The NFB in 2009

A introduction to the work of Canada’s National Film Board

A introduction to the work of Canada’s National Film Board
Very Nice, Very Nice by Arthur Lipsett

In this month’s issue, Matthew Hays casts a concerned eye on the state of Canada’s National Film Board, and worries about the future of the venerable institution. The article nods toward the Board’s golden age and its continued accolades from aborar, but characterises its recent efforts as backwards-looking and beset by decades of escalating cutbacks, necessitating a more general retreat in its films’ level of quality and risk-taking. Add to this an apparently complete lack of distribution and we might be forgiven in concluding that the NFB seems consigned to obscurity.

Recent events, however, might encourage us to draw very different conclusions. Bookending the piece are a couple of Toronto International Film Festival success stories—relative successes, perhaps, and yet each film has continued to succeed even beyond the marginal realm of festival plaudits. The first of the two movies, The Memories of Angels, currently screens as part of Cinematheque Ontario’s nationally touring Canada’s Top Ten series (as does Drux Flux, an NFB short, and Heaven on Earth, a co-production). The other film, Examined Life, has opened commercially in Toronto to enough acclaim and public interest to warrant an extended run before shipping off to other Canadian venues.

Other NFB productions, such as the harrowing Doctors Without Borders profile Triage, the Brion Gysin–worshipping Flicker, and Three Gorges Dam think-piece Up the Yangtze, saw similar commercial release and critical praise in 2008. To this viewer’s eyes, hockey exposé Junior and homeless extreme-sports doc Carts of Darkness, both undistributed festival favourites, were equally well-poised to win national audiences. But merely to list the Board’s recent accomplishments like this is to risk sounding like we’re parroting some publicist’s copy. Better to view and judge the evidence ourselves — an opportunity that the NFB now offers us online.

Board commissioner Tom Perlmutter says in the magazine that the NFB’s web initiatives “will be crucial in creating a better sense of brand awareness… If people can actually get at the NFB films, I think that will make a real difference.” Suddenly, getting at this part of our cultural heritage has become much easier: at the end of January, the NFB debuted its new website, featuring hundreds of high-quality streaming videos, with more added every month from the archive of thousands of films the Board has produced.

We could frown upon this move as retrograde — as nostalgia, as looking longingly backward, more stock-taking at the expense of producing new and innovative work. But why shouldn’t the NFB construct a showcase for its wares now, in anticipation of future triumphs? What’s the use in winning awards if there’s no mantle on which to display them? And if you’ve had a golden age but no one can find out about it, does it actually exist?

Hoo boy, does it exist. And in making its finest moments accessible online, the Film Board’s old ahead-of-their-time productions seem reinvigorated and contemporary once again, while recent efforts gain a lustre, a context, and a sense of tradition by sharing the marquee with such august company. To draw such links between present and past, to make explicit the NFB’s continuum of inquiry and committed filmmaking, is to make viewers aware of the proud legacy we should be so concerned to save from the bogeymen of obscurity and irrelevance. What follows is a themed selection of some of the more obvious highlights from the NFB’s current spate of online offerings.

But I Don’t Know Any NFB Films

Perhaps we should first cast a sceptical eye on the article’s implication that 99.6 percent of Canadians are not reached by the NFB’s efforts. Due to the films’ presence in school libraries and on Saturday morning television, or simply by virtue of their being cartoons, many Canadians have in fact been brought up on NFB fare — often without their realising it. For years the NFB has been pulling off that peculiarly Canadian trick of penetrating the national consciousness without making a big fuss about it. So, ask people to name an NFB film and you might be disappointed, true. Mention to them some of the best loved titles — The Log Driver’s Waltz, The Cat Came Back, The Big Snit — and you may receive a blank stare in return. But forward them links to those same videos and your inbox will be flooded with omgs and nostalgic thx. The Sweater, Sheldon Cohen’s adaptation of Roch Carrier’s still-vibrant hockey allegory (released in French as Le Chandail), is a fine example of these well-known unknown films.

The Sweater by Sheldon Cohen
Experimentation: McLaren, Lipsett, et al.

But so much for the comforts of nostalgia: what of this radical tradition of risk-taking? Whether the NFB actually succeeded in institutionalising experimental filmmaking is debatable — the careers and lives of wunderkinder Arthur Lipsett and Ryan Larkin, for example, did not progress exactly smoothly within that insitutional framework — but the Board has employed its share of formally adventurous spirits, to be sure.

Norman McLaren was among the first, and instrumental in starting and guiding the NFB’s animation studios. McLaren’s most innovative work, like the camera-less direct animation of Begone Dull Care, often follows in the antic, pastel-coloured footsteps of Kiwi animator Len Lye on one hand, and anticipates the mute, scratched and painted symphonies of American romantic Stan Brakhage on the other. But even within the bounds of wartime propaganda, McLaren made his mark. His Keep Your Mouth Shut is almost certainly one of the scariest, most sobering bits of propaganda ever produced: beginning and ending with intense flicker-film effects (long before their ’60s heyday in the international avant garde), the film presents us with a leering, dancing skull gaily presiding over lengths of black leader, broken up only by split-second bomb-blasts of destruction.

Keep Your Mouth Shut by Norman McLaren

NFB animation would go on to produce more standout work like Ryan Larkin’s melancholy psychedelia and Pierre Hébert’s out-jazz-tinged improvisations, among others. Arthur Lipsett, too, began in the animation department before striking out on his own. His brand of experimentation was fierce: eager but judicious with his splicer, Lipsett created a collage-mad aesthetic just as death-obsessed as that of American counterparts like Bruce Conner, but less delirious about the prospect of apocalypse, and in terrified awe of everything “pop” and modern. Despite its being one of the first and best examples of Canada’s astounding filmmaking avant garde, Lipsett’s work still constitutes a fascinating road less traveled by, and films like his masterpiece 21–87 remain searing and unique.

21–87 by Arthur Lipsett
Cinéma direct: Unit B and l’équipe française

NFB films could be formally inventive, but filmmakers often innovated within broader guidelines as well, sometimes helping to influence entire modes of film practice. In the ’50s and ’60s, the NFB helped to shape the direct cinema and cinéma vérité approaches, new methods of making documentaries which emphasised the reality (or unreality) of events taking place before the camera. Lonely Boy, which follows Paul Anka on tour, sees the English-language Unit B team at their most willing to wink, poke fun, and be playful, in contradistinction to the Stateside approach of Drew Associates, who aimed straightforwardly to capture reality—compare the infamous uptightness of the Bob Dylan doc Dont Look Back. Directors Wolf Koenig and Roman Kroitor here catch teen idol Anka parading around in his gonch, smooching and softsoaping a nightclub owner, and dishing about his babyfat, all while advising people to forget the cameras are even there.

Lonely Boy by Wolf Koenig and Roman Kroitor

Less mischievous but more poetic, the new Québecois approach to documentary reached a peak with Pierre Perrault and Michel Brault’s Pour la suite du monde. Brault’s wandering, attentive camera—which had introduced Europe to the vérité style in Jean Rouch’s canonical Chronique d’un été a couple years prior—searches into one remote community’s past, allowing their archaic language room to play and encouraging them to unearth their long lost tradition of beluga-trapping along the St. Lawrence. Finding and displaying such examples of a distinctively Québecois culture is a move that characterises the larger project of the NFB’s équipe française during the Quiet Revolution—that is, to help foster national sentiment among French-speaking Québec, and to allow the people to present themselves to themselves. The NFB’s long history of providing marginalised communities with the opportunity, equipment, and wherewithal to film and tell their own stories, begins here, with the équipe française.

Pour la suite du monde by Michel Brault and Pierre Perrault
New Formats, New Films

Pour la suite du monde was one of the first pictures to benefit from the NFB’s new digital age. Long available in English Canada only in a truncated, dubbed, and cruelly reedited version called The Moontrap, the film arrived on DVD in 2006 in its original French with optional English subtitles. The Board, having long embraced new and ever-more democratic technologies (for example, providing poor communities with video cameras during the format’s infancy), was nevertheless curiously slow to accept the encyclopedic possibilities and universal distribution of the DVD. No longer: the box sets devoted to Brault’s and McLaren’s seminal work, among others, stand with the best comprehensive sets available on any filmmaker worldwide.

Perhaps understandably, as an inducement to purchase rather than stream, many NFB films are available for viewing on DVD or at their Mediatheque stations that aren’t online just yet—especially their latest and most acclaimed productions, which are still enjoying a period of profitability before their imminent uploading. And so two of the best and most lauded recent NFB films, surefire online hits once they’re available for viewing on the site, are for the moment only available on disc. Jennifer Baichwal’s Manufactured Landscapes follows Edward Burtynsky through China as he orchestrates some of his stunning photographs of man-made ruin and excess. The minutes-long opening shot, taking us through a clothes-iron factory, is an indelible moment of pure cinema: a reconsideration of consumerism and a plea for market transparency in thoughtful homage to Jean-Luc Godard’s Tout va bien. No wonder the film made so many year-end best lists, in Canada as well as internationally.

The example that Manufacturing Landscapes sets for the documentary tradition, both in terms of artistic achievement and popular reception, Madame Tutli-Putli sets for animation. The film puts the otherworldly oddity of stop-motion in service of subtle creepiness and grotesque phantasmagoria, and all aboard a train, too—how very Canadian. It seems fitting to conclude in remarking that not only did the film win laurels at Cannes, but it also earned the seventy-year-old NFB its seventieth Oscar nomination. We should all hope to be so obscure and irrelevant in our old age.

Sean Rogers