For 30 years in the later part of the last century, there was a place called Pine Point, a town of 1,200, across Great Slave Lake from Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories.
Pine Point was an insta-bake lead and zinc mining town, a pre-fab suburban subdivision plunked down in the middle of nowhere in the 1960s. It was a thriving place in its day, and it was inhabited just long enough for one full generation to pass through it.
People were born there and schooled there. People came of age there. It was a northern party town of mullets and tinted glasses and foolhardy backlot exploits. Its residents formed clubs and played in bands and did their banking. They photographed themselves in tight, terrible swimsuits in the sun and snowsuits in the cold and drank at the hotel bar, and at the legion hall, and, by many indications, pretty much anywhere else they could. And then the mine closed, and Pine Point, quite simply, was razed.
But the town didn’t vanish, exactly. You can’t demolish a community without leaving debris, debris of many sorts, and it turns out that that debris has been preserved in a most poignant and remarkable way.
“Welcome to Pine Point” is a documentary website that tells the story of Pine Point, its “Pine Pointers,” its big wooden water tower, and the challenges of remembering a place that’s ceased to exist. Part memoir, part research project, it’s an understated work of stupefying grace. Since its release in late January, it’s been quietly breaking hearts around the world.
Pine Point’s story is told by Michael Simons, who never lived there, but visited as a child to play hockey at its nifty ice rink.
Mr. Simons grew up to be a successful creative director, and one half of The Goggles, a Vancouver duo who, among other projects, were responsible for the art direction of AdBusters magazine. Remembering Pine Point one day, a few years ago, he wondered what had become of the place, and decided to consult the Internet. He discovered that the town was gone, but that former residents had gone to remarkable pains to memorialize it, both online and off.
Coming from a print background, Mr. Simons and his creative partner, Paul Shoebridge, originally planned to make a book with what they’d found. But a conversation with a friend at the National Film Board convinced them to turn it into a digital project. The result, a collaboration between The Goggles and the NFB’s Vancouver-based interactive team, is a website that looks sort of like a narrated scrapbook, replete with photos and movies that come to life like Harry Potter pictures.
As much as its creators are interested in the iconography of bygone years, this isn’t just a Douglas Coupland-esque exercise in fetishizing the past.
It’s a story, carefully spun, and crafted to unwind in ways I wouldn’t dare spoil.
There are no tricks here: Everyone knows what happens to Pine Point in the end ¬– the documentary says so upfront, and besides, it’s right there in Wikipedia. Yet the beauty of this story is in the details, and these unfold in such a way that, in big ways and small, only at the end do you fully realize what you’ve been seeing and hearing the whole time.
You can click through Welcome to Pine Point in 10 minutes, but a full viewing can take an hour or more; like any good show, it pays to linger and think, to let the photos and videos draw you into its world. The entire piece is set to haunting ambient music (or, at least, what seems like ambient music) by The Besnard Lakes; I found some of it so compelling I lingered on pages just to hear it loop.
Beyond the story of Pine Point and its aftermath, the documentary is a meditation on the nature of photography and the foibles of memory. Pine Point isn’t just a vanished place in the Northwest Territories, nor just a placeholder for a certain vision of small-town Canada in the 60s and 70s and 80s, where everyone looks a little bit like a hoser.
It’s a stand-in for every place lost to time, cut off from the present, which now only exists through faded period pictures. Pine Point is the land where the photos have rounded corners are slightly oversaturated. It’s a place where the photos fade and sag along with their subjects, instead of remaining artificially, digitally fresh. We all came from that place, and there’s no going back.
As Mr. Shoebrige and Mr. Simons are fond of pointing out, Pine Point’s photos “aren’t Facebook.” They’re “crunchy,” rough, un-pruned and imperfect, and that’s the only way the town will ever be remembered. Pine Point is gone – and photos don’t fade any more.
This piece originally appeared in The Globe and Mail