CUFF.Docs: Calgary expat David Curtis's film is part character study, part environmental alarm

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in David Curtis’ documentary, The Ballad of Caveman Bill, there is a montage of the titular character riding his bike around Dawson City.

Curtis’ camera follows him as he waves to everyone he meets. Clearly, Bill Donaldson is not only friendly but extremely popular with the townsfolk.

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It’s one of the first things that stands out in the documentary, which will screen as part of CUFF.Docs on Nov. 25. Donaldson may live in a cave and have a long beard and harbour a strong desire to live close to nature, he is not a grouchy recluse.

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“He is an incredibly easy-going fellow,” says Curtis, who has been friends with Donaldson for 23 years. “For somebody who you might think would be a hermit or a recluse or a misanthrope, he is not. He is very much engaged in our world and he is a very social creature. He enjoys company, he enjoys people. He loves to go see bands. That part is what appealed to me as well. It would be easy enough to probably find somebody like that, especially around here, who is very much a recluse or a curmudgeon. But I think those are stories that we have seen or heard and have become a sort of trope:  people living on their own in the woods or in nature. ”

David Curtis
Calgary expat David Curtis, director of The Ballad of Caveman Bill. Photo by Devon Berquist jpg

Still, the hook of the film is Donaldson’s decision back in 1996 to make a cave on a cliff face along the Yukon River his home. If there was any drama involved in this decision, it isn’t shared in the film. The Ballad of Caveman Bill unfolds in a gentle manner and is mostly focused  on casual conversations between Donaldson and Curtis, who remains off-camera. The filmmaker, who spent his adolescence in Calgary, shows Donaldson’s resourcefulness as he scavenges in the dump, cuts wood, goes ice-fishing and takes on odd jobs in town to make ends meet. It also shows how he is forced to leave his during the thaw and live in a tent on higher ground due to water getting into the cave and making it unliveable for certain parts of the year. In the film, which was shot in 2020 to 2022, we see how this is becoming more of a threat to Donaldson’s way of life with each passing year due to climate change. Changes in precipitation and temperatures force him to live in the tent for longer periods.

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Which is how Curtis uses this endearing character study as a jumping-off point for a larger conversation about climate change. Curtis has been living in the Yukon for 25 years and is actually Donaldson’s neighbour, part of an off-grid community who resides across from Dawson City and spend at least part of the year physically cut off from the outside world. A former commercial fisherman, Curtis is also an artist, carpenter and filmmaker. His 2019 debut documentary, the National Film Board of Canada’s Sovereign Soil, focused on the people who live around Dawson City and their relationship to the land. His next film will be about state of the fisheries on the Yukon River.

“My documentary films deal with environmental issues and the effects of the climate crisis on my community,” Curtis says. “So I focus, including with the new film I’m working on, on this location and the people who live here and my community. That’s partly because it’s what I feel I understand most and also want to learn more about. Also, I feel committed to this place and feel there is a consciousness here and a lived experience of the impact of the climate crisis, which people are very aware of. I think those stories resonate with people beyond this place.”

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Donaldson said it was not hard to convince his amiable friend to participate in the film. Most of the difficulties sprang from the fact that he is definitely off-the-grid, which not internet access. So Curtis would have to take a chance on his friend being home when making the occasionally perilous journey with his camera to the cave.

But for the most part, the tone of The Ballad of Caveman Bill — the title comes from a song musician Ryan McNally wrote for the soundtrack — is as easy-going and friendly as its subject. Donaldson does talk about his father’s alcoholism and his own past battles with the bottle, but those moments are brief. The main drama of the film is Donaldson talking about how tenable his choice of life for 27  years is given the future challenges posed by climate change.

“I’ve always had a great admiration for how Bill lives his life and somebody who is very much attuned to sustainability and the impact we have within a consumer society,” Curtis says. “His ingenuity and also his resourcefulness is also been something I’ve always admired. He is that way not for a survivalist mentality, or end-of-time type of person, there’s nothing paranoid about Bill. It’s out of a genuine love of nature and the impact we’re having on our environment.”

The Ballad of Caveman Bill will screen as part of the CUFF.Docs Documentary Film Festival on Nov. 25 at the Globe Cinema. It will screen as part of the Wild Men shorts package alongside Duncan from Dartmouth and Dugout Dick. CUFF.Docs runs at the Globe Cinema until Nov. 26. For a full schedule of movies visit calgaryundergroundfilm.org.

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