Known as the “Hub of the North,” the town of Hay River in the Northwest Territories is set against gorgeous vistas of boreal forest, rivers and lakes. The town is also lucky enough to have Hay River Film Society, which brings inventive and community-focused programming to its audience, with a particular lens on Indigenous and Northern titles.
This month, Hay River Film Society co-founder Scott Clouthier shared some highlights from his experience navigating the unique challenges of being an independent film exhibitor in a small and remote community.
Canada is a large country, and organizations like the Hay River Film Society are vital in keeping our connective cultural fabric alive. Don’t forget to check out their next screening, alongside the northern lights.
Tell us about Hay River Film Society:
Hay River Film Society was founded in 2017, by a small group of local cinephiles who wanted to bring in the type of films that don’t normally play here. We operate on annual membership sales, as well as the generous sponsorship of local businesses, as well as at-the-door ticket sales.
Since the beginning, we’ve offered monthly screenings of independent or otherwise non-commercial films to the community. We’ve also held a number of special event screenings, including outdoor events, drive-ins, Christmas movies for the family, and my personal favourite, our Halloween “Screen Unseen” event where we choose a delightfully fun horror film, but don’t tell the audience in advance what they’re going to see.
We’ve also hosted National Canadian Film Day annually since our inception, as well as the Road Tour from our friends at the Yellowknife International Film Festival, which is always a hit.
Recently, we’ve been able to purchase some film equipment which is now available to rent for our local filmmaking community.
What makes Hay River Film Society unique?
I think what makes us unique is how relatively small and remote our town is. But we have a passionate arts community and a small, but modern independent cinema despite having only about 3,500 people in our town.
What sort of films do you show?
Our focus is on independent films, especially Northern and Indigenous films, but we also show films from across Canada as well as foreign films.
What are Hay River Film Society’s greatest challenges?
Remoteness is definitely our greatest challenge. In the first few years we relied on DCPs to arrive in the mail, because our internet was just too darn slow to accept digital downloads. Thankfully, we’ve now been modernized with fibre internet.
Our current challenge is keeping our finances going. COVID, as well as two successive years of town evacuations due to natural disasters have really hit everyone’s bottom line. There just isn’t as much sponsorship money going around, and with rising inflation and all that our membership sales have also slowed.
What are your favourite compliments that Hay River Film Society receives from your audience?
The smiles I see walking up the aisle as the credits are rolling is always the best compliment. And when someone tells me they enjoyed a type of film they wouldn’t have gotten to see otherwise.
What’s a memorable film screening or event you hosted?
The most memorable moment for me happened when we screened a film called Last of the Fur Traders, a documentary in which a filmmaker from Alberta brought his father back to all the Northern communities he used to visit when he was working on the fur trading boats. A woman in the audience was surprised to see her late father in some of the archival footage and she shouted, “That’s my dad!” It was a really heartwarming moment.
We were also lucky enough to be part of the simultaneous world premiere of Deepa Mehta’s Funny Boy, along with Whitehorse and Iqaluit. Big thanks to Andrew Connors (of past NICE Member of the Month Yukon Film Society) for arranging that and being nice enough to include us in it.
Another special experience was a screening of the animated film The Red Turtle which we held at our local public beach on the shores of the Great Slave Lake.
What are your most popular concession items?
We don’t handle our own concession, but at the Riverview Cineplex it’s definitely the popcorn! They still use real butter for popping and topping. It’s so delicious, it just can’t be beat!
What projects are you considering for the future?
We’d really love to expand into hosting workshops and courses to help our local artists, storytellers and historians develop the skills to make their own films. We recently partnered with the Hay River Youth Centre to offer a filmmaking camp for teens over Spring Break and from that were created two original short films which we will be premiering in the near future!
I’d also love to hold a retro show-n-shine of classic cars and an old school drive in screening of American Graffiti or Grease. Our ironic impediment to outdoor screenings is that it’s too light out for most of the summer months, so we only have a small window in late spring or late summer and early fall to plan these events.
Tell us about yourself; how did you get your start in film exhibition?
I got my start in film exhibition through being a filmmaker and wanting the chance to show my films, as well as those of my friends and other Northern filmmakers at our local cinema. I learned how to create DCPs and was able to familiarize myself with the world of film distribution and licensing.
The Film Society got its start after a conversation with my late friend Peter Magill, who was the economic development officer for the Town of Hay River, and himself a lover a great cinema. We both were longing for a way to bring “festival type” films to town, and I said I was pretty sure I had the skills to make it happen.