If you ask Andrew Connors to explain the appeal of film, the answer is simple and direct.
“It transports me,” he says without hesitation.
A self-professed “art nerd” who loves to read, Connors sees a strong parallel between the storytelling power of film and that of books.
“It transports people into other worlds in that magic, dream-like way. It brings other people’s experiences and other experiences that you wouldn’t expose yourself to in the physical.”
Growing up in southwestern Ontario, Connors was not a regular movie-goer. Pressed to name the first film he ever saw on screen, he eventually suggests it was probably a drive-in screening of Star Wars in 1978.
He now makes his living from that medium, as an independent filmmaker, and as artistic director of the Yukon Film Society, and director of the annual Available Light Film Festival in Whitehorse.
It was a chance encounter with a grade-school friend in his hometown of Guelph that introduced Connors to the idea of coming North.
That friend was Greg Karais, who now operates Harper Street Publishing in Carcross. He had just returned from a summer in Dawson City when he walked into the restaurant where Connors was working in 1991, while “fading away from university.”
After hearing Karais describe the opportunities in Dawson, Connors says “the switch got flipped” for him.
“The next spring I ponied up my old Volkswagen and drove out west and then drove up North,” he says. “I honestly don’t remember what I thought was going to happen at the end of the summer. Halfway through, I decided I wanted to stay, so I moved to Whitehorse in the fall.”
During his early years in the Yukon, Connors worked a number of jobs, including land surveying, carpentry, and labour. After a few summers in Dawson, however, he decided to seek an outlet for his creativity.
“I just had the idea that film might be that creative outlet for me.”
Connors has no formal training in filmmaking, but says he would probably have gone to art school if something like the Yukon School of Visual Art (SOVA) in Dawson City had existed back then.
His first foray into film was a half-hour documentary on George Sawchuk, a former logger who turned to sculpture after losing a leg in an industrial accident.
Connors first encountered Sawchuk’s work at a folk art exhibition in the McMichael Gallery outside Toronto, and thought more people should know about him.
“He was really an awesome character. He was self-taught, and salt of the earth, and spoke his mind,” Connors says.
“He was a great conversationalist, and his work was really interesting. It explored a lot of different themes and subjects, mostly related to religion and politics.”
Filming at Sawchuk’s sprawling “forest gallery” near Fanny Bay on Vancouver Island and editing in Victoria required Connors to alternate residences between the Yukon and B.C.
Connors moved back to the Yukon permanently in 1999, with the Sawchuk film in hand and a determination to pursue filmmaking.
“The reason I kept going, quite frankly, was because it got shown in a few film festivals and some people said some nice things about it, and then Bravo Television bought it.”
His next project, Shipyards Lament, documented the demise of a unique lifestyle on the Whitehorse waterfront, reflected in large part through the experience of the late photographer, John Hatch.
That film subsequently aired on CBC and was screened at the Tromsø International Film Festival in Norway in 2003.
Another part of the Yukon that continues to fascinate Connors is the once-thriving mining community of Keno City.
“There’s a presence and a feeling there that’s unlike anything else in the Yukon,” he says. “As a storyteller, in my mind it was totally untapped. And it still largely is untold.”
Connors already has two major Keno projects to his credit: a short dramatic film called Artifacts, which he co-wrote with Michael Hale, and a live-performance collaboration with musician Kim Barlow, Lucky Burden.
His involvement in film goes far beyond what he sees through the lens, however.
When he joined the Yukon Film Society board, it was “a very project-driven organization” with an annual budget of about $40,000 that exhibited films from an established list of touring Canadian works.
“The thing that really appealed to me was to create a film festival that we curated, that we programmed,” he says.
“And I said to the rest of the board, ‘It would be great if we brought in international films, and start bringing in our own guests and booking our own films.’”
The result was the Available Light Film Festival, which debuted in 2003, highlighted by a screening of the highly-acclaimed Nunavut film, Atanarjuat: The Long Distance Runner.
“It’s just been growing incrementally over the years, and doing really great programming that appeals to the Yukon audiences, but is also professionally presented,” Connors says.
“My goal has always been to provide the cinema experiences in the best possible form that we could muster with the resources that we have.”
For a kid who grew up with black-and-white TV and seldom went to the movies, the self-taught film-maker has come a long way.