Film Feature: “Brotherhood”
Local film director’s movie based on a true story featured at Rainbow Cinema
A recent addition to the feature list at Studio 7 in Regina’s Rainbow Cinema is “Brotherhood,” the story of a little-known Ontario tragedy that occurred nearly a century ago in 1926 on Balsam Lake. A group of boys from the Brotherhood of St. Andrew were on a leadership retreat with their counsellors – two veterans from WWI – and headed out in a war canoe right in time for an astounding and unexpected storm. In the event the film is based on, 13 boys and the two counsellors were caught in the storm while only four made it back to camp.
Film writer, director, and producer, Richard Bell, changed some slight details in the story to better deliver his desired message. In the film, only 11 boys left with the counsellors across the lake, but the number of survivors remains the same. In an interview for Hollywood North Magazine (HNM), Bell said “you get to a point where you amalgamate characters. This is a story about boyhood and masculinity, so it was important to me to create certain male archetypes. We have the rebel, we have the brain, we have the wimp, and we have the kid brother and the big brother. We were able to explore the idea of masculinity through the prism of all these different male archetypes. I wrote the characters but the actors brought them to life.”
In the same interview, Bell recounts reading about the 80-year anniversary of this tragedy in Toronto in 2006 and thinking it would make a great film, but he couldn’t remember the name of the lake and had to look through old microfiches in libraries to find enough information to build this story. The event had received international coverage in ‘26 when it occurred, leaving plenty of details for Bell to scaffold together in his gradual presentation of fact and imagination.
With the exception of Brendan Fletcher (Arthur Lambden) and Brendan Fehr (Robert Butcher) from Vancouver who play the two counsellors, all actors were from Ontario. Shooting took place there, on the land of the Michipicoten First Nation by Lake Superior, and a smudging ceremony was done by Chief Patricia Tangie with the cast and crew before filming began.
While much of the film occurs safely on land in the camp, there is also thorough coverage of what Bell imagines it would’ve been like to have been in the canoe – and then the freezing cold lake, clinging to the canoe or treading water – for an entire night. While viewers may assume the filming was all done in the lake at night, filming most of the in-water shots occurred in a studio’s giant water tank and were touched up so beautifully by visual effects that even sitting in the back of the theatre, it felt like I had a front row seat to the real thing.
According to Bell and Fletcher all the boys were incredibly dedicated throughout the filming process, pulling off 12-hour days – with up to 10 of those hours in the giant water tank – without fuss or fight. Bell mentioned in his interview with HNM that “[t]here were also times when the younger guys had asked for colder water in order to feel the realism,” showcasing their dedication to the project and the level of personal investment necessary to do this story justice, “but because of union policy and our own responsibility for their personal safety, we kept it warm.”
To stoke that passion the actors exhibited, Bell got them together for a retreat in the filming area beforehand and developed their backstories by having them bond as a group. He personalized the process by having the boys journal as if they were the characters they played, which aided in the boys’ understanding of their character’s experience.
None of the characters present are shown to have had it easy in life. With Bell’s non-chronological presentation of the tale, the audience slowly builds up an impression of a character only to be reminded suddenly of that character’s humanity. The slow reveal of the true character in George Waller (Jake Manley), or “the rebel” that Bell mentions, is reminiscent of a trauma-informed approach to viewing the reactions and coping strategies others have.
Early in the film, we get a gauge for how short Waller’s fuse is when he pulls a knife just two hits into a fight, and his nonchalant disrespect for authority is displayed when he farts to interrupt a counsellor’s story. As a person he’s reactive, not fully in control of his actions and clearly being run by his emotions, but as we get further into the plot, we learn he is living in a home where he is abused. It makes sense for someone who’s treated poorly anyway to act poorly – they have nothing to lose by acting poorly, as they’re already experiencing what they view to be the consequences.
Waller also had visible rage reactions to mistakes made by himself or others, which can be a cue that someone wasn’t safely allowed to make mistakes while growing up. If a person’s caregivers don’t show compassion when an individual makes a mistake, it makes sense that it would be difficult for them to show it to others – or themselves – which is recurrent plot point between characters. Other past traumas addressed include a boy whose dad had drowned, several whose fathers had died in WWI, and Lambden who lost both his wife and son to a pandemic.
Bell ensures throughout the film that the storyline, while slow-moving at first, is essential in all its parts by the time the credits role on the final scene. While the jumps in time can be difficult to catch onto if unexpected, they build up the audience’s understanding of the character so that the prejudice brought up is washed back with compassion and understanding as the character’s full story – and the reasons for their style of reaction – come to light.