Whether tickled, appalled or intrigued, 5,000 people from around the world have been finding their way annually to Torrington’s Gopher Hole Museum.
Husband-and-wife filmmakers, Chelsea McMullan and Douglas Nayler, have been among the visitors, returning over a five-year period. In the process, they made the 15-minute documentary, World Famous Gopher Hole Museum, which is described as a “wistful ode” to the resourceful residents of a fading Prairie town.
It can be seen at: cbc.ca/shortdocs, a CBC site designated to showcasing the work of emerging filmmakers with “unique perspectives” and “innovative storytelling.”
Nayler admitted a sense of whimsy initially drew him and McMullan to the hamlet of Torrington, 35 km east of Olds, in 2010.
Although the museum was controversial when it opened in 1996 for containing more than 45 dioramas of taxiderm-ed gophers costumed as various town folk, he acknowledged the animal rights battle was long over.
“We thought we needed to do this (documentary film) because there’s a mix of whimsical stuff, its kind of morbid, and there’s a very human element that’s very relatable,” said Nayler.
The museum was built as a labour of love, to keep Torrington on the map.
The farming centre had once been a bustling hub of 700 people.
But after the loss of family farms, local grain elevators and a railway spur line, the population dwindled to less than 200 in the early 1990s.
By the time Torrington was due to officially became a hamlet, concerned community members were brainstorming for ideas to keep their hometown alive.
“What do you do if you feel the world has passed you by?” said Nayler, who noted the community wasn’t on the path to anywhere in particular.
One Torrington resident had noted the only thing the area had in over-abundance was gophers.
The more properly known Richardson ground squirrels create problems for farm equipment and livestock.
After the idea of creating a proposed gopher habitat that people could walk through was deemed un-do-able, one frustrated local resident stated they might as well just stuff the gophers — and the museum idea was born.
Farmers brought in gopher pelts, taxidermists stuffed them, and sewers made the tiny outfits. Soon “70 pairs of beady eyes (were) staring back … from behind illuminated glass boxes,” as the costumed gophers were arranged in dioramas depicting diners, students, church folk and fishermen.
The Toronto-based filmmakers filmed at the museum and interviewed dozens of local people for the doc, including curator Dianne Kurta. They were won over by the residents’ resilient, can-do spirit.
Nayler said there’s no archness or parody in the documentary’s tone. “We took Torrington and its residents seriously.” They aimed to provide “an unflinching portrait (looking) at absurdity and sincerity as intertwined necessities of life” as citizens tell their own stories of Torrington, as depicted in the tableaus.
World Famous Gopher Hole Museum was screened at the Toronto International Film Festival last fall, as well as festivals in Calgary, Vancouver and Nashville. Of the new CBC shortdocs site, Nayler said, “I think it’s great … As somebody who makes (documentaries), I know there are not a lot of … opportunities for them to be seen.”
McMullen and Nayler also made the feature-length films My Prairie Home, about transgendered Calgary musician Rae Spoon, and Michael Shannon Michael Shannon John, about a man with two secret families.