True to Its Roots: National Film Board of Canada supports diverse filmmaking

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Formed in 1939 by the Canadian government, the National Film Board has grown into one of the most storied production and distribution agencies in the world. Its legacy includes over 13,000 projects that have won thousands of film awards and 12 Oscars.

The Board operates in what's referred to as an "arm's-length" agreement with the government, giving it complete editorial freedom over its productions. In practice, some earlier films were subject to critical comments and interference, but overall the NFB has been able to pursue its goals unimpeded by censorship.

Speaking by phone, James Roberts, director, distribution and market development, explains that the NFB produces a wide variety of material, from short and feature animation to documentaries ranging from features to TV-formatted pieces.

"We spend approximately twenty percent of our production budget on interactive productions," Roberts adds. "That includes everything from what we would call a web photo essay all the way to VR [virtual reality] applications."

As an example of how the NFB is working with new technologies, Roberts points to Circa 1948, a collaboration with Stan Douglas that was launched as an online photo essay, a 3D art app for iPad and iPhone, and an installation at the Tribeca Film Festival's Storyscapes program.

This year the NFB brought the first chapter of Draw Me Close to Tribeca. (It will also appear at other sites.) Created by playwright and filmmaker Jordan Tannahill, the project allows viewers to interact with a live motion-capture actress inside an illustrated world.

John Grierson, the critic and filmmaker who coined the term "documentary," was instrumental in the formation of the National Film Board, so it's not surprising that the organization has an emphasis on nonfiction projects. The NFB is a strong presence at the annual Hot Docs Canadian Documentary Film Festival, for example.

Roberts singles out the Hot Docs entry A Better Man, directed by Attiya Khan and Lawrence Jackman. In it, Khan examines her past in an abusive relationship by engaging her former partner in a discussion about what happened.

At the 16th annual DOXA Documentary Film Festival in Vancouver, the NFB screened The Road Forward, a musical documentary by multidisciplinary artist Marie Clements. A composer and performer, Clements has also worked in radio and theatre. The Road Forward focuses on the Native Brotherhood and Sisterhood in Columbia, activists for the rights of indigenous peoples, and the famous independent newspaper Native Voice.

"What's really cool about The Road Forward is that it's just like Marie the filmmaker, it's multidisciplinary," Roberts says. "It's got dramatic recreation sequences, a little fiction going on, there's lots of music, it's almost like a musical film. There are songs throughout that speak to and comment on the content of the documentary."

The NFB has limited its feature fiction productions in recent years, and it has become increasingly difficult to book feature documentaries into commercial theatres. Roberts insists the NFB will never abandon theatrical distribution, but adds that the traditional models are evolving as distribution windows become compressed.

"On the French-language side, a feature doc will almost always get some kind of theatrical launch," he says, "whether it's noncommercial, semi-commercial or even occasionally a commercial launch. We still follow a really traditional model: festivals, theatrical, distribution rights that we're licensing worldwide, individual TV licenses, then the consumer market."

With a mandate to make its materials more accessible, the NFB has developed extensive online viewing opportunities. This coincides with the NFB's conservation and preservation policies.

"We have our own accessibility and conservation strategies," Roberts says. "In our vaults we have about 250,000 pieces—printing materials, sound, animation stills, hard disks, different video formats—that make up our collection of roughly 13,000 productions. Keeping them accessible involves migrating from one format and physical support to the next. Right now that means 2K and 4K scans of films."

Roberts remembers watching NFB shorts before theatrical features. That distribution model has essentially disappeared, but the Board continues producing short documentaries and animated pieces.

"On the animation side, we had two films that were shortlisted for the Academy Awards last year," Roberts points out. "The Head Vanishes by Franck Dion was a great piece. Blind Vaysha by Theodore Ushev received a nomination, but unfortunately did not win."

The NFB has a long history in animation—ten of its twelve Oscars were for animated works. "The first NFB animated film to win an Oscar was Neighbors, by Norman McLaren, in 1952," Roberts notes. "McLaren was the founder of the NFB studios in the late 1940s, after he was invited by John Grierson to come to Canada."

Roberts emphasizes the open and free-ranging spirit behind NFB animation. They are artist-driven, handcrafted films that employ everything from digital techniques to hand-drawn cell animation and the nearly obsolete pinscreen format. Mindscape by Jacques Drouin may be the most famous NFB example of the latter. Michèle Lemieux worked on pinboard for Here and the Great Elsewhere in 2012.

Roberts singles out several animators whose careers have been intertwined with the NGB, like Torill Kove, whose The Danish Poet won an Oscar; Janet Perlman, a partner with the Montreal-based Hulascope Studio; and Paul Driessen, who has six shorts available for viewing on the NFB website.

The NFB also nurtures emerging artists through programs like Hot House, a three-month-long animation boot camp which gives attendees the chance to be mentored by producers and animators as they prepare a one- or two-minute piece for web distribution.

Another route is the Filmmakers Assistance Program, aimed at artists still in school, just finishing school or about to break into the professional world.

"Many of Canada's big names in cinema have come through the NFB at one point or another," Roberts adds. "The best-known may be Denys Arcand, who's had two Oscar-nominated films. He made his first documentaries at the National Film Board."

From its beginnings, the NFB has given a cinematic platform to a wide range of voices. "In the last thirty or forty years, diversity has been a central focal point in terms of programming," Roberts says. "We've had priorities each year—mental health, the healthcare system, indigenous peoples and the like. In our programming process we balance diverse points of view."

Roberts also notes that the NFB is committed to gender parity. The NFB staff is already equally split between men and women, but is reaching out to assure that women are hired in production roles. Not just filmmakers, but editors, sound people and other positions.

"On top of that we're adding layers where we're proactively encouraging people from diverse communities," Roberts says. "The Canadian government has specific definitions about what we mean by that. They're categorized as members of a visible minority, people who have disabilities, and people who come from indigenous communities. Those are the three areas we focus on."

Fully funded by the government, the NFB is unusual in that it is allowed to roll any revenues it creates back into operations. Still, the Board has faced serious budget pressure for several years.

"In the 1995-96 fiscal year we reduced our budget considerably," Roberts notes. "We had to lay off a bunch of people and restructure our activities. Our budget has not increased, for inflationary or any other reasons, since that time."

Still, the NFB continues to be a significant player in all aspects of the Canadian film industry. Although it has evolved to adapt to changing demands, it remains true to its roots set out in 1939.