Here is what we know to be fact: On December 6, 1917—in the moments before the Halifax explosion scorched that date with significance—a sailor was on the Halifax waterfront. When the ships Mont Blanc and Imo collided in the narrows, this same sailor was sent skyward in the resulting blast. Another fact: His wingless flight was over two kilometres, and ended with him landing in Fort Needham Park.
But what happened in those sky-bound moments in between his upward throw and downward fall? Between the heartbeats that must’ve clattered his chest, as he not only criss-crossed neighbourhoods but the threshold of life and death? That’s the part of the story where facts run out—so filmmakers Amanda Forbis and Wendy Tilby let things skew fiction in their 2022 animated short The Flying Sailor.
Across the flick’s seven-minute run-time, archival photos, 3D and 2D animation blend to imagine how its title character felt. His clothes are stripped away by winds at turns sharp and subtle; scenes that compose the details of a life—like a baby on grass and a beautiful woman dancing—pass by. An egg cracks. A fish gasps. The sailor almost floats towards a white light, becoming blobbier in form as he reaches the could-be cosmos. Somehow, the entire effect is reverent whimsy: Forbis and Tilby see the sailor as symbolic of not only a devastating disaster but also a close appraisal of the beauty hiding in an everyday, normal life.
The idea for the short began gestating over two decades ago, the filmmakers recall, when they were visiting Halifax from Montreal and saw the story as part of an exhibit at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic (the pair are now based in Calgary). By the time they got around to getting it out on paper years later, it was a seamless slide into their catalogue of shorts that examine life and death, says Tilby, who mentions another of their films that follows a city-dwelling pig witnessing a stranger’s death. (That one’s called When The Day Breaks, and the stranger in question is a chicken en route to the grocery store.)
As this year’s anniversary of the Halifax explosion arrived, the filmmakers saw their short suddenly receive a wider audience: The New Yorker secured screening rights through its online streaming platform. Meanwhile, Canada’s National Film Board put the short online, meaning it’s free to watch for those of us on this side of the border, too. This amount of buzz isn’t typical for a short film—and speaks to both Forbis and Tilby’s stature but also the movie’s deftly nailed tone. (The pair tell The Coast that they were so excited about The New Yorker deal that they made their own celebratory, faux cover of the mag sporting their film’s star.)
“Life is many things. It's sort of profound and insignificant. It's fleeting, and it's precarious—all of those things,” says Forbis. “And so that kind of suspension of the sailor—between life and death—is that kind of moment when all of those things come to the fore, I guess: So it was a lens through which to look at that.”