When it comes telling a story, there may be no greater form than that of filmmaking.
And in Sarnia-Lambton, one of the most successful, at least from a pure creative standpoint, may be Aaron Huggett, who has three films “in the can” over his short career and a fifth one now in various stages, including filming, followed by post-production.
As anyone familiar with the filmmaking process will attest, those stages are often the result of pure availability and the schedules of actors and producers.
So it is that debut screenings for Huggett’s latest production, “The Ace and the Scout,” are already scheduled for October, a full year after some of the filming was done. But the film, which has some 40 characters and a crew of 30, is, nevertheless coming together.
The idea began as part of a discussion Huggett was having with the director of a film festival in Muskoka, where Red Ryan, another production, had won a short feature award.
“He said to me ‘while you’re doing history films, have you thought about Billy Bishop?’, and it was about the same time that I had been researching and because we’re considering it, I thought, how will we ever do that? Even three years ago, it really seems kind of impossible to tell that story.”
Part of the challenge is how an independent film relies on substantially reduced resources to bring an idea to the screen and a film that involves now vintage airplanes could quite likely stretch those resources to the breaking point.
“Someone online asked me the other day what’s your favourite part of filmmaking? I think it’s the writing because it’s the only stage where there’s no limits. Every other stage you’re dealing with very real limitations,” he recalls.
In this case, Huggett and his team looked at the subject and quickly came to a workable conclusion: “We might not be able to tell the whole story, but the whole story isn’t the piece that we really want to tell either. I want to tell one slice of the World War I story well.”
Through Huggett’s extensive research on Billy Bishop, he had come to the conclusion that this is a guy who most likely didn’t do what history remembers him having done.
“I wanted to understand how that occurred. And the more that I researched it, I ended up coming into it with kind of an anti-Billy Bishop, that a lot of this is made up, so let’s find out what was made up and why.”
Part of the why turned out to be what was going on politically at that time, with the Germans—at war of course with the Canadians and British—were doing their own exaggerations as a form of propaganda.
“The sense of curiosity that’s necessary to tell history stories well, and to understand what’s going on, means you can’t be afraid to tip sacred cows,” says Huggett, who began in the course of his research that understanding the role he played in his squadron had a lot to do with what was going on in the background.
“He both acted as a colleague to other people but also he was competitive with them at the same time. And when I started look at their accounts of what happened when they were in the sky with them, this isn’t the type of relationship that would make things up or support stories that didn’t ring true. They’ll defend and protect those stories.”
And then there was what happened as the stories were passed up the line of command.
“What I found was often when he would report something, it would get shined up a little bit by the people he reported it to because they’re looking for success stories and poured out. And then the Canadian propaganda machine would polish it a little bit. And then the British propaganda machine would polish a little bit and by the time it’s out there to the public, it’s a pretty big version of the story,” said Huggett.
“It’s not that it did occur, but I don’t believe it was him doing it. And no, I don’t think that he was the guy was afraid to take credit for things don’t get me wrong. But I do think that it was the Canadian government and his and the UK Government using his exploits as propaganda. And we see that evidence also late in the war when they identified that the risk of him being shot down from a morale perspective was too high, and they pulled him off the front line. And they tasked him with recruitment with a tour in Canada to try to muster up recruits.”
It’s in this part of the story that Huggett came up with the second piece of this film, the one related to the “Scout.”
“When Billy was doing his recruitment effort, I began to ask a couple of things: one being what would compel someone to enlist and two, what was the war experience like for them?”
Huggett was then able to set up a second part of the Ace and the Scout story by answering those questions.
What results is Billy Bishop and a “what if” answer to the recruitment efforts.
Huggett answers at least one of those questions by creating two characters, Robert and James, friends who enlist and then find themselves dealing with the horrors of war in the Orix Trench.
They also find themselves being saved by Francis Pegahmagabow, a real-life Indigenous soldier from Parry Sound, Ontario, (and the “Scout” in the film).
Pegahmagabow was decorated three times for the marksmanship and scouting skills he displayed in Belgium and France.
Huggett, who felt compelled to include Pegahmagabow’s story, explains:
“He was the most successful sniper in all of World War 1 who had almost 400 confirmed kills, and we’ve never heard of them. I can almost guarantee you people that read this will not have heard of him. And the reason that they haven’t heard of his for two main reasons: He’s Canadian. And he’s native. We have done a terrible job in Canada of telling First Nations stories about heroes. We, we tell a lot of stories about struggle. And I really don’t know that that’s the best thing to do. I think when when you’ve got a legitimate, strong figure, a hero like Francis Pegahmagabow, that’s a story that has to be told.
And, come October 2020, at least part of that story will be told in “The Ace and the Scout.”