55 Yard Line

Interview: Barry Greenwald talks Western Swagger, the latest Engraved On A Nation entry

Western Swagger director Barry Greenwald fuses politics and football in the film.The Engraved On A Nation series of documentaries has been producing strong results thus far, and that trend continues in "Western Swagger," which first aired Thursday night and will be shown multiple times this weekend. The film examines the connections between the 1981 Edmonton Eskimos' run to the Grey Cup and eventual triumph over Ottawa and the West-East political negotiations between Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and premiers (including Alberta's Peter Lougheed, a former Eskimos' player himself) over the National Energy Program and the Constitution Act, two subjects that seem rather diverse at first but prove to have plenty of common elements. Director Barry Greenwald took the time to speak with me about the film just before it aired Thursday, and he had some notable comments about how this project came together and what he tried to achieve. He said politics can often be perceived as an isolated subject, but political events like those of the early 1980s can have a notable impact on everyday people.

"Sometimes it scares people off, they think 'Politics is really dry,'" he said. "What happens in government, economic booms and busts, that affects all Canadians."

That's powerfully shown in the film, as Eskimos' players like Dave Fennell and Dan Kepley speak about the uniqueness of what the team had that year, but also about what the mood in Edmonton was like at the time. Fennell said in the film that the National Energy Policy's terms that Alberta should sell its oil to the rest of Canada at 70 per cent of the market price hit a particular chord locally, as it was seen as something that wasn't being fairly applied to products from other regions.

"No one in Ontario or Quebec was being asked to sell their refrigerators or their Fords at 70 per cent of the world price, " he said.

Meanwhile, many of the interviewees on the political side also speak about what the Eskimos' success meant to them, and in particular about the team's remarkable comeback in the 1981 Grey Cup.

"There was this magic that happened in that game," Greenwald said.

He sees the breakthrough in the constitution discussions from around the same time as equally remarkable.

"No one thought that in the same month, the country would achieve what it did," Greenwald said. "It's as big as 1867, as big as Confederation."

It's notable that Greenwald, an Ontario resident but one who's travelled the country extensively, teamed up with Edmonton-based Aquila Productions (the group behind the 2010 The Extra Yard documentary series) to put this film together; that provides the Edmonton angle on what things were like locally at the time, but also incorporates a wider Canadian perspective. That might not have been the easiest pairing for all people, but Greenwald said it worked out very well.

"The chemistry was really good," he said. "It proved to be quite the match."

The National Energy Program's the most controversial aspect discussed here, and it's certainly the one that pitted Alberta against Ottawa the most, but Greenwald said the issues in Canada at the time went beyond that.

"It was bigger than the NEP," he said. "The NEP's only part of what happened."

He said rising interest rates, falling global oil prices and other factors made 1981 a rough year for all Canadians; the energy side just made it particularly difficult for Albertans.

"We were all in a mess in Canada that year," Greenwald said. "Albertans were hit particularly harder."

While Alberta was facing issues, though, the Eskimos were going strong. They'd won three straight Grey Cups at this point and were making a run for a record fourth. Greenwald said what stood out to him in his research into what made the Eskimos tick was one of Kepley's comments about the era, "It was Camelot." There may not have been a round table involved, but there were bar tables; the team used to regularly relax together in the evenings at the Grand Hotel, and Kepley would call those who didn't show up immediately and tell them to get over there. For Greenwald, that showed how close this team was.

"It's all about family, Kepley uses that term in the film," Greenwald said.

That family lasted long after the Grey Cups, too, and many of them still live in Edmonton.

"So many Americans from that era never left," Greenwald said. "The Canadian players, so many of them stayed."

One of the notable revelations in the film is the softer side of Kepley, who was famed as an intimidating, hard-hitting linebacker.

"His persona was as a gladiator," Greenwald said. "Here, he's a gentle, compassionate man."

Another interviewee, legendary Edmonton coach Hugh Campbell, also makes an impact with his less-than-hard-boiled demeanour. In his case, Greenwald said players told him Campbell's approach was a key to the Eskimos' unprecedented success.

"Campbell was a completely different style of coach," Greenwald said. "He wasn't the drill sergeant type."

An example of that comes from how many of the players had to work part-time jobs during the season to make ends meet given the low CFL salaries of the time.

"They all had part-time jobs," Greenwald said. "What did Hugh Campbell do? He made practices work around players' jobs."

There's an incredible amount of material here, and there's much more that could have been explored on the Esks' dynasty, the political front and more. That easily could make for an unfocused piece that tries to be too broad, but the finished product's a well-constructed film that doesn't feel disjointed. Greenwald said most of the credit for that lies elsewhere.

"The film's secret weapon is not so secret; editor Doug Forbes," he said.

Overall, it's a compelling piece, and it's one Greenwald feels is relevant to modern-day Canada.

"It's not dry stuff, it's big stuff," he said. "We have the country we do in 2012 because of what happened in 1981. 1981 did change Canada."

He said the film's overall theme is one that's equally applicable on the political side, on the gridiron and in the rest of life; never give up, even under the worst circumstances.

"You just keep playing and you stay close."

Western Swagger will air again on TSN2 Friday at 10 p.m., on TSN Saturday at 12 a.m. and noon, on CTVTwo Saturday at 7 p.m. and on CTV Sunday at noon. All times are Eastern; check local listings for the time on your local CTV channels. More information's available here and here.

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