Culture
Bill Braden
Terry Woolf

ICYMI: The Dog Island Floating Film Festival

On the eve of Dog Island 11, a look back at YK's watery drive-in

First published in August 2014:

You are bobbing in a canoe, cosily wrapped in your sleeping bag; the Northern Lights swirl overhead. Another canoe drifts by and a young girl hands you a bag of popcorn. In front of you on the foredeck of a houseboat, a projection screen looms. A slight breeze causes the picture to ripple.

Beside you a large raft has armchairs and a fire pit, where half-a-dozen kids toast marshmallows. An armada of canoes, kayaks, and open boats surround you. It’s early fall and you are on Yellowknife Bay, at the north end of Great Slave Lake, at the Dog Island Floating Film Festival (DIFFF). It’s Dog Island X, the tenth time for this event in the past 22 years.

Kicking aside bones, feathers and the slick remains of a summer seagull nursery, we started our tech setup.

The Dog Island Floating Film Festival began in 1991, with slides projected onto a bedsheet on the wall of a houseboat, and music pumped through a cranky PA system. It’s undergone several technical upgrades over the years, but one thing has remained constant: Yellowknife’s watery version of the drive-in theatre is totally weather dependent.

Dog Island 8 – My Homework was actually the ninth festival and the only year that weather has interfered. About halfway through the program it started raining and a healthy fear of electrocution forced us to shut down.

September 2013 brought Dog Island X – #YZF, BYOBoat. The early evening was pretty grim with rainsqualls and heavily overcast skies. There was a growing splash of blue sky to the east and south, which we decided was a sign. My brother and I scrambled onto the tiny, wet projection reef with all our gear. Kicking aside bones, feathers and the slick remains of a summer seagull nursery, we started our tech setup: two DVD players, iPhone, iPod Touch, Mac laptop, 6-channel mixer, lights, tarps, microphone, two digital projectors, and an emergency flask of single malt.

On their houseboat 15 metres away, Simon and Jenny and a crew of volunteers (The Screaming Screeners) erected a massive screen, the largest ever. The sky cleared and the lake was dead calm. Someone lit the torch on Dog Island to signal the festival was a go, and we cranked up the music. As dusk fell, canoes, kayaks and boats converged from all directions. We ran more than two hours of videos ranging from professionally produced short films to award-winning NFB animations to a lovely homemade film about the Yellowknife Pond Sailors Regatta held a few weeks earlier.

The DIFFF is a labour of love that depends on volunteered time and equipment. The houseboat that we mount our screen on has changed hands three times and all owners have let us use it. What keeps it going? A couple of years ago a university student back home for summer work asked me if there would be a festival again that fall. Before I could reply he said that one of his best childhood memories was rocking in a canoe with his folks, eating popcorn and watching films on Great Slave Lake under the Northern Lights.

DIFFF: A Timeline

Do not expect much from the event's numbering system:

1991 Dog Island 1: It begins as a slideshow projected onto a bed sheet tacked on a wall.

1995 Dog Island 2: Just when you thought it was safe to get back in your canoe. This time it was slides and projected 16 mm films.

1998 Dog Island II : Again, had music from CDs, slides and films, one of them locally produced by Yellowknife Films.

2004 Dog Island IIB: Oar, Knot BB, had an actual screen, and a better sound system.

2003 Dog Island V: Sit, Stay, Watch, had local films, National Film Board (NFB) films, great music and sound, but fewer slides.

2005 Dog Island VI: The Death of Celluloid. The NFB sent films on DVDs. No more actual films, you know, no images on celluloid, and no slide shows either.

2008 Dog Island Ver. 2.2: The Upgrade, played images through a computer projector.

2010 Dog Island 7: iSit, iStay, iWatch (apps required: iBoat, iPaddles, iPFD) Used DVD player and computer-type projector

2012 Dog Island 8: My Homework, was shut down halfway through when rain incited fears of electrocution.

2013 Dog Island X: #YZF, BYOBoat incorporated two DVD players, iPhone, iPod Touch, Mac laptop, 6-channel mixer, lights, tarps, microphone and two digital projectors.

UPDATED: due to strong winds the event has been moved to Saturday, September 3
2016: The Dog Island Floating Film Society will try to present (weather permitting) Dog Island 11-take-2 on Friday, Sept. 2 at dusk (9 p.m.-ish) near Dog Island on Yellowknife Bay. Come in your canoe, kayak or boat, and watch free films. If the torch on Dog Island is lit then the show is on. Weather alternate date is Saturday, Sept. 3.
Wear a PFD, dress warm, carry a flashlight, and travel with a partner.