Ask any Canadian if they know what the National Film Board is and chances are you will make that Canadian smile, albeit a little sheepishly. They’ll probably reference the iconic logo—“Man Seeing / L’homme qui voit”—which, when seen on the overhead projector or TV screen in school, was universally acknowledged as a sign that our teacher had decided to phone it in for the rest of class. They might even whistle a little bit of the Hinterland Who’s Who theme song, or the chorus of “The Logdriver’s Waltz” sung by the lovely Kate and Anna McGarrigle. But generally speaking, you’ll get acknowledgement. Canadians from coast to coast to coast speak this language fluently.
And it’s a bit of a bizarre language; like pornography of Lynchian film, you know it when you see it. There are slow-moving documentaries about subjects ranging from calliopes to Leonard Cohen; propaganda films from World War II; experimental animated shorts based on books or set to music; narrated in English…and en français aussi, bien sûr. Seemingly low on budget but high on this peculiar style, the 13,000 films in their archive span 80 years; the NFB was once one of the largest film studios on Earth, helped to pioneer IMAX film technology, has been nominated for countless Genie, Annie, Peabody, and Academy Awards, and has inspired Stanley Kubrick’s vision for 2001: A Space Odyssey, George Lucas’s conceptualization of “the Force”, and the writers of The Simpsons.
It’s an impressive feat for such a small nation’s official, government funded film council.
I was told once by a friend in the UK that his teacher used to play NFB short films in class when he was a child. Later on down the road, someone else filled in the blanks in this story by telling me about some kind of reciprocal agreement between the CBC/Radio-Canada (our national broadcaster and the natural home for NFB films on Canadian television screens) and the BBC to share content. But while this might explain all the Beeb programming I got growing up, I’m not sure if it’s entirely true. However, it did leave me wondering if other people around the world had actually also seen these films, and if so, how had they responded to them?
And then I thought: if I could write a primer on the NFB catalogue for a non-Canadian viewer, what would I say?
It’s hard to put into words how ingrained the NFB is in the Canadian psyche. We’re not a boastful people, and we know that our cultural products aren’t exactly the stuff of legend. But we are still fiercely proud of what we do produce, and the NFB is uniquely ours in so many ways. We’re a nation of democratic socialists, so it should surprise no one to learn that the NFB is entirely funded by taxpayers. As a body, it reports to Parliament and the Minister of Canadian Heritage. We’d had a government funded film commission of some sort since 1918, but the NFB was a different sort of animal. It was initially commissioned in 1939, and in its early years was specifically intended to boost morale and aid the home front efforts during the Second World War. The NFB eventually began to show Canada back to Canadians, and the films toured theatres across the country—from St. John’s to Squamish and hitting every town with a movie theatre along the way—with this goal in mind.
In this vein, you get award-winning films like Churchill’s Island from 1941, which detailed the Battle of Britain as part of the NFB’s “Canada Carries On” series to show folks back home what was happening overseas, or the 1992 film The Northern Lights, which took Canadians to the far north to explore the myths and legends as well as the scientific facts behind the aurora borealis. You also saw films such as the 1960 short film Universe, which imagines what it might be like to fly through space—something that would happen before the end of that decade, and which would have been on the mind of many Canadians as they entered the Space Age. (This is the one that inspired Kubrick.) There are cinema verite classics, such as the series The Candid Eye, which looks at various aspects of Canadian life—from learning English as an immigrant to threshing season on a prairie farm—from a direct, immediate perspective. (Modern docs, like Alaa, do this for Canadian life today—in this case, detailing the lives of Syrian refugees new to Canada.)
Fictional representations of Canadian life first seen on the NFB have become part of our national identity now too—the aforementioned “Log Driver’s Waltz” fits in here nicely as well, as does Roch Carrier’s autobiographical classic “The Sweater”, about the one thing that unites almost all of Canada: our dislike of the Toronto Maple Leafs. There’s also the illustrated Inuit legend Owl and the Raven, part of the vast collection of indigenous film in the NFB archive.
Then there’s the comedy—a 1974 animated film Propaganda Message (warning: foul/racist language) illustrates with Schoolhouse Rock-esque style just what kind of threats are being posed to our nation from within and without, and how the solution is federalism; or a 1980 mockumentary, The National Scream, that seeks to understand where our national identity resides; and the 1963 short film Gone Curling, all about our other favourite national pastime.
Today, there’s pride in the NFB’s role as a new media powerhouse, with several Webby awards under its belt and an international reputation for interactive experiences and multimedia presentations that have brought it to Cannes and film festivals like it all over the world.
There’s even an NFB app.
But much like the Pathé film studios in Europe, there was an experimental bend to these films as well, and these are the films that I’d probably put up first and foremost as an example of what makes the NFB great. The short films of pioneering animator Norman McLaren are some of the most breathtaking and technically audacious works of art ever put to film—and I say this as an avowed fan of David Lynch.
I couldn’t pick a favourite McLaren short if my life depended on it. His films feel like the kind of experimental art that plays on loop at expensive modern art museums around the world. There’s his 1955 film Blinkity Blank, an animation that plays with your visual perception of light and darkness, positive and negative space. “McLaren engraves pictures on blank film creating vivid, percussive effects,” the NFB description reads. See for yourself:
Then there’s 1969’s mesmerizing Spheres, with music by Glenn Gould playing Bach over scenes of… well, spheres. Lots of spheres. “These spheres line up, group and multiply, sometimes colliding against each other,” says the NFB, but the dance is so perfectly choreographed that you don’t notice that this is all there is to it.
1941’s Boogie Doodle is not even a film, really; McLaren simply animated the various doodles and dots directly onto the celluloid.
It’s the kind of experimentation that could only truly be done in a place and a space in which experimentation was the ultimate goal, not money-making; where funding is provided by the government with the express purpose of doing exactly this. Stop me before I go on a diatribe against modern-day tent-pole summer blockbusters…but seriously, watching some of the innovative work of NFB directors and filmmakers makes me yearn a bit.
The modern NFB has taken up the audacious mantle of filmmakers like McLaren and applied it to new media, ushering itself into the 21st century and its 8th decade as a pioneering force in film. A full quarter of its budget is devoted to interactive media, like the 2011 docuseries Welcome to Pine Point, about a disappearing town in the Northwest Territories; another, the 5-part docuseries Highrise, chronicles life in residential high-rise buildings around the world using citizen media, interactive web sites, and even spawned a partnership with the New York Times.
In 2012, director Vincent Morriset (previously heralded for his work on Arcade Fire’s “Neon Bible“, popularly regarded as the world’s first interactive music video) joined creative forces with Hugues Sweeney, the director of French-language interactive programming for the NFB, to create Bla Bla, a fascinating Adobe Flash acid trip filled with broken speech, wild animations, and musical creation, all of which is put into the hands of the user. It was featured at an art exhibition in Paris and won SXSW Interactive Art award and a Webby for Best Web Art. It’s a fun experiment, and elicited more than a few delighted smiles in yours truly the day I first played around with it.
But even apart from all the genre-bending experimental output from the NFB over the years, one area where it doesn’t get enough credit is for its examination of social issues facing Canadians, especially those for whom the audience and interest is limited. Long before there was a Truth and Reconciliation Commission designed ostensibly to repair the broken relationship between the Crown, the Canadian government, and our First Nations, Inuit, and Metis peoples, the National Film Board was putting cameras on those vulnerable populations, shining light where previously there’d been none. The NFB have been producing indigenous cinema since 1968; there are profiles of artists and their art, sure, but there are also stories about resistance, about social justice, about the loss of native languages, about stolen children and stolen heritage. It’s powerful stuff.
There is even a 60-film playlist, Unikkausivut, highlighting the best and most important Inuit content in its collection, representing all four Inuit regions of Canada, in English, French, and Inuktitut; it features learning resources in various Inuit dialects as well. That’s an impressive feat, and something that—again—would likely not be produced were it not for the public money funding its production. I can’t think of another place where so much has been devoted to marginalized communities.
May 2, 2019 marks the 80th birthday of the National Film Board, and I can’t think of a more worthy Canadian institution to honour. A dozen Academy Awards under its belt and a mandate to continue to produce envelope-pushing art film, captivating documentaries, animated shorts, and experimental cinema have put the NFB in a well-deserved spot of limelight. I hope you’ve learned a thing or two about beloved national treasure, and that you get just lost enough in the NFB archives that you come away with the same sense of awe that I feel right now.