Hot Docs 2024: 'Fire Tower' Lacks Storytelling Spark, but the Canadian Wildness Is Stunning

Directed by Tova Krentzman

Photo via the TARO Group

BY Alex HudsonPublished Apr 30, 2024

There are a slightly more than a hundred manned fire towers in Canada, each of them occupied by someone who spends six months per year in near-complete isolation. It's a fascinating job worthy of a documentary film — but Fire Tower doesn't get quite deep into what makes these individuals tick.

Director Tova Krentzman, along with co-cinematographer Emily Sheff, captures truly stunning footage of the Canadian wilderness in Alberta and the Yukon. The aerial footage, presumably filmed via drone, is particularly awe-inspiring, conveying the majesty of the landscapes that these people spend so much of their lives looking out upon. The fire towers are located on mountain peaks, each of them offering an incredible view of the surrounding expanses of forest.

If only the character portraits were similarly far-reaching. Krentzman interviews half a dozen fire tower lookouts, largely about the contended loneliness of their lives. They wax philosophical, but the character portraits are flat, never getting into the details of their lives that might illuminate their reasons for spending so much time alone. What were their lives before working at the fire tower? What do they do in the six months each year when they're not up the fire tower? There's a stiffness to the interviews, which rarely get emotional and lack candid spontaneity.

Even their work lives are curiously not fleshed out. Each tower has a small house at its base, but a lone cooking scene (where someone amusingly makes a huge moose chili in a way-too-small pot) is the only time we see what their domestic lives look like. How do they get food and supplies? Do they ever drive into town? Do they have internet access? The doc is wisely kept to a lean 47 minutes — but it's easy to imagine what might have been included to flesh it out to a more traditional feature length.

Fire Tower is a visual treat, but it's also a frustrating missed opportunity, relying heavily on scenic footage at the expense of far-reaching character portraits.

Hot Docs 2024 takes place from Apr 25 to May 5 in Toronto. Find details, including information about tickets, at the festival's website.

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