Skip to main content

Saving Canada's National Treasure: The State of the NFB

By Jacques Bensimon

Groundbreaking documentaries and animation shorts... over 4,000 awards in countless festivals, including ten Oscars and five Palmes d'or at Cannes... That's the visible part of the iceberg north of the 45th parallel, the tip of institution that has become a cinema icon. The National Film Board of Canada (NFB) is unique—a first-class producer of documentaries and auteur animation, funded largely by the Government of Canada, whose role is to produce and distribute films in the national interest. The NFB is the steward of a catalogue of over 10,000 titles—ranging from documentaries, animation, drama, new media and educational material—making it one of the largest storehouses of Canadian stories. It is recognized in Canada and around the world as a place where innovation, risk taking, diversity and a focus on the quality of the film, not the financing, are its hallmarks.

The Freedom to Create

As a young immigrant from Morocco fresh out of film school, I was offered by the board the opportunity to apprentice with some of the best filmmakers in the world. The board's commitment to social activism on the screen made the strongest impression on me. I am proud to say that I was involved in the Challenge for Change program that put cameras in the hands of those in need long before handicams allowed the public access to filmmaking tools.

I was lucky enough to work at the NFB as a filmmaker, in programming and in distribution. I left 15 years later and worked as a broadcaster, building a public television service surrounded by a sea of private channels.

Throughout my career, I remained dedicated to the principles instilled in me at the board, so it was my good fortune to be offered the position of Chairperson and Government Film Commissioner two years ago. Like most Canadians, I see the NFB as a national treasure, but a treasure that is underfunded and in need of renewal—a big challenge, to be sure. For a modern country like Canada, giving voice to its citizens through its public broadcaster, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), and its public producer, the NFB, is key to its democratic process.   

Making a Difference

In 1939, the federal government needed to mobilize Canadians to support the war effort. It called upon John Grierson, whose medium of choice was film, and thus was born the National Film Board of Canada. Grierson sought to create through NFB productions and its distribution "universal humanitarian loyalties in the hearts of its citizenry." For him, art was a hammer, not a mirror. The mission continues today: the NFB produces and distributes documentaries for a social purpose-to engage citizens in a dialogue about a shared future. This mission is just as essential as it was in 1939, as we now live in a heavily mediated society, where we are at risk of being subjected to a global monoculture, driven largely by the bottom line.

With the advent of the multi-channel universe, overall documentary funding in Canada increased, but not in proportion to the volume of production needed by the new channels. Film budgets, filmmakers' incomes and film quality actually declined. Critical categories of documentary—auteur/POV, social issue, regional, cinéma vérité, feature length—were squeezed in the lowest common denominator/highest possible ratings competition. Quantity began to drive out quality; big companies to drive out small; and lightweight assembly-line series looked like the death knell of one-offs...and most filmmakers were not really making a better living doing them.

Of course, documentary filmmakers cannot work without the television screen. That has been understood for some time. What has become clear is, the system leaves much high-quality documentary, and essential genres of documentary, out of the loop.

When the NFB participated in the 2002 Documentary Research Network survey of over 300 documentary filmmakers across Canada, we learned that most are now "looking to public sector alternatives in production and distribution as a counterweight to the industrializing forces afoot in the industry.'' The majority of both the French and English respondents described the role of the NFB as "important" or "very important" in today's environment. They want us to be a place where "creativity, diversity, and social conscience are not sacrificed to economics."

We also asked Canadians what they thought about some of these issues, only to find out that most agreed with the filmmakers that they perceived the quality of Canadian TV documentaries to be declining, although they maintained that the quality of NFB films remained high. Two-thirds of Canadians agree that NFB films on controversial subjects help them form their opinions. In other words, Canadians look to their public institutions—CBC and provincial broadcasters, as well as the NFB—to provide programming that is different and makes a difference: controversial subjects, or specifically Canadian subjects that cannot be funded through foreign sales.

What these surveys have told us is that the National Film Board has never been more needed, or its films more valued, because it is now seen as a high-quality alternative to the low-quality, assembly-line programming that has come to dominate our screens. And quality is back in demand.

Not being a broadcaster gives us freedom from television's economic constraints. It means that we are not beholden to license fees or commercial interests. We do try to generate as much revenue as we can, but commercial income does not dictate our production schedule because we are not dependent on advertising revenues for survival.

Some of our most successful productions—such as the film on Noam Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent, which was co-produced with Peter Wintonick and Mark Achbar—were made entirely outside the broadcast system.

But as a publicly funded producer, are we not subject to governmental whims and wishes? Are we not a propagandist? No, because over the years we have developed a unique relationship with our employer, the people of Canada. Through Parliament, we have made films with strong points of view, one of which was banned in the USA, only to win an Oscar the following year.

The NFB today is at turning point, its role made more crucial as we enter a new age where the tectonic plates of culture, globalization, religion and shared values have shifted, thus creating a strain in our social fabric. At the same time it needs to reinvent itself, to evolve a new film language that will resonate with today's new challenges, rekindle relationships with its audiences in Canada and around the world and shed the weight of successive budget cuts.

Putting A New Program in Place

The first thing I did upon taking this job was to gather a team of people who are as passionate about the board as I am. The new recruits include André Picard, the head of French Program, who comes from a production background that includes IMAX; Tom Perlmutter, head of the English Program, who has worked as an independent producer of socially responsible documentaries; and Johanne St-Arnauld, from Canada's film funder, Telefilm. They joined a seasoned and equally passionate group, and together we have crafted a vision for a modern and effective NFB.

The central priority is to build on the NFB's tradition of social activist filmmaking. More than 80 percent of the programming slate will look at major social issues. As part of this commitment, we will introduce a new program modeled on the NFB's groundbreaking Challenge for Change program that, in the late '60s and early '70s, worked with communities throughout the filmmaking process to foster social change. With the new cameras available today, combined with the power of the Internet, once again filmmaking can be put in the hands of people who need to be given a voice.

Since September 11, 2001,elementary questions have risen to the surface of social discourse. How can we find harmony, raise living standards and sustain the wonderful variety of human cultures and ways of life? How are we going to help our citizens—and citizens of the world—better deal with those large questions that confront us all?

One large question is "globalization'' and the challenge it poses to cultures around the world.  We hope to turn this problem into an opportunity for diversity by creating alliances with like-minded organizations—from ARTE to the BBC, from FR2 to PBS—so we can produce socially relevant, culturally specific films that stand out in this increasingly monocultural world.

Next, we want to re-establish the board's tradition for innovation. That tradition has included Norman McLaren's animation experiments, the cinéma vérité documentary form and IMAX large screen technology. The NFB will again be a laboratory inventing and re-inventing film styles, a kind of year-round Sundance Lab connecting artists and artisans in the filmmaking process.

Nurturing emerging filmmakers is now a higher priority than ever, and we plan to dedicate a large part of our programming slate to the next generation of filmmakers. Yet, developing young filmmakers is too big a job for us to do alone, so we are forging partnerships in training, including closer links to film schools and mentorship programs. We have begun this initiative by sending veteran filmmakers into film schools across the country to teach master classes.

To promote access to our films, we have reorganized our distribution activities into two distinct sectors: access and commercial. One significant innovation will be of special interest to IDA members: the board has begun distributing non-NFB films. The first example is Peter Watkins' massive new work about the Paris uprising in 1871, La Commune.

Reaching the theatrical audience in Canada is certainly a problem. English Canadian films occupy only about 1.4 percent of screen-time in commercial cinemas. It's a daunting task, but I want to change that percentage. We've started by developing the groundwork for an alternative distribution network through repertory exhibitors, art galleries and museums for long-form docs and independent features, which we are again going to produce.

We are broadening the NFB's outreach activities, investing in an online film library, CinéRoute, delivering on-demand high-quality streams of a significant selection of films to subscribing universities and other institutions, via Canada's broadband research network, CA Net 4.

Another part of this strategy is to re-establish the NFB's storefront outlets in major Canadian cities. These libraries, now called "mediatheques," are modeled on an interactive prototype in Montreal. The NFB has just opened a new mediatheque in Toronto with personal viewing stations hooked to an archive of NFB productions in MPEG 4. The new mediatheque is open seven days a week, and the board expects 100,000 visits to the Toronto site in the next year.

The NFB wants to increase all of its audiences, of course, but our priority is on youth. We want to advance the "documentary idea" among young people so they come to see docs as a means of making a difference in the world. The master class idea will be extended from film school students to students at large. The objective is not to make all of these students into filmmakers, but to use these classes to create ripples of excitement about what documentary can do and how it can do it.

As for TV, we hope to turn our weakness into our strength. We are pursuing new specialty channel licences, Internet opportunities and stronger links to the CBC, Canada's public broadcaster. We already share a digital broadcast network called The Documentary Channel with public and private sector partners. We want to expand that small screen beachhead and put our films on television every day, in every country. In the US, we maintain an office in New York that works closely with specialty and educational channels, as well as other institutions.

In John Grierson's day, the Film Board was a one-way transmission machine sending out the government message to theaters, schools, factories and church basements across the country by means of travelling projectionists. Now, some 60-odd years later, we are using technology that Grierson could never have imagined to create a two-way dialogue with our many audiences.

If we didn't have a National Film Board in Canada, I think we would have to invent one now: a place where there is time for excellence, where programming is dominated by creative and public service objectives, where risk-taking is encouraged and where there is a commitment to making a difference in the world.


Jacques Bensimon is government film commissioner and Chairperson of the National Film Board of Canada