Canadian film has suffered ups and downs over the course of its recorded history, but few ups have been as important as the founding of the National Film Board of Canada (NFB) and its close connection to the National Film Act. Internationally known for its animated and documentary films, and easily identifiable by its “eye” logo, the NFB is a central part of the richness of Canada’s current cinema, creating opportunities for new filmmakers to explore their craft in an artistically free environment, with award-winning results.
The NFB’s importance to Canadian film began, well, at its beginning. In 1938 celebrated British documentary filmmaker John Grierson was invited by the Canadian government to look at how Canada was working with and creating opportunities for filmmakers. At that time, the majority of Canadian film production was handled by the Canadian Government Motion Picture Bureau. Grierson (generally considered to be the father of documentary film) reported on his findings and recommendations, the majority of which were included in the National Film Act of 1939, a piece of legislation he assisted in drafting. As a result of his talent and close affiliation with the creation of the Act, he became our country’s first Film Commissioner and headed the newly formed National Film Board of Canada. By the time he resigned from this post in 1945 he had amassed a group of over 800 filmmakers, the work of many we still recognize today.
The mission of the NFB has changed over the years, but by no significant degree. Upon the founding of the National Film Commission in 1939, its mandate was to “make and distribute films designed to help Canadians in all parts of Canada to understand the ways of living and the problems of Canadians in other parts.”In short, to try to bring together this vast land with collective experiences” the very definition of a national cinema. This mandate has since been reimagined, and now states that its purpose is “to reflect Canada, and matters of interest to Canadians, to Canada and the rest of the world through creating and distributing innovative and distinctive audiovisual works based on Canadian points of view and values,” but its purpose and spirit remains the same. To that end, the National Film Board of Canada has created over 13,000 productions, garnering over 5,000 national and international awards, including 90 Genie Awards and 12 Academy Awards. It would seem that “innovative” and “distinctive” is exactly what they do.
The same legislation that created these mandates also indicated that its central location should be in Ottawa, such that it can best work with the branches of government responsible for cultural pursuits. Since then, it has branched out to have two major locations, one in Montreal and, of course, one in Toronto. The NFB Mediatheque, located at the corner of John and Richmond (yes, directly across from the Scotiabank Theatre, a positioning that provides more than enough irony for a whole other article), is a centre for Canadian film like few others. It not only houses a main floor gallery of Digital Viewing Stations, providing access to over 6,000 of the NFB’s titles viewable any time for free, but it also offers programming in the form of film screenings, often paired with Q & As looking at important issues, as well as offering workshops and master classes. Considering that one of the directives of the NFB is to be a “national training and research centre”, it’s easy to see that it achieves this goal admirably.
While no element of the NFB’s contribution to Canadian cinema should be downplayed, it’s obvious that animation is an area in which they excel ““ and the projects and filmmakers they continue to invest in garner the attention of the international community, not only in animation but in cinema across the board. To best support the creative efforts of animated filmmakers, the NFB has a number of studios across the country, one of which resides at Toronto’s own 150 John Street location. Artists interested in working with the NFB can submit proposals to one of their Centres in a screening and selection process that is open to anyone. Information about working with the NFB can be found at their website.
With a catalogue 13,000 strong, it is difficult to decide where to start discovering the films of the NFB, which is why the impressive list of award nominated films is a great lauchpad. Start with the works of Richard Condie, whose short film The Big Snit won the Genie for Best Animated Short in 1986. His other works include Getting Started , John Law and the Mississippi Bubble and The Apprentice . Next take a look at John Weldon, an animator whose Genie and Oscar winning works span the late 70s to the early 2000s. Shorts such as Canadian Vignettes: Log Driver’s Waltz , Frank the Wrabbit , The Hungry Squid and Special Delivery look at stories relevant to Canadians in a humorous way. Munro Ferguson’s Falling in Love Again , which won the 2003 Genie for Best Animated Short, is a fun and sweet story about two people careening across the edges of a mountain highway and colliding set to Marlene Deitrich’s “Falling in Love Again”. What makes this film so special, however, is that it was the first 3D short created with the IMAX Sandde! System, a freehand stereoscopic animation system for the NFB. The work of Cordell Barker shouldn’t be left out. His shorts The Cat Came Back , Strange Invaders and Runaway” all Oscar-nominated films “are among the NFB’s most famous and beloved. Finally, no introduction to NFB animation would be complete without the works of Ryan Larkin, who was recently brought to the forefront of Canada’s mind when fellow NFB animator Chris Landreth chronicled his friend’s life and descent into poverty brought on by addiction in his Oscar-winning film Ryan. Larkin’s films, however, should be remembered and celebrated as the high-points they are. Walking, Street Musique, Spare Change and Cityscape should be watched and savoured as some of Canada’s most raw and visceral animation.
Canadians should be proud that we create some of the best creative and innovative cinema in the world, and it’s easy to see that the National Film Board is an essential part that. If you visit regularly and see how incredible the stories your fellow Canadians tell, you may not actually break into hives the next time someone tries to show you a Canadian film. But don’t do it because it’s good for you, do it because this work deserves to be seen, regardless of nationality. For more information on the films above, the NFB in general and to view most of their work, visit NFB.ca.