Tuesday, April 20, 2010

A film proposal by
Kelly Saxberg
Contact: bigfinnhall@shaw.ca


“The Big Finn Hall” is a one hour docu-drama, in Finnish and English, about the vibrant culture and politics at the heart of Canada’s largest labour hall. In 1910, a group of Finnish immigrants built the Finnish Labour Temple in Thunder Bay, Ontario. In its early days it was inseparably linked to the activities of Canadian labour and the left. Yet the Big Finn Hall was a place where culture and politics came together. This film integrates archival footage, photos and fictionalized scenes to bring to life the Hall’s lively and dramatic past.

The script is based on interviews with local Finnish Canadians in Thunder Bay, experts on Canadian immigration and labour history, a wealth of archival documents and motion picture footage, photos, and a series of dramatizations framed by a running monologue performed by an on camera actor whose storytelling provides the plot-line for a series of dramatizations, archival footage and photos that punctuate the story. The film will unfold like a drama, connecting historical events with narration, acting and archival content.

The film is divided into five acts with each focusing on a major event that shaped Canadian and Finnish Canadian history. The introduction deals with the arrival of the first Finnish immigrants and the establishment of a culturally vibrant Finnish community in the Thunder Bay region and the building of the Big Finn Hall. Part two of the film looks at the struggle for workers' rights and the impact of the civil war in Finland. Part Three takes the story through the Depression era with a focus on the murder of two labour activists and the recruitment of hundreds of Canadian Finns to abandon Canada for the Soviet Union. Part four deals with the recruitment of young Finnish men for the Mackenzie Papineau Brigade that took part in the Spanish Civil war. The film concludes with the beginning of the Second World War and the end of an era of Finnish radicalism, yet a cultural legacy strong enough to withstand the deep divides of a cold war era.

The story of the “Big Finn Hall" is a story of about an immigrant community’s desire to provide assistance for those in need and strengthen the bond between its members. "The Big Finn Hall" tells the story of Finnish immigration, settlement and integration in Canada. It focuses on their struggle, not only to establish themselves in a new country, but to contribute to the political and social evolution of Canada.

Built in 1910, largely through the combined efforts of the Finnish-American Workers’ League and the Finnish New Attempt Temperance Society, the Big Finn Hall was built as a place for all members of the local Finnish community to meet. Almost immediately, locals began referring to the building as the “Port Arthur Finnish Socialist’s Local Temple” because of its connection to first the Port Arthur Branch of the Socialist Party of Canada (SPC). During the next decade it was home to the Finnish branches of the SPC, then the Social Democratic Party of Canada, and, in 1913, the Hall became the home of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) until 1918 when it was outlawed in Canada. Following the War, the Canadian One Big Union movement in Northern Ontario was headquartered in the hall until its 1922 national convention (held in the hall) resulted in a split in the socialist movement across the country. The hall became the epicentre of the revived IWW movement in Canada and, to add a bit of spice to the story, a number of Finnish Socialists left the big Finn Hall, bought their own building next door, and set up the communist “Little Finn Hall.” The radical politics that the Big Finn Hall were associated with continued to dominate the building's activities throughout the 1930s and 40s.

The Hall was also the center of social activity for the community. Throughout the last hundred years, it has been host to theatrical productions, concerts, motion pictures, sporting events, and festivals. In the 1923, a set decorator from New York was hired to build and paint a number of standard backdrops for the plays that were regularly held at the hall. (They are still being used). In addition to the plays there were Vaudeville acts, poetry readings, lectures, gymnastics, wrestling and boxing matches, and, because Finns are famous for their love of dance music like Tango and Polkas, the Hall was also the scene of dances every weekend.

Most recently, the hall has become the home for a small museum operated by the Finnish Historical Society and it houses a number of artifacts and photos that tell the story of Finns in Canada. The Big Finn Hall was and still is the epicenter of Finnish culture in Northwestern Ontario.

The Big Finn Hall has also been a place of business. In the basement of the building is the Hoito Restaurant, which began as a soup kitchen for workers and continues to operate as a now famous restaurant. The Hall has also been home to Finnish Language newspapers since it first opened its doors and now hosts the offices of the Finnish-Canadian weekly newspaper, Canadan Sanomat. And, if restaurants and newspapers were not enough, the Finnish Building Society used the Hall to establish a chain of People's Co-operative stores in Northwestern Ontario. The Big Finn Hall’s reach was far beyond the city limits. The onset of Second World War brought with it significant changes in the Finnish-Canadian community and this is why the film ends before the outbreak of World War II. The Big Finn Hall, however, remained a place for workers to get a decent meal and a place for the Finnish community to voice their concerns.

This project has all the elements to make it an engaging and accessible film. We have already obtained Ontario Arts Council support and are seeking in kind support from local businesses and organizations. We are also approaching Finnish funding bodies in an attempt to internationalize the project. We are working with Finnish filmmakers and actors. We have an incredible support base within the community and access to talented and experienced filmmaking crew. The filmmaking community has been fund-raising for the hall for a decade through film screenings, film projects, concerts and The Bay Street Film Festival. We did fundraiser screenings with the Fatal Flower; Letters From Karelia; The Hoito Project. We made the short film – "Bottoms Up" as a promo video. The Hall is a fantastic venue and resource for artists, musicians and writers of all backgrounds. We organized the Conga Se Menne concert fundraiser the first year of the Bay Street Film Festival. This is a unique project that could only be done in Thunder Bay yet is a gem of a story for all of Canada.

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