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Dorothea Mitchell a reel pioneer

a 52 minute documentary

Directed by Kelly Saxberg, Produced by Ron Harpelle
Original Music: Danny Johnson.
Camera: Don Delorme, Editors: Melanie Berbeniuk and Kelly Saxberg
a shebandowanfilm production

From the Wilds of Silver Mountain - to the silver screen.
Dorothea Mitchell: a Reel Pioneer recounts in her own words the amazing life of a pioneer filmmaker.
70 years later a group of local enthusiasts in Thunder Bay, reinvent the silent pictures, by finishing "The Fatal Flower", the murder mystery Dorothea had bequeathed to the national Archives of Canada.
With no script to work from and some missing scenes, the group nurtured "The Fatal Flower" back to life.

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Dorothea Mitchell
a reel pioneer


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A Reel Pioneer” is a documentary film a significant episode in the history of filmmaking in Canada. It tells the story of Dorothea Mitchell; the first female independent filmmaker in Canada and her story is quintessentially Canadian. This documentary is about her life, the films she participated in making, and the quest to finish her last film, “The Fatal Flower,” which was shot in 1930.
This hour long documentary was directed and edited by award winning filmmaker, Kelly Saxberg. Kelly’s “Letters from Karelia,” was recently nominated for a Gemini Award for Best History Documentary and she has directed and/or edited several other historical documentaries. “Dorothea Mitchell: A Reel Pioneer” is a historical documentary with a twist. Dorothea Mitchell was known as the “Lady Lumberjack” and was the first woman in Canada to make independent films, producing three of them in 1929 and 1930 with the Port Arthur Amateur Cinema Society. Dorothea herself starred in Canada’s first feature length amateur film “A Race For Ties” which was based on the script she wrote. Her last film, “The Fatal Flower,” was discovered in the National Archives of Canada where it lay unfinished until Kelly found it while conducting research for her film, “Rosies of the North.”

This is a story about Dorothea Mitchell’s legacy to Canadian filmmaking and about the efforts of a group of local people who decided to pick up where Dorothea left off, finishing a silent film, with no script or music and in the spirit of the period when it was shot. Dorothea died in 1976 at the age of 99, but she left a series of interviews and short stories that form the basis of the research for the finishing of “The Fatal Flower.” With an eye for the historical significance of Dorothea’s story and the skills to produce an entertaining and informative film, Kelly Saxberg tells the story of how “The Fatal Flower” was shot in 1930 and finished 75 years later.

“A Reel Pioneer” is built upon the biography of Dorothea Mitchell, but the story is about film making on the Canadian frontier. Mitchell was born in India in 1877 to well-to-do British parents. As a child she was surrounded by servants and she enjoyed a privileged life under the Raj. However, when her father died suddenly, the family was left with limited means and returned to England where their existence was much more modest. In 1907, Dorothea immigrated to Canada where she became the first woman in Ontario to be granted a homestead rights. Dorothea’s homestead was at Silver Mountain in Northwestern Ontario. There, all by herself, she started a sawmill, hired bushworkers and even ran the local train station. At Silver Mountain Mitchell became known as the “Lade Lumberjack” because of her proper British background.

In the mid-1920s Mitchell, then in her 40s, moved to Port Arthur, (now Thunder Bay), where she wrote, produced and stared in a series of silent films. The films were made by the Port Arthur Cinema Society and their 1929 “A Race for Ties” was the first amateur feature length film made in Canada. The Port Arthur Cinema Society was a member of the New York-based Amateur Cinema League, which was a serious effort by independent filmmakers everywhere to compete with the monolith that Hollywood had already become. Dorothea Mitchell, and the Port Arthur Cinema Society were among the first pioneers in independent Canadian filmmaking.

As independent filmmakers, the Port Arthur Cinema Society produced films about what they knew best. Therefore, “A Race for Ties” was based on a story written by Dorothea Mitchell about an incident in her life as a “Lady Lumberjack” at Silver Mountain. This was a time when films with Canadian wilderness themes were popular and when Hollywood was using sets with fake snow as backdrops for movies about the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. The Port Arthur filmmakers used real snow and actors from a local theatre troupe to tell their story. It worked so well that they went on to complete a second feature film, a newsreel, and almost finish production on a third feature film.

Dorothea Mitchell wrote all the scenarios and was a key member of the production team on all of the film projects. The last film lacked only the title cards when the onset of the Great Depression of the 1930s put an end to the Port Arthur Cinema Society. Dorothea’s film career was brought to an abrupt end, but she purchased the assets of the Port Arthur Cinema Society and waited for better times to return. To make ends meet, Dorothea took odds jobs in Port Arthur and became one of the first female Real Estate agents in Ontario.

By the time the Depression ended and prosperity finally returned to Canada after World War II, Dorothea was living in British Columbia where, in her 60s, she published Lady Lumber Jack, the tale of her life at Silver Mountain. Dorothea, a tireless woman and self-promoter, actually toured the province in the 1950s, showing “A Race for Ties” in church basements and talking about her life as a lumberjack and filmmaker. She last showed “A Race for Ties” at a gala presentation in Thunder Bay, Ontario a few years before her death in 1974. After the gala, Dorothea donated her films to the Canadian Film Institute which then handed them over to the National Archives of Canada where they have been preserved and restored as national treasures.

“A Reel Pioneer” traces Dorothea Mitchell’s life using archival footage, interviews with Canadian filmmakers, film historians, and dramatic recreations. The film also follows the steps taken by a group of modern day filmmakers in completing “The Fatal Flower,” Dorothea’s last film. “A Reel Pioneer” incorporates Mitchell’s personal and public documents as part of the story line. Viewers come to appreciate the difficulty of making a silent film and they also get to share in the completion of the project.

“A Reel Pioneer” explains how Dorothea Mitchell’s story was unlike any other in the history of women in the early film industry in Canada. Mitchell was successful as a writer and producer at a time when few women were able to express themselves through the medium of film. “A Reel Pioneer” is a documentary film that celebrates women, Canadian heritage, and the spirit of pioneers like Dorothea Mitchell. “A Reel Pioneer” also tells the story of women in early Canadian film by contrasting Dorothea Mitchell with the Nell Shipman at others. The viewer comes to understand the place of women in the early film industry in Canada.

It is a film that entertains and educates viewers with a look at a little known episode in Canadian film history.

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Dorothea Mitchell Biography
Canada's First Amateur Feature-Length Film: A Race for Ties
Port Arthur Amateur Cinema Society
The Fatal Flower Project | Educational Resources