Documentary Lens Lesson Plan for “Just One Big Mess”: The Halifax Explosion, 1917

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Materials and Resources

  • “Behind the Camera” and “Teacher's Guide: How to Use Documentary Lens” are two articles on the National Film Board’s Documentary Lens Web site.


A French munitions ship carrying tonnes of explosives collided with a Belgian relief vessel in the Halifax harbour on December 6, 1917. The blast and its impact caused fires and a tidal wave that devastated homes and businesses and contributed to the death or injury of nearly a quarter of the population of the city.

The director offers a glimpse into the traumatic repercussions of the event through layers of imagery and a variety of voices. Documentary and experiential evidence are intertwined in a multi-layered text. Paintings and photographs of devastation are intensified by the narration and by the voices of survivors and their descendants. Another layer of text calls out to the viewer in sounds, for example, children's voices in a schoolyard before the explosion. The viewer feels how the devastation shocks their innocence and natural sense of invulnerability.

The camera focuses in and out of powerful paintings that depict the total destruction. The artists’ works also capture the horror and shock in the eyes of the people.

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