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Documentary Activism: Empowering Communities Through the Media

By Marc Glassman

Challenge for Change: Activist Documentary at the National Film Board of Canada
Edited by Thomas Waugh, Michael Brendan Baker & Ezra Winton
McGill-Queen's University Press
576 pages; $34.95


Placed significantly near the front of the hefty new McGill-Queen's University Press study of the National Film Board of Canada's (NFB) legendary Challenge for Change program is a memoir by veteran filmmaker Colin Low. In it, Low recounts an encounter he had with NFB founder John Grierson in the fall of 1971 about the efficacy of the Board's radical community-based initiative.

Four years earlier, in the summer of 1967, Low had been lured to little Fogo Island from the NFB's headquarters in Montreal, where he had just scored an international success at the Expo '67 World's Fair with Labyrinth, a vast, McLuhanesque multi-wide-screen installation philosophizing about the future of humanity around the globe. That project, which was the precursor to IMAX, was hardly the obvious lead-in to a journey to an island off the coast of Newfoundland, closer to Dublin than it is to Toronto.

Low's excursion there proved to be as challenging and groundbreaking in terms of the use of media in documentaries as had Labyrinth. Working with lifetime professional fishers, sailors and villagers in a rocky coastal area that resembles Ireland, northern Scandinavia and Maine, Low was tasked by the NFB to engage in a new documentary process. He shot vast amounts of footage of the people of Fogo--and had them look, comment and verbally edit (and some cases censor) the material.

Using video--then a revolutionary new format--as well as film, Low made 29 pieces, only three of which were released on film for nation-wide distribution. All were seen, but often only by the islanders, academics and the politicians on the mainland of Newfoundland (itself the most marginalized area of Canada). Low's project was the exemplar of a worldwide movement, which sought to use media to empower communities and contain the manipulations of hierarchical directors, producers and editors. It truly was a challenge for change, both in terms of participatory democracy and in the use of film and video in documentary productions.

In 1971, Low was invited to present films at the NFB to what Grierson called a "promising group" of McGill students--not "film groupies or dilettantes." The afternoon started off badly, with the aging, Scottish-born professor sternly lecturing a young, bearded student to remove his feet from the top of the chair in front of him. It got worse when Low showed Billy Crane (Moves On), a monologue in which a Fogo Island fisherman explains to an off-camera Low that this is his last day, that he'll be leaving home to work in a factory in Toronto.

Low writes: "‘What,'" Dr. Grierson wanted to know, ‘was the value of the film off Fogo Island? Was it good for television? Mass media? What did it say to Canada?' I was deflated. ‘What did it say to the world?...Did any of these films...recommend solutions to the problems of the island?'"

Low responded that, of course, no solutions were proposed. "The films were an attempt to help the community define its own solutions, by playing back their own tentative efforts of formulation. Video equipment and tape was also useful, and cheaper than film."

Low allowed Grierson the final question: "So the filmmaker is nothing but a tool, a camera operator...What about the intelligence, world experience, expensive education that could be brought to these people?"

There, in a nutshell, is the problematic series of questions for Challenge for Change. Could it genuinely make a difference in marginalized, impoverished, at-risk communities? Could it empower women to speak? (Remember, this was the '70s, the dawn of feminist discourse.) Blacks? Gays? Old people? Teenagers? The (already threatened) working class?

And what about filmmaking? Was the program a revolutionary step forward for documentary filmmakers? At last they could work in service with communities, not be outsiders, and grab footage to show to educated audiences on TV. But would filmmaking lose its status, as Grierson was suggesting? Shouldn't filmmakers have a point-of-view and pursue it? Or at least offer solutions to problems facing the world?

Okay. Confession time. I was one of the students in the room that day. It was one of the key moments in my years at McGill--thanks to the drama, but also due to the searching questions it engendered.

Now, Concordia film professor Thomas Waugh and two younger Montreal academics and media-activists Michael Brendan Baker and Ezra Winton have put together a massive collection of articles dealing with the creation, the films and the legacy of Challenge for Change.

A number of documentary voices are heard in these pages via interviews or personal articles. Among those commenting on the program are Bonnie Sherr Klein and Dorothy Henaut (the makers of the notorious anti-porn doc Not a Love Story), Kathleen Shannon (the founder of the Studio D, the sadly defunct NFB feminist studio), First Nations filmmaker Noel Starblanket, long-time NFB producer Rina Fraticelli, Quebec director Fernand Dansereau, documentary icon George Stoney and, of course, Low and Grierson.

Stoney was the executive producer of Challenge for Change for two years when the program was growing, 1968 through 1970. One of two Americans to have a major impact on the project, he acclimated to a different political atmosphere in Canada, where federal agencies didn't expect films to simply promote their programs. In the two articles featuring Stoney in the book--one an interview conducted by Alan Rosenthal, the other written by Deirdre Boyle-the film You Are on Indian Land is cited as a test case, showing the differences between the two countries.

The drama in this 1969 documentary centers on a US-Canadian confrontation in the Akwesasne Mohawk territory, ancestral land that is on both sides of the border. When the Mohawks block traffic on a bridge between the two countries, violence occurs. Stoney compares the Challenge for Change film, which recorded "the full event, not just the violent moments" to a US doc entitled A Treaty Spurned, which sensationalizes the story. As the best Challenge for Change documentaries did, all sides were permitted to view and comment on You Are on Indian Land, from the Mohawks to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Stoney concludes: "You see what a good job the RCMP did...[and] what a wretched job the local [US] police did."

Stoney returned to America and worked on the creation of community cable TV access stations while heading up a program at New York University. It was a good idea that went further in the US than it did in Canada--perhaps because the NFB program was working relatively well up north.

The other American who had a central impact on Challenge for Change was Stoney's student Bonnie Sherr Klein, who, along with Dorothy Henaut, instituted a video revolution at the program. Her daughter, the acclaimed essayist Naomi Klein (No Logo), remembers those attempts in this book: "They were trying to be cameras to the people at a time when the technology hadn't caught up with their dreams."

Although the writing in this massive anthology veers from good, pragmatic prose to typically post-modern rhetorical flourishes, the editors had the good sense to finish with a nice narrative arc. In 2005, the NFB hired its first filmmaker-in-residence since Low. Katerina Cizek was embedded for years at an inner-city Toronto hospital, working with patients and staff, making works using new technologies, including an award-winning website.

Creating the "digital grandchild" of Challenge for Change, Cizek is aware of her historical roots. She took from the original Fogo Island project "the idea of people speaking to the camera, getting a chance to see themselves speak; and then giving people the chance to respond to each other through the technology rather than face to face--[knowing] that this will produce different results."

Was Challenge for Change too early? And was the same true for public access cable shows? Will the digital age produce media that is more democratic--and creates real change? This monumental book allows us to look back at a rich past, which will help to inform our future.


Marc Glassman edits Point of View, Canada's leading documentary magazine, and Montage, the publication of the Directors Guild of Canada. He is a freelance writer, broadcaster, editor and cultural impresario in Toronto, Canada.