The current Norman McLaren centenary screenings and the ‘Documentary Special’ edition of Sight and Sound (September 2014) have prompted me to think about one of the most important public bodies associated with film production: the National Film Board of Canada. The NFB is 75 years old this year having been founded by the Scottish documentarist John Grierson in 1939. His fellow Scot Norman McLaren was recruited in 1941. The Film Board went on to embrace and significantly develop the film culture of Francophone Canada and to encourage filmmaking for all Canadian communities. As well as a resource for Canadians, the Film Board has become a major international producer of documentaries, animated films and fiction shorts and features, winning so far – as the banner above proclaims – over 5,000 awards in its 75 year life. The NFB has produced a timeline graphic as part of its celebrations and has encouraged everyone to display it, so here it is:
My own encounters with the board’s films came first in the 1970s when I remember seeing its documentaries in various programmes at the National Film Theatre here in the UK. When I started teaching I found that the film library at Canada House on Trafalgar Square in London would lend copies of films (no charge) on 16mm to use in the classroom and I borrowed several NFB films in this way. It was around this time that I became aware of the legacy of John Grierson’s work and the importance of Norman McLaren – as well as the diversity of Canadian filmmaking. I don’t know if such arrangements survived the demise of 16mm but educational activities remain an important part of the NFB’s overall programme. More recently I’ve become aware of the importance of the NFB in the remarkable growth of Quebecois filmmaking from the 1960s onwards. Often quoted as the most important Canadian feature, Claude Jutra’s Mon Oncle Antoine (1971) is one of several feature films available both online and for download from the National Film Board website. More recently, the NFB produced the marvelous Sarah Polley film Stories We Tell (2012). The online collection of films is extensive and anyone could spend happy hours or days exploring it. Many films are available in both English and French language versions – the practice seems to have been to dub rather than subtitle the alternative versions of many of the films. This is a little unfortunate since the dubs sound artificial. But that’s is a minor quibble.
Women as creative filmmakers at the NFB
Because I was recently reading about the difficult careers of John Grierson’s sisters Ruby and Marion (in The Media Education Journal – Issue 55, published by the Association for Media Education in Scotland), I was intrigued to stumble across the wartime short documentaries made by Jane Marsh at the NFB in the early 1940s. Jane Marsh produced, wrote and directed six films between 1942 and 1943 and five of them are available online. She eventually fell out with Grierson because she felt that he didn’t give her proper recognition for her achievements. Jane Marsh’s beautiful colour film from 1943, Alexis Tremblant: Habitant was written, directed and edited by Marsh and photographed by Judith Crawley – one of the first films from the NFB made largely by women in the creative roles:
Grierson was old-fashioned, even in the 1940s, in his attitudes towards the many women who worked at the NFB during the war. An interesting short film about the wartime period at the NFB can be found here. Evelyn Spice Cherry was a young woman from Western Canada who met Grierson in London where she became a director in the 1930s and was then invited to join him when he set up the NFB. She would make around 100 films in all, though she left the NFB in 1950 when it came under pressure from anti-communist witch-hunters – the Board has been at the centre of a range of controversies, which is probably an indicator of its engagement with Canadian life. Evelyn Lambart was one of the first female animators at the NFB, collaborating with Norman McLaren on six productions. Grierson was a chauvinist but also an inspirational figure who encouraged women – as another female director Gudrun Bjerring Parker attests:
In the post-war years other women became significant directors at NFB including Caroline Leaf who joined the NFB in 1972 and directed both animations and live-action documentaries – I enjoyed watching one on the singer-musicians Kate and Anna McGarrigle from 1981.
The collection of NFB films available to view on https://www.nfb.ca is invaluable for cinephiles, film historians and anyone interested in Canadian culture. The database of films needs to be seen alongside those available from the British Film Institute, British Council and other publicly-funded resources such as PBS in the US. I hope to explore some of these in the next few weeks. In the meantime, please checkout the NFB site.
This programme, organised by McLaren 2014 in partnership with the National Film Board of Canada, is a celebration of one hundred years on from the birth of Scottish animator and filmmaker Norman McLaren. In Yorkshire both the Hyde Park Picture House (Friday August 8th) and the National Media Museum (Sunday August 3rd and Saturday 9th) are offering screenings. And both venues are also offering Digital Animation Workshops (with different age ranges – for HPPH) in which participants can use the McLaren iPad App (National Film Board of Canada) to create short animations. These will later to uploaded to the McLaren 2014 Website.
Norman McLaren was born in Stirling on April 11th 1914. He studied at the Glasgow School of Art. His notable films include Hell Unlimited (1936) an impressive and innovatory anti-war short film with touches of the surreal. This film led to him being invited to join the GPO Film Unit by John Grierson in 1936. He also worked as a cameraman in Spain during the war to defend the Spanish Republic from the fascist rebellion. He emigrated to the USA in 1939 and in 1941 was invited by Grierson (again) to join the newly formed National Film Board of Canada. He also worked in Asia for a time helping to develop visual methods in overcoming illiteracy. He died in 1987.
McLaren frequently worked on live-action documentaries and animated films where he drew directly onto the celluloid. He was an important innovator in the techniques of drawing on film and also experimented with 3D animation and animation translated into synthetic sound waves.
He won an Academy Award for his 1952 live action film Neighbours, which made use of pixilation techniques.
The screenings will feature 13 of his short animations, mainly from his work at the National Film Board of Canada. His best works are beautifully drawn, technically assured and both stimulating and sometimes very humorous. His technical ability encompassed a range of styles, including abstract works. The prime focus tends to be movement and colour is often added for emotional resonance. Included in the screenings will be his first professional film, Love on the Wing (1938), an advertisement for the Empire Mail Service, but also an exercise in technique and surreal combinations: a war-time contribution V is for Victory (1941): A Chairy Tale (1957) which ‘brings to life inanimate objects’: Blinkity Blank (1959) which explores motion by painting directly onto raw film stock: and Pas de Deux (1968), a live-action film of ballet dancers, which uses step-printing on an optical printer.
The workshops promise to be instructive but also fun. And the screenings offer a rare opportunity to see masterworks from the field of animation on the big screen.
Hyde Park Picture House – email: email@example.com
The latest Studio Ghibli anime has received rather grudging reviews on the whole, being described as ‘bland’ and ‘minor Ghibli’ or at best ‘pleasant and light’. I enjoyed it a great deal but I can understand why the less enthusiastic responses have come from some fans and critics. But I should also point out that this was the biggest-grossing Japanese film of 2011, so plenty of fans did like it.
Based on a shojo manga (i.e. a girl’s comic book story), the film has a screenplay by the studio head Miyazaki Hayao and Niwa Keiko. It is directed by Miyazaki Gori, Hayao’s son, whose 2006 anime Tales of Earthsea was generally panned. This time he seems to have had a smoother ride with critics prepared to delay judgement after a film that works – “not amazing” but “simple and cute” as fans have described it. I’ll try to explain why I think it is more than that.
The most obvious category/genre of the narrative is ‘teen high-school romance’. But it is also a ‘period film’ set very precisely in the port city of Yokohama in 1963, a year before the Tokyo Olympics when Japan is poised to ‘leap forward’ in terms of its modernising economy and society. The students in the last two years of high school were born in 1945-6 and they have lived through the painful and difficult period of Occupation and ‘recovery’. The central character Umi has a busy life running her grandmother’s house and catering for lodgers and her two younger siblings, having lost her father, the captain of a supply ship which sank during the Korean War. Her mother is an academic working for a spell in America. Every day Umi shops and makes food before and after school. She also runs up signal flags outside the house in memory of her father. One day she meets Shun, a senior at school who is the editor of a school newspaper. The potential romance develops (with the approval of the older women in Umi’s household) but an unforeseen obstacle lies in the way – a plot development that might surprise some viewers (and which one character refers to in terms of ‘cheap melodrama’). However, the teen romance also involves that classic high school element – saving something valuable which the school authorities want to close down. The boys occupy a rambling old house that offers accommodation for various clubs and societies, including the newspaper ‘offices’. Given the title ‘the Latin Quartier’ the building represents an old, but culturally important aspect of the school community but there are plans to sweep it away to make way for a modern building.
The ‘problem’ for fans is that this film is a change from the fantasy films usually associated with Studio Ghibli, although there were a couple of such films in the 1990s, rarely seen in the West and, most famously, Grave of the Fireflies in 1988. Miyazaki Gori’s direction is also perhaps a little prosaic but I’m not sure that this matters since I found the story to be strong. There are several themes and set pieces which bring Miyazaki Senior’s work to mind. So we see the focus on preparing meals (and shopping) and the sequence in which Umi organises the girls in the school to clean and renovate the Latin Quartier in order to impress the school administrators is reminiscent of both the cleaning of the country house in My Neighbour Totoro and the many sequences featuring the great bath-house in Spirited Away. Like these two buildings, the Latin Quartier house (built probably in the Meiji period in the 19th century) is a symbol of a Japanese tradition that needs to be preserved. This aspect of the story is potentially problematic in the context of the school.
The Japanese convention/tradition of dressing students in identical uniforms with military connotations does mean that a lively student debate can sometimes feel like a fascist rally with uniformed ranks chanting in unison. But in fact, this is all about collective action and collaboration. There is no sense that the students want to persecute others or make themselves more important. And it isn’t sexist either. In Studio Ghibli films young women are active agents. Umi has to run a household without adult males. She knows how to get things done – although she initiates the cleaning, the boys also contribute.
Watching the film, I found myself thinking about classical Japanese cinema from the 1950s and links kept popping up – the train journey into Tokyo was reminiscent of Ozu, the house on the hill and the city below form the basis of Kurosawa’s (very different) story in High and Low, also set in Yokohama. Both Ozu and Kurosawa made ‘youth pictures’ celebrating the vitality of young people. I think I’ve read that Miyazaki Hayao was a big fan of these films. I also wonder about the naming of the ‘Latin Quartier’ – is this a nod towards the Japanese New Wave cinema in the 1960s or, more likely, a reference back to the importance of European culture in the mix of Japanese education practices in the early 20th century? Most of these references won’t mean much to contemporary audiences but they point towards the care with which the best Studio Ghibli films are constructed. Contemporary Japanese politics seem to be swinging right and there are worrying signs about a revival in interest in the militarism of the 1930s and the disavowal of the post-1945 ‘reconstruction’ of Japanese identity. I hope that the investigation of tradition and heritage in Studio Ghibli films acts as a counterweight to those swings.
Here’s a very short Japanese trailer for the film. I watched the subtitled version of the film. In the UK specialised cinemas tend to show the American dubbed version in matinees and the Japanese version in the evenings. The trailer features one of the songs and I loved the music in the film which features choral singing (from the students) alongside contemporary Japanese popular songs. I’m used to Joe Hisaishi but the music in Poppy is by Takebe Satoshi.
Finally, here’s one of the most useful reviews of the film by Andrew Osmond (who also reviews the film in Sight and Sound, August)
Bradford International Film Festival has, for as long as I can remember, regularly included a short before each festival screening of a feature (unless the length of the feature makes this impractical). This is in addition to specific programmes of shorts, e.g. the Shine Short Film Competition. This inclusion of short films in the main festival is to be applauded but in the UK shorts have not been part of mainstream film culture for a very long time. There are certain cinemas that regularly show shorts as part of specific projects (e.g. the Virgin-sponsored shorts at Cornerhouse in Manchester) but as far as I’m aware, that is not the practice at most specialised cinemas. The upshot is that in the UK shorts remain primarily a festival experience or, since many domestic shorts receive some form of public funding they are shown at funders’ (or education institutions’) promotional events.
Shorts aren’t usually reviewed outside their own institutional context (i.e. by competition judges) and I confess that I’m not sure what criteria to use to discuss them. In the main shorts are produced by younger filmmakers as a form of ‘calling card’ and therefore perhaps we should be looking for evidence of good creative ideas, narrative control, good techniques etc. In some ways though this seems an almost impossible ask of young filmmakers. What makes a ‘good’ short? It might be a good idea that achieves its goal within its allotted time or it might be something very slight that is produced in a striking and original way.
There were nearly 40 shorts in the Bradford programme plus 18 short animations in the Chuck Jones Tribute. I saw just over a quarter of the shorts and two of the Chuck Jones animations. Two general observations: first it was clear that shorts were carefully chosen to complement the feature, either via subject matter or tone. Second, the overall quality of the shorts seemed higher than I remember from previous years. Certainly I never got that sense of squirming in my seat hoping that the short would end soon. I was intrigued by the way that ‘typical’ national filmmaking styles were so noticeable – the social realist aspects of several UK shorts, a beautiful traditional Japanese animation etc. Again there were noticeable differences in production values. The Spanish Morir cada dia (Dying Every Day) and the French Le passage were striking in this respect, the former a drama moment set at mealtime, the latter a fantasy narrative sequence – both of which could have been extracts from a feature production. By contrast, Those Who Can (UK) is clearly low budget but packs a powerful punch with its narrative derived, I think, from a real news report. I enjoyed each of these three shorts very much. It’s worth making the point here that festivals are now faced with a variety of digital formats on which submissions have been made – as well as the different formats on which they have been shot. (It isn’t always the case that the film on the highest quality original format arrives in the cinema on the best projection format.)
Formats were also an issue for the Chuck Jones Centenary Tribute (Part 1). I was pleased to see this strand in the festival. The cartoons (as they would have been called on their original release) were scattered through the festival as well as being collected together in four separate ‘Family Funday’ programmes over the two weekends of the festival. The festival brochure includes an essay by Paul Wells on Chuck Jones (1912-2002) which provides useful background detail. Jones worked for Warner Bros, home of ‘Looney Tunes’ between 1933 and 1962 and then for MGM from 1963-71, by which time the studios were in the process of ceasing production of cartoons as such.
I remember the 1950s experience of watching Bugs Bunny, Wile-E-Coyote and Roadrunner, how the first Hollywood cartoon characters transferred to mainstream children’s TV in the 1960s and then again how they provided the basis for new cable channels like Cartoon Network in the 1990s. The Bugs Bunny classic What’s Opera Doc? dates from 1957 but I suspect that I know it best from TV. It’s claimed as ‘the greatest cartoon short’ ever made. I can see why it is so highly thought of, but personally I prefer the earlier cartoons of Tex Avery – for both their drawing style and their subversive nature. This was one of just four of the cartoons screened from 35mm. The image looked fine on the big Pictureville screen, if a little scratchy. The Bear That Wasn’t is a 1967 production, the last cartoon short from MGM. Based on a story by Frank Tashlin this is a witty satire on contemporary US society and quite sad. I enjoyed it a lot (and the drawing style suited the material as well as evoking the period). However, like most of the cartoon shorts this had to be screened from Blu-Ray. I’ve seen Blu-Ray on a smaller screen looking fantastic, but on the big Pictureville screen it didn’t seem quite up to the job. It’s a shame that the studios aren’t releasing their cartoon archives as DCP prints – or perhaps they are but the distribution fees are extortionate? I know how difficult the studios can be about prints and indeed still images in giving permissions and charging high fees. I wish I’d had the time to watch more of the cartoons but if you feel that you have been missing out, Part 2 of the Chuck Jones tribute is promised for the Bradford Animation Festival later this year.