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.