beaver,  images

The film that never was

In historical research, we are sometimes pleasantly surprised by what we find in the archives: a document illuminates a new part of the story, a picture recording a moment otherwise forgotten, a letter exposes the mindset of the people of the times. The recording of information, and then preserving that information, is crucial for the historian.

A 1963 video about beavers in Canada, part of the Canadian Wildlife Service’s Hinterland’s Who’s Who series, was recently rediscovered. The short video opens with a voiceover intoning,

There was a time that beaver lodges like this one and the busy beavers that build them had almost disappeared in Canada because of over-trapping. But the beaver, who will always be associated with Canada’s early days, has been reintroduced to many areas, and it has made a successful comeback.

After that start, the 60-second film features images of the beaver doing the things beavers do: swimming, grooming, building. This film is a nice compliment to two other Canadian films featuring Grey Owl and his beavers: Beaver People and Beaver Family.

A photo taken by Nils Thomasson during the trip to release the beavers in 1922.  The horse needed to wear special shoes to walk through the marsh. Printed in Eric Festin, "Bäverns Återinplantering," Jämten (1922)
A photo taken by Nils Thomasson during the trip to release the beavers in 1922. The horse needed to wear special shoes to walk through the marsh. Printed in Eric Festin, “Bäverns Återinplantering,” Jämten (1922)

This lucky discovery got me thinking about the visual record of the earlier Scandinavian beaver reintroductions. Eric Festin, who led the first European beaver reintroduction in 1922 made sure that the event was recorded. He hired the photographer Nils Thomasson of Åre to meet the reintroduction party at Östersund before they headed off into the mountains and swamps. The Jamtli Bildarkiv has the series of photos Thomasson took of the event. In Festin’s article about the release, the story builds to the climax as the beavers are lifted out of the box and set into the canal, “our cameras snapping rapidly, but pictures were difficult to take.” And indeed in the series of photos, none of them show the beaver being released. Thomasson was also on hand to record pictorially another beaver reintroduction in Jämtland in 1934. But it was Festin himself who managed to take a photo of a beaver in the water after that release.

When the beavers were reintroduced further north in Västerbotten, recording the event visually was also an integral part of the release: “The cameraman had his finger on the button and the film cameraman had a firm grip on the crank” when the beaver crate was opened according to Axel Andersson in 1925. If only I could find the film…

Which brings me to the issue of filming and the film that never was. On 23 June 1922, Festin wrote a letter to Svensk Filmindustri, which was in charge of making all official films at that time (I don’t have his original letter; I have only the reply, so I’m going with what that letter says here). He asked the company to make a film about the beaver reintroduction to Bjuräldalen which would occur in two weeks. The reply he got read:

Unfortunately we cannot send a photographer to follow the expedition, which in any case we do not think from a film standpoint would be significantly rewarding. We already have educational films about the beaver and his lifestyle. This would be only the release and one or another expedition moments, which would not be worth the cost. We will happily shoot the beaver and expedition’s start from Skansen, if you kindly inform us of it.

Sigh. Filming the first reintroduction of European beaver — a landmark event that would sweep through Sweden and then throughout Europe and be one of the great conservation success stories — would not be “significantly rewarding”, not worth the investment. Alas, for the historian of reintroduction this first milestone happened without being recorded on film.

Festin continued to struggle with getting the Svensk Filmindustri to even recognize beavers existed in Sweden. In 1937, he sent a letter to the Director of the company complaining that they were producing an educational film about beavers using film and script from Norway. The film, titled simply “Bävern” had been produced by Per Kviberg, who was instrumental in setting up an educational film division in Oslo in 1928. The Swedish script, which is filed in the Jamtli archive with Festin’s letter, starts with

Beaver lived at one time over much of Europe, Asia and North America. Now it is found in our part of the world in only a few places. In Norway, it is only in Sörlandet, particularly along the Nid river in Arendal.

Then it goes on with lots of beaver biology information. Festin took issue with the Filmindustri’s decision to go to Norway to make a beaver film, when there were beavers in Sweden. (Of course, he didn’t think through the fact that the Swedes were just dubbing a film that had already been made in Norway.) Considering that the script talked about Norwegian beavers, but not Swedish ones, and it was being recorded in Swedish for Swedish school children, the criticism was well placed. In any case, Festin was likely mad that a film about Swedish beavers hadn’t been made by the company. But I doubt that the letter changed anything. I can’t find any record of a film from that period about the Swedish beaver reintroduction.

And so it was, that the film never was.

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