FILMS IN CANADA
ALTHOUGH in our Terms of Reference we are specifically instructed to examine and make recommendations upon the National Film Board, our concern in this preliminary section of the Report is not primarily with its administrative or financial problems, but rather with the cultural interests in film matters of the Canadian people. In this chapter we shall discuss the film chiefly as a means of furthering national unity and popular education. We shall report the views of voluntary societies, their ideas on what government agencies have done in the past and on what they should do in the future. We have, of course, heard much of the National Film Board; and we must discuss in some detail its organization and activities. We have, however, tried to bear in mind the general importance of films, both their production and their use, in Canada's national and cultural life.
2. The powerful influence of the modern cinema is not a new theme, nor need we here dwell upon its appeal to eye and ear, an appeal enhanced by the use of colour; we recognize, too, that its influences are all the more powerful because of the passivity with which they are received. We should, however, like to add that the cinema at present is not only the most potent but also the most alien of the influences shaping our Canadian life. Nearly all Canadians go to the movies; and most movies come from Hollywood. The urbane influences of Carnegie and Rockefeller have helped us to be ourselves; Hollywood refashions us in its own image.
3. For the last fifteen years, however, Canada has been experimenting with something different from Hollywood's entertainment feature, the documentary film, both in the 35 mm. commercial and in the 16 mm. non-commercial form. The original definition of the documentary was a "factual film, photographed in real situations and generally using neither stage actors nor studio sets".1 It will probably be agreed that although the definition does not cover all 16 mm. films, this type of film, while using many novel techniques, is still intended to reproduce "real" rather than synthetic situations and to evoke an awareness of life, rather than to provide an escape
from it. We have heard and learnt much of great interest about the documentary film and its impact on the Canadian public.
4. Before and during the nineteen-thirties most Canadians saw no films except those shown in commercial theatres where, as we have observed, little but Hollywood material was available. A few 16 mm. films were shown in schools, and a few not very good Canadian films were used for publicity purposes abroad. In 1935, when many European countries had a highly developed system of production and distribution, the only non-commercial distribution agency in Canada was the Extension Department of the University of Alberta. In this same year a few interesting people founded the National Film Society to provide information and distribution services to groups of non-theatrical film users such as departments of education, adult education groups and various technical organizations. The Film Society built up a co-operative film library and its central office was prepared to procure and to lend films and to provide information services to its member groups and others. Most of the financial support for this venture in its early years came from British and American sources. The British Imperial Trust paid the expenses of a general organization meeting for a national film committee in 1938 and gave more than $8,000 for the purchase of British films; the Carnegie Corporation gave a small sum for a survey of Canadian film needs and this was followed by substantial annual grants from the Rockefeller Foundation from 1937 to 1946. This help from without made possible the first national centre for documentary film information and distribution in Canada.
5. Meanwhile, the Canadian Government had been aware of the possibilities of the documentary film. As far back as 1914, film work was begun by the Exhibition and Publicity Bureau of the Department of Trade and Commerce, later known as the Canadian Government Motion Picture Bureau. For various reasons, chiefly the need for a survey of the Canadian situation in this field and for films more suitable for audiences abroad, Mr. John Grierson, a distinguished British producer of documentary films, was asked to make an investigation and to report his findings. The result was the National Film Act of 1939 which provided for a National Film Board of seven members, including three government officials, under the chairmanship of the Minister of Trade and Commerce. The chief executive officer was the Government Film Commissioner. His duties were to co-ordinate all government film activities, to advise government departments on the production and distribution of films, and to act as intermediary between the departments and the Government Motion Picture Bureau. In general he was to "advise upon the making and distribution of national films designed to help Canadians in all parts of Canada to understand the ways of living and the problems of Canadians in other parts".2
6. The production and distribution of films was left for a time with the Government Motion Picture Bureau and its Director. However, a few months after the passing of the National Film Act, war broke out. Before long it was realized that only through a much more active information service could Canadians be made to understand the national danger, and thus be prepared for the necessary restrictions and sacrifices. Better co-ordinated and increased government film services was one obvious solution to the problem. In 1941 the Government Motion Picture Bureau was transferred to the National Film Board. This body now became responsible not only for formulating general film policy and advising and co-ordinating government departments but for direct production and distribution. It also was required to undertake a number of important related activities, the making of film strips, still photographs and graphic displays of all kinds, both for government departments and for purposes of general information.
7. The work of the Film Board was prosecuted with the vigour required of one of the most important information agencies in the country. Films were produced for the Department of National Defence, the Department of Munitions and Supply, the Department of National Health and Welfare, the Wartime Prices and Trade Board, the War Finance Committee, and the Wartime Information Board. There was a constant need to explain and exhort, and also simply to inform, as in the well-known World in Action and Canada Carries On series. But the need for relaxation and distraction was not forgotten, or the underlying need of all Canadians even in the current crisis to know more of their country, of each other, and of what they were fighting for. Rural audiences, especially, who were not offered the escape of feature films, would grow weary of an unmixed diet of war information and propaganda. During the war period the Film Board produced many films equally acceptable in peace time: regional films dealing with Canada from Grand Manan Island to the Alaska Highway, musical films, and films on art. In 1945, the peak year, 310 films were produced, and the staff numbered 787.
8. But the Film Board did not confine itself to production. It never lost sight of its original objective to encourage the use of documentary and educational films suitable to Canadian needs regardless of where or by whom they are produced. As the war went on, the Board developed an elaborate distribution system of Film Board and other films covering the whole country and engaging the time of one-third of the staff. Rural areas not reached by commercial theatres were a first concern; projectionists were sent out, each one serving a group of villages once a month, winter and summer, with a "package programme" of films for news and entertainment. The same people gave showings in
schools; and a French-speaking projectionist thus describes his reception: "I get a real pleasure in arriving at a parish, for immediately the youngsters cry out, 'Look, the film man', and they all scamper along behind me to the hall".3 Urban areas were also covered by factory and industrial circuits operated by the Film Board, and by the energetic voluntary work of Junior Boards of Trade, Kiwanis Clubs, and of other interested organizations. Town dwellers might also see the 35 mm. films which were distributed to many commercial theatres; and there was also an active distribution abroad through the National Film Board offices and diplomatic missions.
9. The National Film Board, for all its own elaborate distribution services, did not fail to co-operate with those voluntary agencies which, as has been mentioned, were the first to promote the documentary film in Canada. With the National Film Society, it early established close and friendly relations which have been of the greatest importance in film distribution. Both, realizing the limitations of any national lending services, encouraged purchase through their procurement facilities. The Film Board aided selection by a previewing, and the Film Society by an information service, neither of them entirely adequate. The Film Board supplemented its own distribution service and supported the work of the Film Society by depositing with the Society one print of all its films of general interest, as well as of many acquired from abroad. Together the Film Board and the Film Society provided important distribution services in spite of certain gaps and duplications which will be discussed later.
10. During the war the Film Board staff and services had been expanded rapidly although not without difficulty to meet the emergency. In 1946, as part of the general policy of retrenchment, the budget of the Board was sharply cut, and services hastily expanded had to be as hastily reduced. Moreover, the need for, if not the usefulness of the services of the Board, was questioned in some quarters. It was suggested that production and even distribution could be carried on as efficiently and more appropriately by voluntary and commercial agencies. On this matter we have received many opinions and statements from voluntary societies. We present an analysis of them here as a preliminary to a report on the views of voluntary societies and of the public generally on this important matter.
11. About 120 organizations in briefs and evidence discussed the work of the National Film Board, some at considerable length. Most of them approved of its work, and asked that this work be extended. They went further. Many Canadians expressed pride in the work of the Film Board considering that, like our national radio service, it is a valuable and distinctive Canadian achievement. We have heard much of the Film Board's Canadianism:
The Board is also praised for its services to distant communities: its films reach ". . . . in a dramatic way many who would not otherwise come into touch with the culture of the nation".5 There is a corresponding regret and even resentment at the reduction of the Board's estimates: ". . . The present policy of restricting [the] budget can only lead to a cultural impoverishment of the people of this country".6 These observations are typical of what we have heard from many other organizations. 7
12. We received interesting information, however, on the way in which after 1945 the curtailments caused by the restricted budget had been partially overcome. In this emergency, self-operating film circuits were organized in many rural areas by those who were reluctant to be deprived of their monthly film showings. In this venture they were aided and advised by Film Board officials. Rural groups purchased their own projection equipment and trained their own projectionists. This could not be done easily or all at once, but the Board was able to cushion the shock by lending equipment for long periods to those ultimately prepared to purchase it. The showings had to be reduced from twelve to eight a year, but they continued regularly with the Film Board's "package programme". Many rural circuits are now operated or aided by provincial agencies.
13. A similar voluntary self-help movement occurred, also with the active co-operation of the Film Board, in more populated areas which after the war were completely deprived of regular Film Board showings. Groups of individuals interested in seeing films formed themselves into film councils. There are now nearly 250 of these, representing over 6,000 organizations. Unlike the rural circuits, these film councils receive no free programmes from the Film Board. Besides purchasing projection equipment and training projectionists, they are obliged to acquire their own films by purchase, rent or loan. The means by which they obtain their films are varied and complicated.
14. In brief, the limited number of prints available from the Film Board after their tour of rural circuits is distributed through the co-operation of many different institutions throughout the country, such as provincial film libraries, university extension departments, municipal libraries and various local organizations. The present system of film distribution in Canada, although somewhat complicated and far from adequate, strikes us as a remarkable example of improvization with limited resources.
15. Voluntary and local effort plays an increasing part in the distribution
of films. In relatively wealthy and thickly populated regions film councils are appearing in rural as well as in urban districts. We heard of a county in Ontario where all schools and community organizations have joined together to form a film council. Also, in Ontario and in a number of other provinces, municipal libraries maintain film collections and even lend projectors, and give showings on their own premises. The most successful film councils work in close co-operation with libraries where they often keep their film collections. Groups belonging to the Film Society continue to receive films on various terms from the Society's library and to show them to members at a nominal charge; finally, provincial departments of education provide showings for schools.
16. Canada then is achieving a rapidly growing distribution of the documentary film through voluntary effort combined with municipal and provincial aid in various forms; and commercial distributing agencies take some part in this distribution. How far does the National Film Board come into the picture? In spite of the great increase in voluntary local effort, it has an essential role at every level. Its central and regional previewing services have no parallel; it provides its rural circuits with free programmes; its deposits form the foundation of provincial film libraries and of the travelling film collections or "blocks" on which film councils depend. Its agents throughout Canada are prepared to help film councils and local libraries with advice and help. Their work is largely responsible for the remarkable development of voluntary effort in film distribution. We heave heard this from voluntary groups themselves which have spoken with great warmth of the help they have received. The only complaints against Film Board distribution services from voluntary societies were that these services do not go far enough. Particularly from the towns come complaints from those who wish to see documentary films but who are not prepared to buy a projector or join a society. We have received the impression that the Film Board is a governmental agency which stimulates and inspires voluntary effort.
17. We turn now to the question of production. We have heard many comments on the quality of the films produced by the Film Board and by other producers, and we have heard much of the desires and the needs of the Canadian public. Voluntary organizations have enthusiastic praise for the work of the Film Board in making Canada known to Canadians. Films on the Canadian landscape, on Canadian communities, on Canadian painters and on Canadian songs have been mentioned by name over and over again, and we have heard repeated demands for many more of the same kind. Films on social problems have also received much praise, and more such films are requested. Films on Canadian history and folklore are appreciated and demanded on a much larger scale. Films on many other special subjects, covering a wide variety of interests, are proposed. Individuals, some with expert knowledge
of films, have added their praises of the Film Board for its admirable experimental work which has led to important achievements, not only in new art forms, but in remarkably vivid and highly precise scientific photography. Development of the new and adaptable animation film on inexpensive but effective lines has been advanced, as well as novel and imaginative techniques in news-reel and instructional films; and we have been interested to learn of the international recognition earned by certain of the films of our National Film Board.
18. Criticisms both general and expert have been offered to us. Some voluntary societies have been very severe about certain films of the Board which they consider vague, incoherent and technically poor. Others complain of a succession of subjects treated in too general a manner, with nothing to follow up and "take you right into" the theme. One group demands fewer films to advertise Canada and more "to raise the intellectual level of the masses".8 Some, with special knowledge, criticize certain films on painting as being more dramatic than informative. The same criticism would apply, we are told, to supposedly factual films in various fields, produced by individuals relatively ignorant of the subject matter, who cannot resist the temptation to sacrifice reality to dramatic effect.
19. Some of these faults, it is said, may be attributed to lack of skill or care, or to a failure to obtain advice from those competent to give it. Others stem from the fact that many Film Board films are sponsored, and the delicate task of reconciling the didactic purposes of the sponsor with the creative instincts of director and producer must always present difficulties. Moreover, films are necessarily made to appeal to as wide an audience as possible. They may therefore not satisfy those with a special need. Teachers are particularly dissatisfied with many films because most of those received were not originally intended for the class-room.
20. Two special problems have been brought to our attention. One is the particular need of French-speaking Canada; French language films are in short supply. Practically all National Film Board subjects are put out in both languages, as are many industrial films of independent producers. Nevertheless, complaints come from French-speaking societies that the Film Board does not truly serve both language groups, no doubt because some of the French language films which are translations from the English are unsuitable for this purpose and therefore do not strike so authentic a note for French-speaking Canada as would films French in conception and execution. The resources of foreign films are naturally much less readily available to French-speaking than to English-speaking Canadians. Some excellent films have been prepared by the Province of Quebec, and a well-known American firm has undertaken to prepare French versions of some instructional films. Unfortunately, the limited resources of the Film Society have made it impossible to provide adequate
information services in French. The Film Board however at present includes in its budget $146,000 for original French films.
21. The second problem is the inadequacy of central film services, a problem drawn to our attention by a number of individuals and groups including one of our principal national organizations in the field of adult education. It was pointed out to us that Canada needs: a national film library to be composed of an archival and reference section, and a lending section; a catalogue and information service, possessing a union catalogue of all film collections in Canada, and of major collections abroad, capable of providing special film lists and other information on request; an extension of film evaluation and utilization services, in order that groups may be sure of getting the kind of film they need, and of using it to the best advantage; a procurement service, that is, a centre through which films, especially foreign films, may be ordered; and a research service on general questions of the use and distribution of films in Canada, including the laws of censorship, often unknown to many film-using organizations.
22. Until recently these services have been partially but of necessity imperfectly performed by the National Film Society and the National Film Board, not without some waste and duplication of effort. In the summer of 1950 the National Film Society merged its identity in the newly-formed Canadian Film Institute directed by representatives of federations of film societies, of certain national organizations and of the National Film Board. Before this consolidation took place it was suggested to us that such a body might take on this responsibility. It seems to be generally agreed that these services are badly needed in the interests of better production and distribution, and that they can best be performed by a voluntary body supported by government aid. Such a body might be able to publish a journal for the impartial review of documentary films; the absence of such a publication has been deplored by several groups.
23. We return now to the question mentioned previously: has the National Film Board any essential part to play in peace-time? Chambers of Commerce and Boards of Trade have argued that in peace-time National Film Board production is unnecessary and undesirable. The Board, they think, should cease all production and confine itself to co-ordinating government film activities, and to advising on contracts for film production with private film companies. Some distribution services may still be necessary, although even there more and more is being done by local and voluntary effort.
24. In support of private production it is argued that some twenty companies in Canada are engaged in producing commercial films; that some of these have shown great interest and ability in creative and
original work; and that one or two have done really first class films which are now being circulated by the Film Board and by educational organizations. It is pointed out that certain "prestige films", with no advertising content, apart from the name of the sponsoring firm at the beginning and at the end of the film, have been produced in co-operation with a board of review representing the Film Society and four other national organizations interested in adult education. Some of these have been suitable for schools and for general purposes. It is suggested that these firms are quite competent to produce government sponsored films, as in fact they now do to a limited extent, and that the Film Board might well go out of production altogether or confine its productions to a few films on good citizenship and kindred themes; and that government contracts would give commercial firms more opportunity for experimental work, and healthy competition would ensure originality and freshness of treatment. Films for schools, it has been pointed out, give endless trouble to the Film Board because ten different provinces must be pleased; the proper way to satisfy this need is through provincial sponsorship.
25. These views, we are certain, would be strongly opposed by practically all the voluntary bodies which have presented briefs to us on this subject. As with radio, they are well satisfied with services received in the past although confident that further progress can be made. Again as with radio, they greatly fear the effects of commercialization and are convinced that the truly and typically Canadian films they want can be given them only by the Film Board. It may be added that, as with radio, there is an insistent demand for solid and improving productions; and there is widespread confidence that the National Film Board can and will produce them.
26. We could not fail to be impressed by the parallels between broadcasting and documentary film operations in Canada. Each is partly but not wholly carried on by a government body; private enterprise aids in broadcasting and operates independently in film production. Each offers services particularly useful to remote areas. Each gives great pride and satisfaction to Canadians who take pleasure in the thought that these Canadian institutions which do so much for national unity have no counterpart on the American continent. Each has been challenged as a government monopoly unjust to private and perhaps dangerous to public interests. To these charges the reply has been that only a national organization protects the nation from excessive commercialization and Americanization. In each case, in spite of differences concerning public ownership and private enterprise, the two in very different ways have been integrated so as to offer a service very generally acceptable to the public. There is, however, one sharp contrast. The Canadian radio system embraces the entire radio field and serves all kinds of radio interests. The documentary film, for all its popularity and increasing use,
still represents only a minute fraction of total film consumption in Canada. For general film entertainment, Canadians want commercial features; and in this field there is practically nothing produced in Canada. Promising developments in feature films Canadian in character are taking place in Quebec; but English-speaking audiences are still exposed to strange Hollywood versions of a Canada they never thought or wished to see.
* From: Canada. Royal Commission on National Development in the Arts, Letters, and Sciences. Report. Ottawa : King's Printer, 1951. By permission of the Privy Council Office.