This New Brunswick town was literally haunted by the radio

A new documentary by Amanda Dawn, premiering at the Atlantic Film Festival, chronicles the bizarre effects of Sackville's radio towers.

New documentary chronicles the bizarre effects of Sackville's radio towers

Amanda Dawn Christie’s Spectres of Shortwave. (Atlantic Film Festival)

For seven decades, a mysterious site on the Trans-Canada highway marked Sackville, New Brunswick. Where the hills and trees faded just past the Nova Scotia border, 13 120-metre towers rose up from the town's Tantramar Marsh. They encompassed CBC's Radio-Canada International (RCI) shortwave broadcasting site, built during the Second World War to send broadcasts worldwide.

Like others in the area, artist and filmmaker Amanda Dawn Christie was fascinated by the site — which not only transmitted Canadian content around the world in various languages, but also relayed Radio Free Europe broadcasts during the Cold War. This week, she's premiering Spectres of Shortwave, her experimental documentary film on the site, at the Atlantic Film Festival in Halifax. It's a project seven years in the making.

"[The transmission site's] purpose wasn't for the locals," Christie says. "So my interest was in what its relationship was to the local people who lived around it." That relationship was more than just landscape: the transmission site affected the appliances, homes and even dreams of local residents.

Christie, who has a multidisciplinary media arts background, began the project in 2009. She was initially drawn in by experimentation with radio. "I built a radio that was a toilet paper tube, and my radio picked up Italian radio and I was like, 'Oh, I've done something amazing,' but it turned out I didn't — anything within 50 kilometres of that site could easily pick up the radio. In fact, many people in Sackville heard the radio in their sink, or their fridge, or their toaster."

After Christie started hearing stories of people unintentionally picking up radio broadcasts, she went further, envious of those who said they'd "hear the radio every Sunday night at 10:00 out of their sink."

She didn't hear anything in her own sink, so she built herself a radio from a regular sink and copper piping, taking it out at night into the Tantramar Marsh to try picking up RCI broadcasts. Once the sink project started to draw attention, strangers started sharing stories with Christie as she waited in line for coffee or at the bar in the small town.

Originally, Christie had planned to make a film about the towers as a durational landscape film — "a genre of experimental film that basically studies the landscape, a very slow film" — but the shared stories led her to change direction.

I've got stories about the broadcasts, people hearing radio coming out of their fridge, kids coming home from school and being alone and being afraid that there was someone in the house because it sounded like someone was talking in the basement.- Amanda Dawn Christie

Then in 2012, CBC announced that it would end RCI International shortwave broadcasts and shutter the site. After failing to find a buyer, the towers were dismantled in 2014.

The final cut of the film pairs these stories, interviews with RCI technicians, Christie's own stories and audio recordings with images of the towers — in all seasons and all weather, including their demolition.

Christie began carrying a recorder around with her to capture stories when strangers started talking. "I've got stories about the broadcasts, people hearing radio coming out of their fridge, kids coming home from school and being alone and being afraid that there was someone in the house because it sounded like someone was talking in the basement," she says. The radio waves would also cause lights and equipment to turn on and off at random, and the foreign-language broadcasts went deeper into the subconscious of some people: "People would be convinced that they'd dream in other languages and then call up the technicians to find out how that happened."

Millions of hours of radio were once produced in this building. (Jerry West/CBC )

Christie encountered several setbacks, first investing $20,000 in 35mm film stock just before a six-month "domino effect" where Hollywood and major film studios quickly shifted to digital and Canadian processing labs rapidly shut down. Ultimately, Christie ended up shooting on film and editing digitally.

"And just after I figured out how that was going to work and I was going to start filming, that was when they announced they were tearing the site down," she says. "I thought, 'Oh no, I'm losing my medium and my subject! I'm documenting a dying medium with a dying medium!' So all of a sudden there was a lot more urgency to film."

She worked on an intense shooting schedule between 2012 and 2014, usually shooting alone and hauling her 48 pound camera into the marsh, trying to catch different weather conditions. She stayed out in the marsh all night on several occasions to shoot time-lapse footage and obtained climbing certification in order to climb the towers.

What began as an experiment became a document of the life and death of the transmission site. Ultimately, it's a tale of Maritime resilience: how one filmmaker overcame those larger forces to put this film together and how the towers affected the community they were never intended to serve.

Spectres of Shockwave. Directed by Amanda Dawn Christie. Thurs, Sept 22 at the Atlantic Film Festival, Halifax. www.atlanticfilm.com

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