Nova Scotia

Work of pioneering N.S. filmmaker Margaret Perry goes under the lens

Margaret Perry made dozens of films for the Nova Scotia Film Bureau depicting post-Second World War life in the province. Work is underway to bring greater recognition to this pioneering filmmaker and make her work available online.

Perry overcame an early tragedy to become 'one of Canada's most important film bureaucrats'

Pioneering N.S. filmmaker's work goes under the lens

2 years ago
Duration 5:21
Work is underway to bring greater recognition to Margaret Perry's films and make them available online.

If it wasn't for a tragedy, a pioneering Nova Scotia filmmaker may never have made dozens of films looking at life in post-Second World War Nova Scotia.

Margaret Perry was pregnant when her husband, a geology professor at the University of New Brunswick, died after being struck by a fire truck in 1936. Widowed and pregnant with their child, Perry was forced to find a way to earn money.

Formerly a stenographer — a job she hated — Perry turned to photography. Her love of the outdoors meant she had no desire to be cooped up in an office. She sold photos to magazines and wrote articles. She also took a correspondence course in still and movie photography, and started making films.

That interest in filmmaking would turn into a decades-long career, one that produced a large catalogue of work that archivists in Nova Scotia are now digitizing so it can have greater recognition and once again be watched by a wide audience.

A black-and-white photo of a woman operating a film camera atop a tripod.
Margaret Perry made more than 50 films for the Nova Scotia Film Bureau. The films were used to promote Nova Scotia as a tourism destination, as well as a place for industrial development. (Nova Scotia Archives)

During the Second World War, Perry worked as a rural projectionist for the National Film Board, a job that involved showing films in community centres and church basements.

Perry's work caught the attention of John Grierson, the founder of the National Film Board. (He's also the person who coined the word documentary.)

Perry moved to Ottawa in 1942 for 2½ years and worked for the film board. In 1945, she was offered the job to head the Nova Scotia Film Bureau.

Perry works with film in this undated photo. (Submitted by Leanna Griffith)

In this position, she made more than 50 films for the province between 1945 and 1969. The films served a variety of roles, from promoting Nova Scotia as a tourism destination to a place for industrial development, and they were sometimes used in classrooms.

The Nova Scotia Archives has already digitized several of Perry's films, and work is underway to have all of them available online this fall.

'An incredibly physical operation'

While the department was called the Nova Scotia Film Bureau, until 1959 its only employee was Perry. This one-woman operation saw Perry acting as director, cinematographer, location scout, script writer, sound recorder, driver and editor, just to name a few roles.

"She's not going out there with her iPhone, she's lugging a huge camera with her and a big, clunky tripod and all of her film that she would have had to take with her," said Jennifer VanderBurgh, a professor at Saint Mary's University in Halifax who has done biographical research on Perry's life and is part of the effort to bring greater awareness to her work.

Perry is shown on a film shoot in this undated photo. (Submitted by Leanna Griffith)

"This was an incredibly physical operation."

One film that highlights this is 1947's Battling Blue-Fins, which looks at sport tuna fishing in Wedgeport, a tiny fishing village near Yarmouth.

"Think about it, this woman is working solo, getting on these fishing boats and fishing is among the most dangerous occupations to this day," said Darrell Varga, a professor of film studies at NSCAD University in Halifax.

"It's very difficult work on the open ocean, crazy weather all the time, very rough conditions, and there she is with a camera."

The physical nature of the work wouldn't have been the only challenge Perry faced, said Varga. He thought of her recently when politician Alexa McDonough died. McDonough became Nova Scotia's NDP leader in 1980.

Jennifer VanderBurgh is a professor at Saint Mary's University in Halifax who is working on a project to help preserve the work of filmmaker Margaret Perry. She says Perry's films often show a Nova Scotia that's modern, but still retains its traditional heritage. (Ian Selig)

"That's decades after Margaret Perry, so I can only imagine the difficulties this woman would have faced in dealing with the government apparatus and the civil service, which would be entirely male dominated," said Varga.

VanderBurgh said the subjects of Perry's films were sometimes things she was interested in exploring, while at other times the topic was requested by a government department.

Because Perry's films were government made, they sometimes get criticized and dismissed as propaganda.

Darrell Varga is a professor of film studies at NSCAD University in Halifax. He wrote about Margaret Perry in his book, Shooting from the East: Filmmaking on The Atlantic. (Submitted by Darrell Varga)

"Do these films tell the exhaustive story of Nova Scotia?" said VanderBurgh. "Absolutely not, but they do tell Margaret Perry's perspective of what was noteworthy of the place at the time.

"To write off these films because they are government films is to kind of miss the point that these are artists' works there. They reflect a vision of this pioneering filmmaker and one of Canada's most important film bureaucrats."

While the credits may have listed Perry's name, a male narrator was used, as was the custom of the day.

'Her pitch for what made Nova Scotia great'

The Nova Scotia reflected in Perry's films is one of a nature lover's paradise, filled with forests, lakes and oceans, but it's also modern.

Whether it's the construction of the Canso Causeway linking Cape Breton Island to the mainland, or being home to "the largest self-contained steel plant in [North] America" in Sydney, Nova Scotia is portrayed as a place where the past meets the present.

"Part of her pitch for what made Nova Scotia great was the fact that it had this tension between modernization and holding on to its traditions and its history at the same time that it gave people such incredible access to the natural world," said Vanderburgh.

Perry is shown in this undated photo taken at Ingonish Beach in Cape Breton. (Submitted by Leanna Griffith)

Another way this vision of a modern Nova Scotia was communicated is in how the films use movement.

"Lots of shots taken from cars, shots of cars, of boats, of vehicles," said Vanderburgh. "This is a Nova Scotia that is moving and shaking and going places."

Varga said when watching the films, it's important to think about what's not included. He points to Road to Keltic, which touts the virtues of the Canso Causeway in how it opens the mainland up to the pristine tourism destination of Cape Breton.

What isn't mentioned is how the causeway made it easier for people to leave the island for work.

"The films are fascinating and super interesting, but also for what they don't show or what they don't talk about," said Varga. "Those are the kinds of questions viewers can bring to them."

The later years

After her retirement from the Nova Scotia Film Bureau, Perry remained in Halifax until her death in 1998, said her granddaughter, Leanna Griffith.

Perry never remarried after the death of her husband and didn't have any children besides Stan, who was named after her late husband.

"She just put her head down, figured 'I got to do this, I got to be the best of the best of the best, I got to make sure I put my best foot forward and I'm going to strive to make something for myself and my child,'" said Griffith.

Perry is shown in a still from the National Film Board's 1987 documentary: Margaret Perry, Filmmaker. (National Film Board)

She said Perry was a private person and was very matter of fact about her work. A lot of what she learned about her grandmother's work came from the stories her father told her, such as the time she was chased by a bear on a shoot or the time she showed up in a helicopter when he was at boarding school.

Griffith said her dad was in class one day and the students noticed a helicopter landing on a sports field next to the school. When it landed, out walked Perry.

"Everybody was like, 'That was so exciting because that never happens,'" said Griffith. "And my dad was kind of like, 'That's my mom. She's just coming to say hi."

Perry was out working on a film and wanted to check on her son, so the pilot brought her to the school.

"Who does that?" said Griffith. "Who just shows up in a helicopter?"

Griffith said it wasn't unusual for family members to be used as "props" in the films.

Some of the people in this film shoot are Perry's relatives. (Submitted by Leanna Griffith)

Asked what Perry would have thought on the recognition she's getting today, Griffith thinks she would have been surprised and proud, but would have accepted the accolades with modesty.

She thinks her grandmother would have said something like this: "You prove your worth by doing your job and you do it well," Griffith said. "And when people take notice, good, but don't let it get to your head. You have to continually be humble."