… This is a substantial film, and a beautiful one at times. John Walker’s cinematography flows like acrylic paint across canvas. Edmund Eagan’s score brings its own ideas to the overall narrative. At one point we hear a sweet “ting” from the soundtrack as the camera zooms in on a triangle in a child’s hands. Yet Winds of Heaven succeeds more as social history than critical biography.

In Ostroff’s directorial view, Carr’s times overwhelmed the artist. She hated Victoria’s Victorian stuffiness. London and “its perpetual undertone of humanity” made her ill. Even her relationship to the world she did care for — the lives and culture of First Nations people — was uncertain and perhaps even misguided.

“Among the Canadian elite of the time there was the need to create a country, not a real estate deal,” Ostroff explained in a recent phone conversation. The key was to assimilate the First Nations people into Eurocentric Canadian culture. “And there was Carr cheering on the need to assimilate,” says the director. “She accepted the proposition that the native people were on the edge of extinction.”

Unwittingly, Carr became part of the First Nations problem — a view still held by a few contemporary First Nations artists — not its solution. Unwittingly? Maybe not. In her own writing Carr reduced First Nations speech into some sort of pidgin Chinese with people saying “hully-up” and “toulist” for tourist.

Winds of Heaven, with Diane D’Aquila narrating excerpts from Carr’s autobiography, is as much a history of early 20th century British Columbia race relations. Successive B.C. governments wanted quaint Haida dancers out there in drum-thumping action to beguile trinket-buying tourists. Yet the same officials forbade them to attend a potlatch ceremony where leaders were chosen.

The most indelible visual moments in Winds of Heaven come with the archival footage Ostroff has deftly woven through his narrative, not the some 120 or so Carr paintings given a brief glimpse now and then.

Positive reaction to his 2004 art-based documentary, Pegi Nicol: Something Dancing About Her led Ostroff’s to consider Emily Carr. Yet his feeling that he’s not an art insider — “I don’t know what post-modernism is,” he told me — likely led him to incorporate snippets of packaged art insight from curator Laurel Smith Wilson, critic Marcia Crosby and art historians Susan Crean and Gerta Moray.

Unfortunately, their insights seem to have been clipped from another, much duller, Emily Carr biography where what ended up on canvas mattered more than how it ended up there.

Peter Goddard,  Toronto Star, 29 January 2011