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September 3, 2015

Discovery's 'National Parks Project' Dives Head-First Into Nature, Canadian Style

by Stephanie Earp, posted Mar 14th 2011 5:00PM

If you want to get film or television made in Canada, you're probably going to need a grant.

For my readers in countries with a population density over 3.3 people per square kilometre, a grant is a sum of money given by a government or charitable organization to assist artists and organizations in overcoming the fact that our free market is as tiny as our tundra is vast. And if you want to secure one of these grants, it helps if your goals are in line with those of the granting agencies.

On first glance, the new series 'National Parks Project,' debuting on Discovery World HD on March 19, seems designed to make the juries of our various arts councils cry with happiness.

Citing the Group of Seven and Margaret Atwood, the show sets out to create art about nature, sending three musicians and a filmmaker to a Canadian national park (each episode features a different province or territory) to jam, shoot and explore. This simple premise hits all the Canadian G-spots. Documenting life outside our urban centres? Check. Supporting artists? Check. Offering a distinctly Canadian perspective? Check. Educating people about Canadian history and wildlife? Check. Creating new artworks? Check.

But the show is so much more than the sum of its parts. For one thing, it's achingly beautiful. As I get older, my appreciation for nature documentaries is growing, and I'm sure that's as much due to my aching bones as the technological advances of HD cameras. 'National Parks Project' scores an unusual point by sending somewhat regular people into the wilderness as our proxies, though. Instead of hearing from experts and scientists accustomed to these deserted worlds, we hear from city kids (for the most part). They may have done world tours or been nominated for Academy Awards, but like most Canadians, they've never seen the interiors of these parks. The sheer wonder they feel is contagious.

More than anything, it's an attitude towards art and towards Canada that makes the show remarkable. The writing and production show a clear respect for both, but it rarely gets reverential, and avoids the flourish and cuteness of those Canadian Heritage Moments. The show presents the tools and materials of inspiration -- beautiful landscapes, haunting histories, talent for visuals or audio -- and asks its participants to get to work.

Another strength is the artists participating. The more recognizable are the musicians -- including Sarah Harmer, Sam Roberts, Matt Mays and Kathleen Edwards (who turns out to be an expert canoeist) -- but the filmmakers are all accomplished as well. Not to get too overwrought about the whole thing, but these people are pretty much the living, breathing equivalent of a national park. Unlike the Dions, Beibers, and Lavignes of the world, they are Canadians who make their living in Canada, and actually cover some of this territory in their songs and films even when they are not asked to do so by a television show. They willingly sit down among swarms of mosquitoes and within a few hundred feet of polar bears and write songs together, recording with a microphone taped to a piece of driftwood.

Tying it all together is no-nonsense narration by a fellow who has always invoked the Canadian landscape in his work, the Tragically Hip's Gord Downie. Clearly, if Downie ever needs a few bucks, he has a future voicing truck commercials -- he sounds plenty serious and as though he could definitely work up some scorn over donut-eaters at focus groups. But again it's the attitude in the writing that struck me. Too often, the narration of shows on Discovery and similar channels makes a mountain out of a molehill, or an hour-long episode out of six minutes of CGI. Here, if anything, dangers and drama are played down, and it's left to Sam Roberts to explain the artistic importance of feeling like you might lose control of your bowels as a polar bear stalks you across the tundra. Downie, on the other hand, seems singularly unconcerned.

All in all, 'National Parks Project' is a little 13-episode miracle, a rare example of how arts funding in our country is supposed to work and a gorgeous museum of Canadian treasure that doesn't feel like a school field trip.

National Parks Project airs Saturdays at 8PM and 8:30PM ET/9PM and 9:30PM PT on Discovery World HD.

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