gave occasion for St. Albert-raised filmmaker Kurt Spenrath to offer at least one remark that might otherwise have sounded like he was commenting on icy climes.
“What a cool thing,” he said, unironically, as a note about a short documentary that he co-directed now being streamed for free through the National Film Board’s website.
“I don't think there's a filmmaker in the country that wouldn't like to be part of that NFB archive.”
The reason for his entrée into the ranks of Canada’s public film repository is Snow Warrior, an appropriately cable-knit sweater of warm regards to the adrenalized bicycle couriers of Edmonton. It focuses primarily on Mariah Hoy, an intrepid young woman who came to the job while she was looking for driving work.
We first see her on screen briefly applying some dramatic eye makeup, her head shaved on the side, arm tattooed, right before she hoists her bike quietly up the stairs of her flat and opens the door to the winter that awaits her.
“They say you aren’t a real bike courier in Edmonton until you do a couple winters,” she remarks in the voiceover, riding along the snow-laden pathways of the High Level Bridge before a late northern dawn, a smattering of other pedestrians taking their marches to some office somewhere downtown.
The bridge route soon finds her right in the middle of morning traffic where a fender bender due to a patch of black ice would be far more dramatic if she was involved. The audience first starts biting their nails when we see another cyclist take a harmless spill at some corner crosswalk.
All I can think is Hoy’s bike is her office and I can’t believe she doesn’t have thicker garments on, and more of them. If that were me, I’d have snowpants on at least, and likely some kind of scarf or snow mask. I’d be wearing my contacts, too. Hoy still has her glasses on and we all know how lenses fog up under such frosty use.
Who am I kidding? That would never be me. But Hoy … she loves this work. It’s not just a subculture; it’s a way of life for a certain breed of person.
Spenrath reported that he and co-director Frederick Kroetsch came to admire the couriers for braving the elements on the same bikes that they’d be riding in the middle of summer, especially as the filmmakers themselves needed to figure out the best way to get the action on camera.
“The series of contraptions we had to invent to try and film them is insane. We actually built a bike with a scoop seat on it that a camera man could ride that would be motorized, thinking that would be the way. Even motorized, there's no way we could keep up with them,” he exclaimed, professing his admiration to one of the grips for the shoot, for his inventiveness.
“I keep throwing love to Larry Kelly for designing all of the rigging and the harnessing – if you've ever wondered what a grip or what a rigger does, watch this film – so we could actually shoot this hanging out of vans and in all of these exotic, terrifying positions to get the shots in this thing. It took a real effort to actually be able to get them on their bikes the way they're framed in the film.”
He also dropped heavy praise onto the sturdy shoulders of St. Albert cinematographer, filmmaker and multimedia artist aAron Munson for riding the rig on that moving precipice to commit the scenes to record.
The things we do for art, Spenrath mused, before considering that maybe this helped establish Snow Warrior’s place with the NFB. The government agency has backed filmmakers since 1939 and has produced more than 3,000 films since its inception. In turn, those film have won more than 5,000 awards along the way.
“They're so good to filmmakers. They let you just make a piece of art. It's this incredible treasure, and I don't think people realize what an amazing thing the NFB website is. If you want to know how to make an igloo, you can go on there and find footage that somebody shot in 1952 after lugging the camera up into the wilderness outside of Cambridge Bay or wherever and actually watch that footage. It's a pretty amazing, special thing that we have. Imagine if you could watch all the films in the Library of Congress in America with the click of a mouse.”
Snow Warrior was an official selection for the 2018 Edmonton International Film Festival and the 2019 International Festival of Winter Cinema. Spenrath explained that it was originally meant to be a "little bit of a love letter" to not only Edmonton and to winter but these hardy cyclists.
"Our goal was to try and make Edmonton look like a cosmopolitan place and let people know that it is a real city, with bike couriers, with downtowns, with all that kind of stuff. We always imagined the hypothetical person watching this online in the Sahara, or on the Gold Coast of Australia, or someplace like that where they don't have snow. How much it would blow their minds," he continued.
"It has wandered around the world a little bit in its festival run but this is going to be its first time really accessible globally, because it is going to be available worldwide through NFB. It's not going to be geo-blocked so if people want to send a link of this to their relatives in Jamaica, and go, ‘This is where I live,’ they can ... and please do."
While he still had the spotlight, he gently soapboxed his hope that viewers will at least take the film as a reminder to be wary of and kinder to cyclists on the road, whatever the weather.