"Who will sing for me?" was an official selection of MIFF in the short documentary section of the spring festival of 2022. The Canadian project is directed by Roger Bill and Tristram Clark. Using archival film recorded over two decades ago, the documentary film tells the story of the demise of the Beothuk people on the island of Newfoundland and the journey of an artist to remember and bring us all closer to reconciliation. It is our pleasure to speak to Roger Bill about the making of Who will sing for me?
Roger Bill is a veteran, St. John’s-based journalist. Following completion of an MA degree at Memorial University of Newfoundland he worked with CBC Radio as a producer and documentary maker, including 10 years with the national program SUINDAY MORNING where he reported on atlantic, national, and international political affairs. Following his departure from the CBC he joined Tristram Clark and worked for a variety of clients providing television coverage of current affairs in Newfoundland and Labrador and Atlantic Canada. Included in that body of work were the initial recordings during 1998—2000 for what has become the documentary Who Will Sing For Me? That project was interrupted, in part, by Roger’s return to Memorial University and his enrollment in a PhD program in the school’s Department of Anthropology. Roger continues to report on NL politics for the online publication www.ipolitics.ca.
How did you start making films?
I am journalist and I began my career in radio with CBC where I worked as a producer and documentary maker. What I learned was that radio at its best was a visual medium and the challenge was to create pictures with words and sounds. Often when I was hitting a deadline I was guided by the American author Bill Burroughs who, when asked how he overcame writers block, said “Write what you see.”
When I retired from CBC Radio I began a career as an independent television producer and I sold news coverage and feature documentaries to national services like Global TV and speciality channels like The Discovery Channel. In fact, Who Will Sing For Me? took its first steps more than 20 years ago as a vignette about an artist working in his studio for a project for the Cable Public Affairs Channel (CPAC).
What makes you fascinated with the documentary genre?
I have always been drawn to the realm of non-fiction. Maybe it just flows from being curious and wanting to understand what makes things tick. Also, it isn’t just in my work. I think the only non-fiction books in my study are by Charles Bukowski and there is only a thin veil in his work between fiction and non-fiction.
What is the most challenging aspect of being an independent documentary filmmaker?
There are so many moving parts to a project beside the creative that a lot of energy gets burned up on logistics and then funding and marketing. Plus, working alone can be tough. I loved working in newsrooms. It was like being in a river of ideas and the ideas just kept flowing by. It is a great place for action junkies and for a period of time it was the perfect fix for me. When I went on my own I found a partner, Tristram Clark. We built a production company, and even though I moved on from the business side of the partnership we continue to collaborate as we did on Who Will Sing For Me?
How difficult is it to fund and distribute documentary films?
In Newfoundland and Labrador where I live there seems to be a healthy film-making community, but there are only a handful of documentary makers and success seems to depend on being able to juggle funding applications and broadcast sales. Not easy in a small market. I don’t know what young documentary makers are doing with new technology and streaming opportunities. Maybe it is different for them.
What is your next project and what are you currently working on?
I continue to work on marketing Who Will Sing For Me? In addition to being selected for the MIFF it has been selected by the Nickel Independent Film Festival in Newfoundland and we are hopeful about another couple of festivals. The step beyond that is a broadcast sale and then a final sale to the NL provincial government who administers the interpretation centre where the Spirit of the Beothuk stands. The documentary is timeless. A century from now someone will look at that statue and my guess is they’ll be interested in the story of the artist and its creation.
What is the inspiration behind Who Will Sing For Me?
As I mentioned in the answer to Question #1 the project began more than 20 years ago and it began kind of by accident. My partner, Tristram Clark, and I were supposed to be recording 3-minute sequences of ordinary life for July 1 holiday programming for the the Cable Public Affairs Channel. CPAC called them ‘video postcards.” For example, we recorded some women practicing for a rowing competition. We recorded people in an English as a second language class. And we went to the studio of an artist to record him at work. The idea was these video postcards would run all day long without narration on July 1 on CPAC. . .a collage of little slices of Canadian life.
The artist, Gerry Squires, was working on a maquette for what eventually became a larger-than-life statue of a Beothuk woman. Gerry Squires, told us a story about a vision he had while travelling to an island off the northeast coast of Newfoundland. He believes he saw the spirit of a Beothuk woman named Shanawdithit. School books in NL teach children that Shanawdithit was the last of the Beothuk, the culture Europeans encountered when they arrived in Newfoundland. Squires said the experience was powerful and it propelled on the journey that led to the creation of the statue.
Tristram and I decided that we would follow Gerry Squires as he created what became known as The Spirit of the Beothuk statue. It took us more than two years. Then we recorded the installation of the statue, then the official unveiling, and then we returned to the bay with Gerry Squires where he experienced his vision. Plus, throughout that process we interviewed archaeologists and ethnographers and indigenous leaders about the story of the Beothuk and their demise. In the end we folded it all together as a reminder that for a thousand years before Europeans came to Newfoundland the island was occupied by the Beothuk.
That was our inspiration. We thought we had a broadcast sale at the time so we worked on a rough-cut, but unfortunately the sale did not happen. Other potential buyers expressed limited interest, but the offers we got didn’t come close to covering our expenses. So, we moved on to other projects to pay the bills.
We moved on, but Tristram and I always wanted to finish the documentary. Or, as one indigenous viewer described it, the documentary demanded to be finished. Fast forward twenty years and Covid-19 had put the brakes on a lot Tristram’s work and my schedule was clear. Truth and Reconciliation had become part of the Canadian vocabulary. Tristram and I found some financial support and we finished it.
What kind of impact should your documentary have on the world and why was it important for you to make this documentary?
I’m going to let other people answer that question. Stan Dragland is a Canadian literary critic and author of an art/career retrospective of Gerry Squires. He wrote, “Who will Sing For Me? is a technically accomplished, pointedly political, completely absorbing account of Gerald Squires’ 1987 vision of Shanawdithit, so-called last of the Beothuk, and the fascinating process by which that vision became the statue honouring her as representative of a people tragically lost to colonial expansion.” Esther Squires, one of Gerry Squires’ daughters, is the Curator of the Gerry Squires Gallery in St. John’s. She wrote, "Who will Sing for Me?" tells the story of my father’s quest to create a monument to the Beothuk. This film highlights his passion for justice. In my father's words ,"We all breathe the same breath". Roger Bill and Tristram Clark have made an important film that honors our commitment to healing the wounds from our past.