In the 1970s, Swiss-born Ursula Heller travelled across Canada photographing everyday life in small communities like Hafford, Sask., Feversham, Ont., Carcross, YT, and Vallican, BC. Her black and white photos, which captured a wide range of people and lifestyles, became a book, Village Portraits.
More than 30 years later, Heller and husband Barry Gray — whom she met during that project — set out in a tent trailer to revisit and re-document those villages.
The results became a spellbinding slide show of then-and-now images: the same people and places photographed by the same person a generation later. Many remembered her and still had copies of her photos. Kids she met back then were now in their mid-40s.
Heller and Gray, who live in Harrop, hoped to do another book, but couldn’t find a publisher. Over dinner one night, former MLA Corky Evans, suggested turning it into a film.
They liked the idea but didn’t know anything about filmmaking, so approached William Fritzberg, a family friend and UBC film school alumnus who directed, produced, and edited short films and documentaries.
He saw potential and agreed to help, but Heller says it took a while to figure out what they wanted: “Barry and William thought it should be about my life. I said it’s not about me, it’s about these people in the villages. But the film is to a certain extent a bit of both.”
Fritzberg made a few trips to the West Kootenay and Heller and Gray went to see him in Vancouver a couple of times during the two-year process.
Gray wrote the script and narrates the finished product in verse form, while son Tobias composed and performed songs to introduce each community in the film. (Tobias’ wife Maggie and sister Mona do back-up vocals, adding to the family effort.)
Heller says the film is very personal. “We didn’t use too many names. It’s not documenting biographies of people, because then the film would be endless. It’s an impression from my heart — what I experienced.”
For Fritzberg, creating a film that relies on still images was challenging, but he enjoyed the collaboration. “It was a wonderful experience with two of the most amazing people I know,” he says. “Anybody can pick up a camera and take a picture of something or someone but the way Ursula and Barry connect with their subjects is what creates the images they have. That’s really the magic of the whole project.”
The film has its first public screening Saturday at the Procter hall at 7:30 p.m. (Doors open at 6:30 — bring a finger food snack to share and your own beverage.)
Next month the film will be shown in the Ontario and Saskatchewan communities Heller photographed. The trailer to Village Portraits Then & Now can be found at ursulaheller.com/village.