Title: Spectres of Shortwave / Ombres des ondes courtes
Director: Amanda Dawn Christie
Running Time: 1 hr 56 min
Format: shot on 35mm finished to 2k DCP
Aspect Ratio: Cinemascope (2:35)
Languages: English & French
Subtitles: English & French
Long before the internet, there was shortwave.
Tales of technology, military strategy, personal connections,
and strange sounds coming from household appliances.
A film about radio waves, relationships, landscape, and loss.
Oh, the fridge is singing again....
A mysterious web of international shortwave radio towers once dominated the Tantramar marshscape. Meanwhile, local residents heard radio broadcasts emanate unexpectedly from their household appliances.
The Radio Canada International shortwave relay site was built during World War 2, to broadcast to Europe and Africa. It continued to broadcast around the world during the Cold War, not only for Canada, but also relaying transmissions for Radio Free Europe. Located in Sackville, New Brunswick, it was perfectly positioned to transmit across the Atlantic Ocean, and covered most of the globe with its transmissions.
This experimental documentary film focuses on the flat marshland landscape accompanied by stories told by local residents and the technicians who worked at the site.
After beginning this project, the Canadian government announced that the Radio Canada International shortwave relay site would be shut down and dismantled. As such, a final chapter was added to the film, which documents the dismantling of this historic structure.
Themes of regional identity, Atlantic Canadian landscape, international communication systems, shifting communication technologies, rural myths, the environment, politics, climate change, and language are all loosely explored in a slow durational and meditative style.
This observing documentary places the viewer in the seat of the witness rather than that of the student, by excluding the use of authoritative talking heads and replacing them with long stunning shots of documentary footage and layered sound recordings of interviews with local residents. The interviews include stories about the radio towers told by members from three primary communities of the region; English, Acadian, and Mi’kmaq.
Erected in 1938, the site was transmitting by 1942. RCI broadcast to Europe, Africa, South America, and the Arctic. In addition to Canadian broadcasts, this site also served as a relay for Radio China, Radio Japan, Radio Korea, Voice of Vietnam, and Vatican Radio. It was the only high power shortwave relay station in Canada.
While the broadcasts from these towers were intended for an international audience, they also had an immediate impact on the locals who lived within a 50 km radius. Many local residents reported hearing radio broadcasts emanating from unusual household appliances, including kitchen sinks, bathtubs, toasters, refrigerators, telephones, and light fixtures. On an emotional level, the radio towers tied in to a very deep sense of home for many residents, as they stood as an incredibly distinctive landmark when travelling along the trans-Canada highway. In addition to their striking visual presence on the flat, sea level landscape, they also added to the invisible landscape of the region through the radio waves that they transmitted, as well as through the folklore and rural mythology that they inspired.
In 2012, they announced that the site would be shut down. The last Canadian international shortwave broadcast was sent in June of 2012, the final international relays were sent in October 2012, the last arctic broadcast (and the final broadcast to ever transmit from this site) was sent in November 2012. Here is a quote from Mark Montgommery, host of the Link, from the final RCI broadcast on June 24, 2012:
"It's also being said that shortwave is a technology at the end of its lifecycle or quite simply obsolete. And while there is no denying the importance of the internet, there's also no denying that it can be and is regularly blocked by authoritarian regimes. Shortwave broadcasts on the other hand almost always get through to people hungry for information. Radio has also always been extremely inexpensive and highly portable, easily accessible to everyone around the world no matter what their financial situation. But now I find myself, on behalf of all of us, saying goodbye to 67 years of radio, and so, for all of us, thank you so much, and goodbye."