In the summer of 1997, I attended a film editing master class in Rockport, Maine. The Rockport media workshops are prestigious, attracting students from all over the world. In my class there were people from the US, Canada, Europe and Australia, and at the first meeting, we were each asked to introduce ourselves to the group. When it came to my turn, I had one of those odd, slightly disorienting moments when you suddenly get to see something familiar from an outside point of view. When I mentioned that I’d been editing documentaries for the past few years at the National Film Board, people in the group expressed a kind of awed respect, and I was reminded of the reputation the NFB had built over decades of government funded production involving filmmakers as profound and varied as Arthur Lipsett, Donald Brittain, Norman McLaren and Michel Brault.
But like any large organization, the NFB had evolved. From its early commitment to socially conscious educational filmmaking (the original aims of founder John Grierson, a pragmatic leftist Scot who had emerged from the British documentary movement of the ’30s), through its attempts to prop up a nascent commercial industry by producing features in addition to the staple documentaries (most prominently in Quebec, with films by people like Gilles Carle, Claude Jutra, Jean Beaudin), to its controversial decision in the ’70s to open an avowedly radical feminist department called Studio D, the Board had continually sought a definition and sense of purpose as the social, cultural and political climate shifted around it.
The chief thing which had given the NFB its distinctive character was the fact that it maintained a roster of notable filmmakers on staff. There was nothing else quite like it anywhere in the world; McLaren and Lipsett drew a salary as they conducted their hugely influential experiments. Innovators like Roman Kroitor not only helped to found the direct cinema movement (Lonely Boy, co-directed with Wolf Koenig, 1962); he co-invented IMAX, which evolved from In the Labyrinth, the large-format, multi-screen work he produced at the NFB for Expo ’67. All of this was what the Board’s reputation rested on; this innovation in film form and film technology.
My surprise at the reaction of my fellow students in Maine was rooted in my own experience of the NFB, my awareness that it was a mere shadow of its once glorious self. The staff filmmakers had long since all departed; feature projects were now few and far between; and the Board for some years had been struggling to figure out just what its role was in a much changed media landscape. Although there was still interesting work going on in documentary and animation (with frequent Oscar nominations), producers now seemed most concerned with making sales to television (primarily the CBC). Which meant that form and content were becoming more constrained, driven by market requirements rather than the desire to explore and, most importantly, hold a mirror up to Canadian society, to make this broad, diverse country visible to itself.
But even though I was well aware of this shrinking of the once great and innovative institution, I myself was extremely lucky. At the time that I went to Maine, I was in the middle of work on the first of three features which I edited at the NFB for John Paskievich, one of Canada’s finest documentary filmmakers. And even with the market pressures which were becoming increasingly apparent, we had remarkable freedom on that project (The Gypsies of Svinia, 1998); we were able to spend over a year, on and off, on the editing, an unheard of luxury in the private sector (and a source of envy and resentment among commercial filmmakers). John’s work is all exploratory in nature; he shoots a lot and the film is shaped in the editing room (as so many great documentaries are), something not available to most filmmakers working for television.
This was my experience on all of John’s films (Gypsies; My Mother’s Village, 2001; Unspeakable, 2006), as well as on Curtis Kaltenbaugh’s A Place Between (2007), although this last was more difficult because it was Curtis’ first film and we had to fight harder to get what we wanted (against an unsympathetic executive producer) than had been the case on John’s films. By the time I signed on for my final NFB project in 2008, as an organization the NFB had shrunk considerably, with fewer producers, fewer facilities, and an increasingly troubled identity problem. Under new Film Commissioner Tom Perlmutter, the Board was floundering. Faced with a rapidly changing media landscape, memos were coming down from the top about the “digital frontier”, about getting away from traditional documentary and turning more towards “interactive media”. Trouble was, no one seemed to have any real idea what this all meant.
In this atmosphere, I found myself working on a very troubled production which had started out following three inner city Aboriginal youths who were enrolled in an innovative work placement program at their high school and who, in an attempt to gain some confidence and personal discipline, had agreed to be coached in boxing by one of their teachers. This was a fairly long-term, process-driven project which needed firm guidance; unfortunately, the director was inexperienced, and unable to hold a long-term vision of the story as he kept shooting and shooting randomly. Even more unfortunate, instead of being guided by the professionals working with him, the director was protected by a weak producer who shielded him from the kind of tough support he desperately needed. The material which was coming into the editing room was a mess.
One of the three kids quickly dropped out; there were tensions between the other two, with one of them undergoing an emotional crisis which eventually made him disappear. So we were left with just one kid, who was struggling with school, uncommitted to the boxing program, and was finally struck by a dream of becoming a mixed martial arts fighter. So this became the film’s subject: a portrait of a kid with a troubled background, ill-equipped for life in the city, failing at school, yet struggling to make something of himself. It was pretty grim and, certainly on the technical side, very raw.
Working alone in the editing room, I eventually shaped this into a one-hour film which I felt reflected the difficult social conditions faced by the kid. It offered no pat answers to those problems, but illuminated the context (dire conditions on the res, rampant crime, drug and alcohol abuse, endemic instability). The producer and director were both pleased with the cut and we screened it for an audience of Aboriginal teens who responded very positively because they felt that it made the conditions of their own lives visible. In fact, the producer liked it so much that he initiated talks with a composer to discuss the score. So off it was sent to head office in Montreal for what was anticipated to be automatic approval; there it was seen by the then assistant to the head of English language programming.
I can’t say I was really shocked by the response we received, but it was depressing. She seemed appalled by the film, found its depiction of inner city life disturbing. She wanted to frame the story with commentary from the responsible adults around the kid, perhaps even with expert testimony of social workers who could “explain” the context. She thought that it was immoral to depict the kid’s life in such a negative way, and wanted to find a more positive message. In other words, what I had cut together was a challenge to middle-class complacency and she seemed to want something which would leave viewers with a sense that someone (other than the viewer) was out there taking care of these problems.
Despite the fact that the producer liked my cut, his own problems with the executive producer guaranteed that he would not stand up for the film and everything was suddenly on hold. Not long after, all the management problems at the Winnipeg office caused an irrevocable explosion. Instead of dealing with those problems, Montreal, with barely any warning, shut down the Winnipeg office and everyone on staff was terminated (except, strangely, the publicist). Needless to say, we freelancers didn’t stand a chance. Nonetheless, I did try to argue for the value of the film with David Christensen, the executive producer from Edmonton who was now solely responsible for our region. He met with me and assured me that the project was not dead and that, as the person most familiar with the material, I would be kept in the loop.
Next thing I heard was a rumour that the entire project had been shipped to Edmonton and that another editor was now working on it. I emailed Christensen about this and got a rather imperious response about not listening to unfounded rumours, that no decisions had been made, and I would certainly be informed when he had settled on what to do with the project. I never heard from him again. And everything I’d heard in that rumour turned out to be true.
Last year, I learned that the film had finally been completed and I set about trying to get hold of a copy. I was interested in seeing what it had ultimately been turned into, and naturally wanted to see whether any of my work had survived the process – particularly since I discovered that of all the people who had worked on it, I was the only one whose name was not included in the credits (despite the fact that I had worked on it so long). Well, I was unable to get a copy – everyone I contacted made vague excuses, but it was never clear to me why a disk was unavailable.
So why bring all of this up now?
I was talking to John Paskievich recently about his own problems with the NFB, after yet another project had been terminated without explanation after years in development hell. (The only excuse he was ultimately given was that, after several years, he had failed to provide certain information without which a decision couldn’t be made; trouble was, he had never been asked for that information and was only told that it was “needed” after the project had been cancelled. This was similar to our experience on a proposed project about Chernobyl which also dragged on for years, only to be cancelled at last when the Board heard that there were two Chernobyl documentaries being made in Europe, so, they said, there was no point in John doing another one.) He mentioned that he had been in touch with Ravida Din, the new head of English-language programming, and he’d found her very responsive to his concerns. So I fired off an email, giving a brief history of my experience and telling her that I simply wanted to watch the film. To my surprise, she responded within five minutes, and very quickly a disk was sent to me from Edmonton.
So, after all these years, I’ve finally seen where this project ended up. And the final version is very much like what that first head office viewer had wanted, although thankfully without the officious voices of social workers to make it more palatable. But it has been stripped of virtually all social context, limiting itself almost solely to the boxing program (bringing back in the second kid who seems to have straightened himself out somewhat; he has a job, a young child), and giving the whole thing a positive spin implying that these kids are really no different from any other teens struggling to make sense of their lives and, in the end, overcoming whatever vague difficulties might lie in their backgrounds and making their dreams come true one step at a time.
It’s not that the film is an out and out lie, just that it omits so much that it ends up giving a very false impression of what is becoming the major social problem in Canada: the displacement of the Aboriginal population within a larger society which really hasn’t got a clue what needs to be done to turn around the devastating conditions faced by so many First Nations people. My cut of the film made no pretence of providing any answers, but it did make visible a lot of the problems which need to be addressed. The finished film implies that there isn’t actually anything much to be addressed, offering up cliches about the small triumphs of individual spirits.
Ravida Din suggested that I call David Christensen in Edmonton to discuss what happened to the project, but having watched the film I can’t see much point in that. I can see why he felt it unnecessary to leave my name in the credits – a few traces of my work remain but they are simply the result of necessarily including certain scenes and moments. Their conception of the film is so radically different from mine that he could argue that they had to start from scratch. And given that he blatantly lied to me about the project almost four years ago, the mere thought of another pointless conversation with him now seems exhausting to me.
Perhaps I’ve been given a heightened sensitivity to what was done with this film by a recent trip I made eleven-hundred kilometres north to the small town of Gillam. This was in connection with a politically charged project I’d been hired to work on and I can only call the experience eye-opening. I got to see first hand the appalling Third World conditions which have been forced on the indigenous population by the Manitoba government and the arrogant, infinitely greedy Manitoba Hydro corporation, whose massive dams have wrought devastating harm on both the natural and social environment (despite their proud claims of “clean energy”). When I returned to Winnipeg and began telling people what I’d seen up there, the invariable response was “Is that true? How could we not have heard about it?” Of course we don’t hear much about this down south because those who are profiting by the colonization of the north don’t want us to know. So what we need is films which expose the unpleasant truths about what mainstream Canadian society has inflicted – and is still inflicting – on the native population. Not the anodyne platitudes offered by this film I once worked on and saw taken away and bastardized.
There was once a time when the National Film Board was driven by a white hot sense of commitment to the society out of which it had grown, a determination not only to reflect but also to shape that society. It seems that now it’s more interested in soothing a complacent audience, reassuring whatever viewers it has left that everything is just fine here in Canada. And where once it was a chaotic, thriving hub of creativity, it has devolved into a top-heavy bureaucracy populated by administrators who seem to see filmmakers as a threat – but unfortunately, it needs those filmmakers to justify its continuing bureaucratic existence, and so it strings them along, keeping far too many of them in a perpetual cycle of development and cancellation. This busy-work justifies the administrators’ salaries, but it keeps the threat of destabilizing creativity at bay.
Entropy may be inevitable, but it’s a sad thing to witness.
(1.) I once had an interview in Toronto with a producer who was embarking on a cable series about the children’s hospital. The interview was a disaster as he had utter contempt for the kind of freedom filmmakers had at the NFB, which he seemed to think fostered laziness and inefficiency. It quickly became apparent that I’d only been called in for the interview because he wanted to tell me that, as a despicable government teat-sucker, I was unfit for the private sector. (return)