04 May 2006

Secret Nation was a documentary after all?

The following originally appeared in the Montreal Gazette (Sept 26, 1993) when the local film Secret Nation hit theatre screens across the country.

In light of the appointment yesterday of John Fitzgerald as Danny Williams' emissary to what some seem to consider Mordor, it might be interesting to revisit some of the publicity surrounding a movie that I mistook to be fiction.

This piece is also interesting because in an interview with The Telegram today, Fitzgerald was quick to downplay his well-known anti-Confederate views. Perhaps his views have changed with reflection over time; perhaps his comment to the Telly on his 1998 public talk on the second referendum before Confederation is couched in equivocal terms so as not to alarm the forces of darkness into whose lair he will soon penetrate:

"I said it was no more or less rigged or corrupt than any other Newfoundland election had been."

Uh huh.

His apparent view in 1993, albeit relayed second-hand, is highlighted below.

Incidentally, for the mainlanders reading this, Secret Nation is a work of fiction. It's a smashingly funny movie that should be released on DVD...if only someone would get around to it.

Read on and enjoy.


Secret Nation is a conspiracy movie with a farcical twist
by John Griffin

Secret Nation is a film that asks a lot of hard questions and demands a lot of good answers.

The miracle of Michael Jones's controversial fiction feature about a McGill history student who returns home to Newfoundland to confront her past is that it's so enjoyable anyway.

The veteran St. John's film-maker and CODCO linchpin posits the persistent theory that Newfoundland was rooked out of its autonomous British dominion status and slung to Canada's stingy bosom by a rigged referendum in 1949.

It contends that confederation forces - in cahoots with a British government eager to be rid of a nation colony that had cost the mother country plenty during the economic rigor mortis of the Depression - cooked the vote in favor of annexation to Canada.

By today's standards, a voting margin so narrow that fully 48 per cent of the island nation rejected alliance, would have resulted in more debate, and more referendums, until a decisive majority could be established.

But on March 31, 1949, a highly questionable 4-per-cent spread was enough to snuff out a proud, distinctive country that had survived and thrived under the most arduous geopolitical conditions for 500 years.

The notion of a unique people under the cultural yoke of a larger majority played extremely well here in Quebec when Secret Nation screened during last year's World Film Festival.

It is safe to say Jones, the Newfoundland separatist, and Quebec nationalists locked in a love embrace.

Indeed, the film should have opened a commercial run at that time to capitalize on the barrage of media exposure that followed its tumultuous reception.

Canadian distribution being what it is however - which is to say, being what it isn't - Jones' distributor went fishbelly-up right after the festival, leaving the film in local theatrical limbo until last week, when it opened at Cinema Centre-Ville.

The happy coincidence of having a film about a referendum during an actual referendum might have netted Secret Nation pots of Canadian cash this time last year.

God! Anything to escape the terminally nod-inducing talk about constitutional reform, let alone something as smart, funny, tragic and scandalously juicy as Secret Nation.

Great art has legs, however, and conspiracy theories are forever. So Secret Nation feels as right now, during a no-name election campaign, as it did a year ago.

What's more, Jones has further hard evidence to back up the long- held Newfoundland contention that grievous injustice was done lo these 44 years ago.

"There's a general feeling in Newfoundland that there was a plot of some kind to railroad us into confederation and push us into the arms of Canada," said Jones over cold beverages and a chain of cigarettes in Old Montreal last week.

"It's always been in the air. Based on that, we did a certain amount of research, consulted with historians and that sort of thing before we made the film. "But it was only after the film was finished that I read a brilliant thesis by John Fitzgerald, a young historian in St. John's, that was very supportive of the conclusions of the film - even though the film was a piece of fiction. [Emphasis added]

"We had simplified a very complex time, and part of that fiction was the rigging of the vote itself.

"We made it clear that the vote had been rigged the very night of the vote."

According to Jones (and he's insistent on assuming full responsibility for his spin on events, in case of libel or history proving him wrong) Fitzgerald made it clear Jones and his screenwriter Edward Riche had willy-nilly touched all the elements of what he (Fitzgerald) believes to be an actual conspiracy. [Emphasis added]

"Furthermore, he says we were probably not that far off on the events of the actual night of the referendum. "He reports numerous election irregularities and reports that it's clear the Newfoundland confederates, with Canadian money, were totally in control of the referendum machine. "He says it's clear, by today's standards, that the whole referendum was a farce."

Plenty of that farcical spirit finds its way into Secret Nation.

This is, after all, a film with roots in the insidious CODCO comedy troupe, and its emotions torn between dyed-in-the-sea Newfoundland and the hip artistic generation that both loves home and leaves it.

The movie plays as a thoroughly contemporary piece, despite its historical content and a brilliant mix of archival footage, uncanny recreations, documented fact, domestic tragi-comic fracas, and the sweet unalloyed whimsy that is pure Newfoundland.

It's the kind of thing the Brits do so well in series they then sell to PBS.

CBC would be exhibiting nerve and intelligence to pick up on the trend and show Secret Nation in prime time this winter, when everyone can use a good conspiracy, and better entertainment.