America’s stars and stripes flap in the breeze next to the red, Canadian maple leaf. Amiable border patrol agents wave gas guzzlers through a checkpoint and off a cross-border ferry.
A tractor-driving kid tows a trailer full of tykes through a verdant summer landscape. In the background, an unseen man croons country songs through an unmistakable French-Canadian patois. Nobody looks at passports or smartphones.
These sounds and scenes of life on both sides of the Maine-and-New Brunswick border appear in the short documentary “My Canadian-American Family.” Maine filmmaker Jane Morrison made the 20-minute movie on a federal young filmmakers grant in 1982.
Today, the film is long forgotten and Morrison is little known. Both deserve to be remembered. The film is a valuable document of pre-2001 border life before people needed federal documents to visit the other side. Morrison was an important second-wave feminist filmmaker.
Born in Fredericton, New Brunswick, she grew up in Gardiner and produced everything from artist documentaries set on Maine’s coast to beer commercials and trippy, experimental vampire films. With her best work likely still ahead of her, Morrison died of malaria while working in Kenya, just before her 40th birthday in January 1987.
Today, “My Canadian-American Family” can be seen on the National Archives’ YouTube channel. Posted in 2016, it has only 2,000 views.
Morrison was born Jan. 26, 1947, to a Canadian mother and American father. She earned a master’s degree in media studies at Antioch College. Morrison taught English and filmmaking at Cony High School from 1969 through 1974, then relocated to New York City where she began to make films and taught at Columbia University’s School of Film.
Much of Morrison’s film output is preserved at Northeast Historic Film in Bucksport. There, the film archive holds more than 40,000 feet of her work, wound around almost 400 reels. Most of it was donated by Morrison’s mother in the early 1990s.
Emma Prichard of Northeast Historic Film has watched and cataloged every minute of Morrison’s work held at the organization. That includes the filmmaker’s full-length documentaries, outtakes and disjointed experimental animations. But Prichard was surprised when a Bangor Daily News reporter contacted her about “My Canadian-American Family.”
“Because I don’t think that’s one we have any elements or a copy of,” she said, “so I don’t know that I’ve ever seen it before.”
The unnarrated film is a visual smorgasbord meandering through scenes of daily life between Calais and Saint John, New Brunswick. Fishermen haul ropes, ladies show off quilt squares and farmers ride tractors, harvesting corn. The meditative, loving portrait includes members of Morrison’s own extended family.
Prichard thinks “My Canadian-American Family” fits perfectly with much of Morrison’s other work depicting her home state and province.
“I think she had a lot of love for Maine,” Prichard said. “We have an interview she gave … and one of the things she talks about is growing up in Maine, and how prominent French-Canadian culture was for her.”
Among Morrison’s other home-state documentaries are films on Berwick writer Sarah Orne Jewett, coastal painter Henry Strater and husband-and-wife children’s book authors Ingri and Edgar d’Aulaire of Blue Hill. The two latter films can be streamed online for free.
Perhaps the goofiest film Morrison ever made is “The Fang Gang,” a lighthearted vampire romp filmed in Maine just before she left for New York. It can also be seen online.
Morrison made other important films outside of Maine as well. Her 8-minute documentary “Lipstick 74” follows an unnamed woman as she gets ready for the day. It delves into the pressure women feel in presenting themselves to the world. The film is still regularly shown at feminist and art museum film festivals.
In 1983, Morrison made her first feature-length film. “The Two Worlds of Angelita” is a bilingual movie about a Puerto Rican family leaving their rural island life for what they believe will be better opportunities in New York City.
“Most of the story is seen through the dark, expressive eyes of Angelita, the small daughter who accompanies her mother, Fela, north to join her father, Chuito,” The New York Times wrote when the film opened. “According to his letters home, Chuito has found a fine new job in Manhattan. When the job falls through because he doesn’t speak English, the family is put to emotional as well as economic tests.”
The film mirrors the experience of many French-speaking Canadians who sought work in Maine during the century before Morrison made the film.
The young girl who played Angelita, Mariem Pérez Riera, grew up to be a documentary producer and director, like Morrison. Riera’s latest work includes a 2021 feature documentary about Puerto Rican actress Rita Moreno.
When Morrison died unexpectedly on Jan. 21 1987, she was in Kenya on a State Department-funded cultural exchange program. Her death garnered obituaries in the Times, Chicago Tribune as well as Maine papers including the BDN.
Morrison was buried in Rangeley. Her stone is carved with white herons. She once filmed an award-winning, dramatized version of Jewett’s short story “The White Heron.” After Morrison’s death, a scholarship fund was established to help educate young Maine filmmakers. Today, it’s administered by Maine Media Workshops in Rockport.
Not long after speaking about Morrison, Prichard got back in touch with news of a discovery in the Northeast Historic Film collection. “My Canadian-American Family” was there on a reel from a collection donated by a library, but archivists had not known who made it.
“Thank you for bringing information about this film to our attention,” Pritchard said.