This film, by Allison Margot Smith, is about a collection of letters to and from African American abolitionist Mary Ann Shadd between 1851 and 1863 – years that she lived in Canada. The letters were left in her house near Chatham Ontario when she returned to the U.S.A. and were eventually forgotten. They were accidentally rediscovered in 1974 by the then owners of her house, when they had the house torn down, just before the rubble was burned. When offered, the letters were accepted by Archives of Ontario for preservation. The premise of Smith’s film is that, had the letters been found before the 1960s, they might not have been offered to, or accepted by the Archives. She argues that it was the emergence in the 1960s of ideas about Social History, the Civil Rights Movement and the Women’s Movement that led the owners of the letters and the Archives to realize their importance.
The telling of the story of Mary Ann Shadd’s letters on film presented challenges for Smith both as a historian and a filmmaker. She wanted her research to be thorough while ensuring that the messages were well presented in a film medium. The research was complicated by the fact that the letters had two histories – one 19th– and the other 20th-century. These histories unfolded in what she came to understand as a complex borderland. In the making of the film Smith wanted to both challenge her audience while at the same time keeping them interested, emotionally engaged, and aesthetically pleased. Click here to read a deeper reflection on Smith’s influences, experiences, challenges in making this film.