Captured life, compartmentalized ghosts: 75 years of the NFB

December 1, 2014

Seventy-five years ago the Government of Canada initiated a media project that was designed to identify, catalogue and disseminate notions of Canadian identity. William Lyon Mackenzie King’s personal interest in developing Canadian content for the screens of the nation, and his personal backing of John Grierson to head the project, formed the basis for the National Film Board.

Grierson, a Scottish filmmaker working in London, was headhunted in England then invited to Ottawa to review the potential of developing content that reflected Mackenzie King’s vision. It was a vision troubled by the dominance of American pop culture in the film, radio and magazine industries, and influenced by the industrious efficiency of the Nazi propaganda films Hitler was then deploying in Germany. 

Grierson, a quasi-socialist ideologue with fastidious principles, a visionary filmmaker in his own right who had coined the term “documentary,” was to abandon filmmaking in the migration. He took on the preferred role of a producer-type figure, creating an environment in which filmmakers could, under his guidance, execute documentary films that reflected their society. In a television interview, Grierson hammers out what it was that the NFB set out to do: 

The Film Board was a deliberate creation, to do deliberate work…it was there to bring Canada alive to itself and to the rest of the world. It was there to declare the excellencies of Canada to Canadians and to the rest of the world. It was there to evoke the strengths of Canada, the imagination of Canadians, with respect to creating their present and their future.           

Impressively, from the outset, NFB films had an efficient distribution both at home and abroad. They propagated new visions of a society that reflected not only the country’s physical dimensions and economy but its social relations as well. These visions grew in scope and eventually—shamefully late—included a Francophone production unit. 

The war years spurred the NFB to produce, among other things, the newsreel series Canada Carries On—a didactic, stern and outrageously propagandistic venture culled from material by international (mostly Allied) cinematographers documenting the dramatic and tragic events unfolding in the world. The World In Action, a subsequent series of newsreels tailored to an international audience, was seen by 30 to 40 million viewers in the United States, U.K., Australia, India and Latin America. 

In Canada the NFB supplemented traditional urban film distribution (via the motion picture theater system) with the ‘rural film circuit.’ An NFB employee would load a selection of films, and a 16mm film projector, into a car and head for the country’s further-flung places. The films were presented in community centers, public libraries, parishes and various industrial spaces. Where technical expertise or equipment was lacking it was imported, and absorbed. This period prepared the NFB for a ‘golden era’ that, to this day, it has not been quite able to live up to. 

It is Grierson who is credited with the first instance of a cinéma vérité with his British documentary, Housing Problems (1935), and it is the NFB that can be credited with the first instance of producing cinéma vérité films en masse (relatively speaking). These films completely broke with documentary tradition, and while still enforcing the NFB credo of promoting and depicting Canadian lives, they did so with a bold esthetic, breaking new ground in documentary form.  

 PHOTO: Still from Kroitor’s Paul Tomkowicz: Street-railway Switchman (1953)

The Candid Eye series took as its subject representatives of ‘typical’ Canadian society. The finest example in the series is Roman Kroitor’s Paul Tomkowicz: Street-railway Switchman (1953), which launched the NFB’s golden age with the story of a Winnipeg man clearing snow off the city’s tramway lines. The startlingly frank and beautifully shot film sits in complete contrast to everything the NFB had produced to that point. 

In rock ‘n’ roll a golden age is triggered by people of certain character operating at the right time and the right place. When it burns up, as it must, we can usually blame hubris. The NFB’s golden age began with an unusual mixture of advancements in technology (e.g. lightweight synch-sound camera equipment), a miraculous number of tenacious and dedicated personalities, and most importantly—and utterly unique for the time—complete freedom from studio producers to explore the form. If it ended it was not because of hubris, as in the music world, but for a more ubiquitous Canadian reason: lack of government funding.  

In his visit to Canada in 1958 the French director René Clair extolled the achievements and the uniqueness of the NFB. There is, he said, nothing in the world like it. In a way, there still is nothing like it in the world today. 

The best way to keep track of the NFB in all things past and present is through its website ( The board has digitized thousands of films and is in the process of making its entire catalogue available online—for free. Alongside the carefully presented past, the NFB gives us a glimpse of the future in cinema, which is taking shape in web-based interactive technologies.

What is less easy to take away from the website is the under-represented story of the NFB and its relationship with the community. Sadly, this story came to an end with federal budget cuts in 2012 that saw the closure of vibrant walk-in centres in cities across Canada, including Toronto and Montréal. An important dialogue between the NFB and the community it serves ceased overnight. 

An educational centre in Montréal offers an example of what has been lost. Viewing stations at CinéRobothèque allowed users to access far more of the NFB’s film catalogue than presently available online, attracting researchers, tourists, school groups and cinephiles alike. 

On top of this, a team of practitioners had designed 16 different workshops specializing in animation and documentary films. The centre offered animation and film production workshops to teach, among other things, how to examine films critically. The workshops were available to any group of people—from preschoolers to the elderly. Remarkably, animation workshops were taught to the visually impaired, sound workshops to the hearing impaired. 

The CinéRobothèque facility has vanished from the city’s landscape as an NFB operation. While the museum-like full catalogue of films will exist on the website, preservation is no replacement for the originating goal of the NFB—the active exploration and engagement of evolving, expanding Canadian identities. 

The “excellencies of Canada,” as Grierson put it, are no longer pursued in sobering focus, one titillating production after another, year after year. They are ancient history, to be categorized, compartmentalized by genre and date, preserved and archived by a team whose mission is to ensure that the films rest in ideal conditions for a lifespan of a thousand years.

Seventy-five years later we look back to see that the NFB played a crucial role in putting Canada on the world map, and oddly enough on its own map. It accomplished what it set out to do, and in the process, almost by accident, became a leader in animation, documentary and experimental cinema. Today, outside of online museums, and after anniversaries that occasion memory to speak, the NFB’s role is less clear, and probably negligible when compared its golden past.

Vitalyi Bulychev is a freelance director and editor working in Montréal.