Summer Suitcase: A passion for storytelling

This is the sixth in a series of weekly “summer suitcase” stories, showcasing the international breadth of York’s Faculty of Fine Arts.

Fourth-year film student Ryan Knight’s passion for storytelling took him on a journey through time across France’s vast historical landscapes this summer to document the epic story of the bravery of Newfoundlanders during the First World War.

Knight served as the official English-language cinematographer for the National Film Board of Canada (NFB) at the Ceremony of Remembrance marking the 90th anniversary of the Battles of the Somme and Beaumont Hamel, which was commemorated July 1 in France.

Right: Ryan Knight filming from inside the arch of the Menin Gate Memorial in Ypres, Belgium

This up-and-coming filmmaker was awarded this honour when he took first place in the Make Shorts Not War film competition co-sponsored by the NFB, Veterans Affairs Canada (VAC) and the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa. His production, The Road of the World, was chosen from more than 280 entries across Canada. Click here to view Knight’s production. (See the June 30, 2006 issue of YFile.) His prize included an all-expenses-paid trip to France from June 27 to July 6 as part of VAC’s youth delegation.

For Canadians who have never visited the historical war sites in Europe, Knight explains why they should make the trip. “They are a must-see. The stories these sites tell are not only illuminating, they’re very emotional,” said Knight. “You can’t come away from these places without being moved, without having a much deeper appreciation for the sacrifice that was made by these gallant soldiers.”

Left: Knight standing outside Sunken Road Cemetery near Beaumont Hamel

Reflecting upon the ceremonial service at Beaumont Hamel on July 1, Knight said the experience was surreal because he couldn’t believe that he was actually there to see what he had previously only read about in text books.

“Amidst a crowd of about 1,000, were the members of the Canadian youth delegation, today’s Newfoundland Regiment, dignitaries, royalty, onlookers and veterans from around the world, who were easy to spot with their berets and jackets laden with medals,” said Knight. “On this sunny afternoon in Northern France, we had all made the pilgrimage to the ‘Caribou’ monument to pay our respects to the Royal Newfoundland Regiment which was annihilated at the Battle of Beaumont Hamel 90 years ago. I’ve never felt so proud to be a Canadian.”

The caribou is the mascot for the Newfoundland Regiment. The impressive war monument in Beaumont Hamel, comprising this large reindeer, marks Canada’s fallen soldiers from Newfoundland in the First World War. There are five Caribou monuments: one in Bowring Park, Newfoundland, and four in Europe at each memorial site representing the Newfoundland soldiers.

Left: Knight standing in front of the Caribou Monument in Bowring Park, Newfoundland

“The Caribou Monument overwhelms you,” explained Knight. “It’s impossible not to think about what transpired there all those years before. When you’re there, nothing can deny this history because you’re standing on it and, if we don’t remember what these men did for us, then we’ll never appreciate what we have now.”

Media from all over the world attended the July 1 Ceremony of Remembrance in France, and Knight was part of the media scrum comprising about 70 press outlets. “It was every camerman for himself,” said Knight, “as we all jockeyed for a piece of turf.”

Knight’s packed itinerary abroad included numerous events and many memorable moments, including participation in public and private remembrance ceremonies; visits to historical monuments, military cemeteries and battlefields; guided walking tours of cities and museums; and presentations, video screenings and public forums.

“Wherever we went, there was always a multitude of Canadian flags,” said Knight. “There is no greater and more uplifiting feeling than to see so many Maple Leafs on display.”

One of the highlights of Knight’s trip was his participation in a youth candlelight vigil ceremony at the 2nd Canadian Sunken Road Cemetery, near the Newfoundland memorial at Beaumont Hamel. This small cemetery is located in the middle of a farmer’s field and has only 44 graves. The soldiers buried here are all from the Eastern Ontario Regiment, 2nd Battalion, Canadian Expeditionary Force, which originated from the Ottawa Valley. They died in the fighting on the Poziere and Thiepval ridges during the Battle of the Somme, France, in the summer and fall of 1916.

Right: The Caribou Monument in Beaumont Hamel, France

“The Candlelight Ceremony symbolizes the passing of the Torch of Remembrance from one generation to another,” explained Knight. “The two minutes of silence that follows the passing of the flame offers the participants the opportunity to reflect upon the achievements and sacrifices of those who have served Canada, and to acknowledge the freedoms we now enjoy because of them.”

The ceremony started with the playing of the “Last Post”, followed by the “Rouse and Lament” by a Canadian Forces bugler and piper. Then, the youth – 39 in all – each carried a candle, which was lit by one of the veterans in attendance, to one of the graves in the cemetery placing their lit candle on top of the grave marker. This was followed by a period of silence and reflection. The youth were asked to note the name and the age of the deceased soldier and the epitaph that was created on the grave marker by a loved one.

The Veterans Prayer was then read in English and French by two of the veterans in attendance. Next, two of the youth delegates read the epic poem Youth Commitment to Remember. The youth master of ceremonies then asked their fellow youth delegates to read the Commitment to Remember along with the designated readers.

Left: The Menin Gate Memorial in Ypres, Belgium

“Interestingly, as we read the Commitment to Remember, a gentle breeze blew through the cemetery,” recalled Knight. “For a brief moment, I felt touched by the spirit of the dead. This breathtaking experience left an indelible impression upon me and I’ll never forget this special moment.”

The Canadian Minister of Veterans Affairs, Greg Thompson, and two young wreath bearers then proceeded with the Cross of Sacrifice, where the minister laid a wreath on behalf of all Canadians. “The ceremony concluded with the singing of Canada’s national anthem,” said Knight, “as we wiped our eyes and choked back tears.”

There were so many memorable moments for Knight, including chatting with the veterans. “They have so many fascinating stories and are very open to sharing them,” said Knight.

Knight can’t wait to go back to Europe. “When I arrived home, I told my parents that 10 days wasn’t enough and we have to go back. I need to see Italy and Normandy.”

Knight shot about 22 hours of footage while in Europe. Daily, he reviewed the footage and logged the sites into his journal. The footage is now with VAC who holds the rights to it. Eventually, the footage will be used to create an educational module that will focus on Newfoundland’s contribution in World War I.

This article was submitted to YFile by Mary-Lou Schagena in the Faculty of Fine Arts.