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Director of Brotherhood visits: Parallels seen between film’s lake tragedy and Broncos crash

"There's a lesson in this movie, but I think that the community of Humboldt is well aware of it because of the tragedy that it's already endured with a lot of dignity,” said director/writer Richard Bell

HUMBOLDT — For what appears to be the first time, the director of a movie shown at a Humboldt theatre was there for its screening.

Richard Bell, the writer and director of Brotherhood, was at Reel Attractions on Oct. 17, ready to answer questions from the audience.

The movie, based on a true story, follows the story of a group of teenage boys attending a Brotherhood of St. Andrew’s leadership camp on Ontario’s Balsam Lake in 1926, hosted by Toronto’s St. James Cathedral. At dusk, they left the camp in a canoe. Hours later, 11 of them were dead, with the remainder fighting for their survival.

Bell, who’s a Vancouver resident, said he first encountered the story while he was living in Toronto in 2006.

“I was so moved by the tale of heroism and dignity and also by the fact that a lot of the boys gave up their spots in the canoe so the younger boys would have a chance of survival,” he said.

“I thought that the humanity of that was just so bristling, so I filed it away in my brain and thought that'd be a great idea for a movie one day.”

Another item that attracted Bell’s attention was the fact the boys were part of a generation that lost their fathers in either the First World War or the Spanish Flu.

“This is a series of boys who are raised without their fathers and that's why they're at this camp,” he said, adding they were there to interact with male role models and learn leadership skills.

A few years later, Bell began researching the story in detail, crafting a narrative around it. Some changes were made for the purposes of telling a story adapted for film. For example, the number of people involved compared to real life was reduced.

“It was more important to me that people track different boys’ journeys through the film, then to get the historical accuracy 100 per cent correct.”

Back when the incident happened, it attracted worldwide attention.

“The safety measures we enjoy today in Canada are partly because of this incident,” Bell said.

The director said that back in 1926, life jackets would have been used only in the navy, but there were flotation devices called cushion or cork that could have been used; however, they didn’t tend to use them at summer camps.

“It was also a camp that was designed to push the limits of boys’ character, building trips that were meant to push them, so yes, it's totally foolhardy by today's standards and perhaps even standards from 90 years ago,” he said. “A lot of boys’ and girls’ camps after this incident actually burned their war canoes, or they put them into storage.”

While it was a major incident in 1926, by the time the film was released in 2019, most people had forgotten it happened, even by those living at Balsam Lake.

Due to the pandemic, the regular distribution channels for films were unavailable, so Bell decided to email local cinemas.

“I connected directly with a lot of independent mom and pop cinemas, because I knew I saw from early releases that Brotherhood was doing really well in rural areas where people still felt like a feeling of warmth and kinship towards stories from the past and towards stories from yesteryear and had a lot of community pride.”

Reel Attractions was one of the places that received Bell’s email. Mike Yager, one of the owners, decided to give the movie a closer look and watched the trailer.

“We started to talk about the connections of the movie with what happened with the Humboldt Broncos three years ago. It kind of resonates. It's not an exact replica but it's there's a lot of similarities between the two events.”

Bell also saw the parallels.

“The lesson of Brotherhood is that you can only survive the night clutching to a canoe in tandem with our community in fellowship with one another,” he said. 

“I think that the town of Humboldt has already learned the lesson that's inherent in this movie, by what happened with the bus tragedy and the Humboldt Broncos here. There's a lesson in this movie, but I think that the community of Humboldt is well aware of it because of the tragedy that it's already endured with a lot of dignity.”

Brotherhood was screened at Reel Attractions from Oct. 15 to 21. As well as his public appearance on Oct. 17, Bell talked to students from Humboldt Collegiate and Englefeld School in a private screening held Oct. 18. He also took the time to visit the Humboldt Broncos crash site north of Tisdale and the Humboldt Gallery to look at the memorabilia that resulted from that tragedy.