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May. 28, 2022 | Saturday
Local News
‘Historical Gossip’: films about who we were
Filmmaker Barbie Tranter and her siblings and neighbours. The first stirrings of the Prideaux street gang, circa 1954. (Supplied)

Barbara Tranter is determined to make a full-length documentary film capturing the social fabric of her home town, Niagara-on-the-Lake.

And she’s already started.

For the last couple of years, Tranter (all her long-time local friends call her Barbie) has created short film vignettes highlighting the personalities and memories of mostly-octogenarian local characters. She’s working feverishly to make sure she captures these social histories while the central characters are still with us. 

She calls both the concept and the films Historical Gossip. She has made five short films so far and several more are in the concept and planning stages. Her subjects to date include Norman Howe, Blanche Quinn, Al Derbyshire and Donald Combe.

Each film has been premiered in front of a live audience at the Shaw Festival Film Series, as a prelude to the featured presentation.

Tranter loves attending the live screenings. “There is nothing better than hearing 700 people responding, laughing at the right moment and getting into the characters of the films,” she says proudly. “People are stopping me on the street and telling me to keep going, they are learning so much.”

She is adamant that the films are not about Niagara’s factual history. “I call it gossip, because it is only the recollections and feelings of the people who were here through the second half of the last century,” she says. “Each story tells a heartfelt, often funny, very tangible picture of our town, from one person’s point of view”.

Tranter hopes the current short films and the larger documentary when it is completed, will help everyone, long-time resident and newly-arrived, get a feeling of the strength of the town’s sense of community. She likens the idea to Stephen Leacock’s Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town, about life in Small Town, Ontario at the turn of the last century.

The filmmaker believes the real changes in the town began with the first season of the Shaw in 1963. “Before that, we were really just any old small town”, she says. “The start of the change was the arrival of Shaw. We loved it.  There was so much happening”.

Tranter’s Historical Gossip films document the town in transition, from pre-Shaw to post-Shaw. 

She has a perfect pedigree for task. 

Born in Niagara-on-the-Lake in the early 1950s, daughter of a town dentist and dietician, she was drawn to filmmaking as a young girl, sitting in the back row of the Brock Theatre (now the Shaw Festival’s Royal George theatre on Queen Street), sometimes seeing the same film twice, on Friday night and then the Saturday matinee. And she knows all the personalities she is now featuring, as part of her own life experiences in the town. 

“We were just a small town. In the 50’s, our small block, just off Queen Street, had 27 children. We were a roving gang of unsupervised children,” she chuckles. “There was no crime. It was an idyllic place to grow up as a child.”

Now after almost 45 years of filmmaking experience, in every facet of the industry across North America, she is cobbling together all the elements of a feature documentary. “There is so much content, so many stories, my head just whirls,” she muses. “Now I just have to make it happen.”

A graduate of Niagara District Secondary School, York University, Simon Fraser and the University of California, Tranter has won several film and TV awards. In 1987, she earned a Gemini Award for her production of The Canadian Conspiracy, and in 1988, the Best Canadian Documentary at the Toronto International Film Festival for Artist on Fire. She’s been cinematographer, editor, director, producer and independent cinema owner, several times over. 

For Historical Gossip, Tranter uses a small film crew and her own footage, shot on both a professional camera and her iPhone. She rough-edits the footage and then sends it to professional editors for finishing.

First and foremost, for Tranter, is the desire to entertain. “I hope these stories on the town’s social fabric do that,” she says. 

But she takes pains to make sure her focus on the past doesn’t mean she values the present less. She is encouraged by Niagara Now. “So many of the new people in town are talented,” she says. “There is a real brain trust that is accumulating with people choosing to move — or move back — here. The town is exciting again, but for different reasons”.

You can tell, as she’s thinking about the project, her mind is racing with new creative ideas. But she acknowledges the most important step at this point is creating a business plan. To date, Historical Gossip has been entirely self-financed. “I need to convince the networks who will air the documentary, and the people who will support it,” Tranter concedes. 

You can tell, she has the skill, drive and passion to make it happen.