In a tale of grief and dying outports, St. John's filmmaker nods to banshee lore

Wanda Nolan embraces the macabre in her chilling short film, premiering Sunday.

Women's film fest short embraces the dark side of Newfoundland folk stories

Always Going Never Gone, premiering in St. John's on Sunday, looks at grief through the traditionally macabre lens of Newfoundland folklore. (Submitted by Greg Locke)

Wanda Nolan found herself missing the macabre tales in Newfoundland culture — stories of hags, changelings and fairies with a mean streak.

But while she was writing a script on another film, her mother died, leaving her with an idea she couldn't shake.

In Nolan's 12-minute short, premiering Sunday at the St. John's International Women's Film Festival, a folklorist is "summoned by the last living soul of a forgotten community," she said, drawn to a saltbox home on a remote part of Newfoundland's coast.

Shrouded in fog, the dreamlike visuals of Always Going Never Gone hint at the horror to come.

Unknown to the folklorist, her subject is haunted by the death of the outport's future — personified as a banshee, a mythical creature described by Celtic cultures as a howling spectre or hag.

The banshee, for Nolan, represents grief — a mourning over the death of rural life. (Submitted by Greg Locke)

"The banshee is a way to express the unnamable of death and grief," Nolan says. Once upon a time, ghost stories served as a means of grappling with those afflictions, something Nolan thinks Newfoundland folklore has moved away from.

"This is how our culture dealt with it," she said, pointing to the archival material from Memorial University's folklore department she used in her research. "They say a chill went down your back, or they'd hear the howling."

It's a far cry from the fluttering clotheslines featured in today's tourism ads: Newfoundland culture as expressed to the world beyond.

"We've kind of lost that wonderful darkness that I think is so integral to who we are," she said. "We're packaging for a mainland taste."

Wanda Nolan, a St. John's writer and filmmaker, says the dark side of Newfoundland folk tales drew her to the idea of the banshee. (Malone Mullin/CBC)

It's exactly that flawless sheen that Nolan wanted to move away from, offering viewers a more traditional take on the stories Newfoundlanders tell themselves.

"As we start buying into this idea of who we are, we kind of run into tricky territory," she said. "I want to hear the darker stories. I want to hear the struggle and the beauty at the same time."

Loss of rural life

Although the script was a kind of catharsis for Nolan's own grief, she says it's also a nod to today's changing demographics. The outport's last inhabitant might be fictional, but across the province, populations of smaller communities continue to dwindle.

Coupled with the typification of Newfoundland culture, she said, the fear of loss — the loss of place, culture, and history — felt by her characters echo reality.

The film plays on the idea of Newfoundland's changing landscape, featuring a community that's about to fade into history. (Submitted by Greg Locke)

Despite the plot hinging on supernatural legend, Nolan says, she thinks those themes might speak to viewers and put them in the last resident's shoes.

"She pulls in the banshee myth, so that everything she believes in doesn't die."

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