Filmmaker turns lens on his own family

By on May 1, 2006

After years of filming documentaries on such subjects as native housing in the North and Canadian Finns in Russia during the 1930s, Richard Stringer has turned to his Anglican family history for his latest film.

The Bishop Who Ate His Boots is a labour of love and work in progress, being the story of Mr. Stringer’s grandfather, a well-known Anglican bishop named Isaac Stringer who worked in the western Arctic in the early years of the 20th century. Bishop Stringer kept an extensive diary and made films of the North, documenting a now-vanished way of life. Although a classic Christian missionary, he also adopted the ways of the native people and much of his low-pressure evangelizing took the form of what would be described today as social work.

He and his wife Sadie lived for several years on one of the most remote places imaginable – Herschel Island, off the north coast of the Yukon in the Beaufort Sea. She sturdily adapted to life in the North, even giving birth to two children in the mission house, with only her husband for help.

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It has been a similarly arduous journey for Richard Stringer, who has completed principal photography on the film, which he estimates will run about 50 minutes in a television version and 70 to 80 minutes in a film version.

“I started in 1990 with the idea of making the film,” said Mr. Stringer, who was born in 1944 and never met his famous grandfather, who died in 1934. But he did have memories of his grandmother, who lived until 1955. Mr. Stringer’s father, Wilfred (the Stringers had five children), died in Esquimault, B.C., of hepatitis shortly after the Second World War. His mother, Clare, a British war bride, took young Richard to live in Winnipeg where he grew up.

Educated in Toronto at Ryerson University’s film school, Mr. Stringer has had a long-established career, working on feature films, TV movies, TV episodes, commercials, corporate videos and documentaries. He won a Gemini award in 2000 and Canadian Society of Cinematophers Awards in 2000 and 2003.

In 1990, he talked to author Pierre Berton, who was raised in Whitehorse and knew the Stringers. “Berton said he (Bishop Stringer) took movies, 16mm black and white film in the 1920s and 30s, interesting documentaries of the North, great shots of people building igloos, making boots. From 1905 to 1930, my grandfather was bishop of the Yukon and he showed his films at the local church,” said Mr. Stringer.

Mr. Berton, who was born in 1920, told Mr. Stringer that “it was a big thing – the bishop’s films – we looked forward to that!”

In 2004, Mr. Stringer began to discuss his idea for a documentary with broadcasters at Toronto’s HotDocs film festival, but ran into competition with other Arctic programming. Nevertheless, he filmed an interview with Mr. Berton (who died in November, 2004) and in 2005 he received a $30,000 grant from the Ontario Arts Council and began shooting more interviews and doing research at such institutions as the Anglican national church archives in Toronto and the Glenbow Museum in Calgary, which holds his grandfather’s films.

He realized that the film was more than just another documentary for him. He wrote in a grant proposal that “I will be on a personal quest to find out more about my grandparents … What made Isaac go up north? … Was Isaac in conflict with the church’s treatment of the natives or did he participate in unjust actions? Was he responsible for any residential school activity? What was my grandmother really like?”

What he found were two dedicated, resilient people. When Bishop Stringer arrived at Herschel Island in 1893, whaling ships were active in the Beaufort Sea, but the Europeans brought alcohol and disease to the native population along with trade goods. Bishop Stringer worked with the local Hudson’s Bay Co. manager to stem the alcohol flow.

Now, on the Yukon Territory’s Web site (Herschel Island is now a territorial park), an Aklavik elder is quoted as saying, “You know that time when they first started to come, they had no priest … they started drinking, they try to kill each other, fought, drank. Their wives, they lost them to those white people … When that preacher came, just like that, all the bad people stopped. Bishop Stringer, yeah!”

Sadie joined him in 1896. When her first child was born, she wrote in her diary, “My husband, who had some medical training, was my only attendant. I was tough and healthy and didn’t worry and the little girl’s birth seemed a happy omen.”

Isaac learned some of the native languages and survival techniques. The latter served him well in 1909 when he and another missionary were lost in the wilderness for 30 days. They boiled up an extra pair of sealskin boots, giving them just enough animal nourishment to hang on until they reached a native camp. The story hit the newspapers and Mr. Berton said he believed it was the inspiration for Charlie Chaplin’s boot-eating scene in the 1925 film The Gold Rush.

In 1914, the Stringers traveled to England on a public relations and fundraising tour and King George V asked to meet them. In 1930, Bishop Stringer became the archbishop of Rupert’s Land, the vast western region of the Anglican church. Shortly thereafter, he discovered that nearly $1 million had been embezzled from the church. The strain wore down his health and he died in 1934 at the age of 68.

Last fall, Richard Stringer traveled west to do research and film exteriors in the Yukon. Mr. Stringer has also been coping in the past year with a colon cancer diagnosis, but he said that despite chemotherapy treatment, he felt fairly good. “At this stage, I have no problem with energy,” he said, but he added that some of the footage shows he lost some hair due to the chemo.

His investigative work left him feeling “pretty positive” about his grandfather, who did not appear to have much connection with the much-criticized residential school system, preferring to work toward the establishment of day schools for Inuit, white and Metis.

Now he wants to finish the film, looking toward the HotDocs festival next year. Being his own director and cinematographer, lugging equipment, scrounging for funding, persevering through adversity – sounds like Richard Stringer is a worthy descendent of his episcopal grandfather.

Author

  • Solange DeSantis

    Solange De Santis was a reporter for the Anglican Journal from 2000 to 2008.

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