Founder and Executive Producer of
Studio D, National Film Board
Kathleen Shannon, founder and executive producer of the National Film Board's famous women's Studio D, played a key role in providing Canadian women, filmmakers and audiences alike, the opportunity to create, share and view their own stories on the film screen.
Shannon started her career in the film industry when she got a summer job as a background music cataloguer at Crawley Films in 1952. Rather than finish her formal education, Shannon opted to stay on at the small Ottawa-based film company and learn all that she could about sound and music editing. Four years later she was offered a position at the National Film Board of Canada (NFB).
From 1956 to 1970, Shannon worked and trained others as sound, music and picture editors at the National Film Board of Canada. However, it was increasingly apparent that despite being more experienced than several of her male counterparts (some of whom she had trained) Shannon was being passed by for promotions and raises while the men at the Film Board moved ahead to positions with more responsibility and better pay.
It was only after Shannon had some 200 films to her credit as an editor that she was allowed to direct her first film. This film, Goldwood (1974), was based on her childhood memories of one of the many mining towns where her father, a mining engineer, had worked. It combined the artistic representations of Shannon's childhood recollections and real footage of the town, as it existed in the present.
In the early 1970s, as part of the Challenge for Change program at the NFB, Shannon was asked to direct the series Working Mothers, which included 10 films about women from different socio-economic backgrounds struggling with the same issue: being a working mother. The ten films, shot on video, were then used as part of a workshop and shown to live audiences with accompanying materials that were distributed during the screenings to help encourage a dialogue. Similarly, Anne-Claire Poirier directed the series En tant que femmes, which focused on the plight of French-Canadian women as part of the same program. The success and impact of these films revealed that there was a real need to address issues on the screen from a feminine perspective in Canada, and a female audience to tap into that welcomed this alternate perspective. Shannon was not about to let the moment pass her by, and started lobbying for a women's film unit at the NFB.
There were other factors that contributed to a favourable climate for such an endeavour. With the Royal Commission on the Status of Women being released in 1970, and the women's movement gaining momentum, there was pressure throughout Canadian federal institutions to address the position of women within their organizations. In 1974, in conjunction with International Women's Year, the National Film Board of Canada decided to take action on Shannon's idea and created Studio D, the first government-funded film studio dedicated to women filmmakers in the world.
Although the creation of Studio D was at best a token gesture on the part of the NFB, Shannon, who had been appointed as its executive producer, was determined to take the dust and turn it into gold. When Anne-Claire Poirier was asked to create the French counterpart to Studio D, she refused, believing that to create such a space would be to create a women's ghetto where money would be scarce and decent filmmaking opportunities few and far between. Poirier wanted funding for French films created by women to be on equal footing with the money provided for other French productions at the NFB.
Despite the fact that Studio D had very little money and was located in the basement in what had previously been the janitor's storeroom, it soon became one of the NFB's most celebrated filmmaking units, winning awards and breaking distribution records. The studio's success was largely due to Shannon's determination to distribute the films women wanted to make — films on topics such as the environment, pornography and abortion — even if it meant fighting battle after battle with the National Film Board of Canada's management. Terre Nash, in an article written shortly after Shannon's death, recalled her own difficulties in getting her controversial Oscar-winning film If You Love This Planet made and Shannon's role in the successful outcome:
"We had weeks and weeks of meetings with these men and she totally unnerved them because she knitted all the way through. It was extraordinary to watch these big, powerful bureaucrats having temper tantrums, only to be met with a look of disdain from the stony face of Kathleen Shannon and the rhythmic clacking sound of knit one, purl one. ... When it was clear that we had won, Kathleen looked at me and smiled and said, "Well you've got your film and I've got a new sweater!"
(Nash, p. 38)
Other films (and sweaters) that were made at Studio D during Shannon's tenure as executive producer include Not a Love Story, Flamenco at 5:15 and I'll Find a Way.
In 1986 Shannon was awarded the Order of Canada for her role in creating a place for women in the Canadian film scene at Studio D. In the same year she stepped down as executive producer, although she continued to work with the studio until 1992 when she retired.
Studio D continued to thrive for another ten years, producing quality documentary films about social matters that were important not just to women but to humanity. In 1996, however, the studio fell victim to a sweeping set of federal government budget cuts and an era was sadly ended. One of the last films produced at Studio D was a biographical documentary about Kathleen Shannon called Kathleen Shannon: On Film, Feminism, and Other Dreams, directed by Gerry Rogers.
After retiring, Kathleen moved back to British Columbia and set up a retreat for women in her home in the Kootenays. Less than two years after Studio D was closed, Shannon died of cancer, leaving behind a remarkable legacy that redefined the relationship between women and filmmaking in Canada.
Bunel Edwards, Margaret. "'D' Is for Decision." Performing Arts in Canada. Vol. 22, no .1 (Spring 1985), p. 15-17.
Kathleen Shannon. National Film Board of Canada. www.nfb.ca/portraits/fiche.php?idcat=267 (accessed January 21, 2003).
Klein, Bonnie Sherr, and Shirley Anne Claydon. "Kathleen Shannon." Take One. Vol. 6, no. 19 (Spring 1998), p. 48.
Lauder, Scott. "A Studio with a View: The NFB's Studio D Is Lifting Women's Filmmaking Out of the Basement." Canadian Forum. Vol. LXVI, no. 761 (August-September 1986), p. 12-15.
Nash, Terre. "Against the Grain: In 1974, when Kathleen Shannon Founded Studio D." This Magazine. Vol. 31, no. 6 (May-June 1998), p. 36-39.
Shannon, Kathleen. "'D' Is for Dilemma: Studio D Founder Kathleen Shannon Looks Back on the Lessons She Learned Starting Up the All-Woman Film Studio." Herizons. Vol. 9, no. 2 (Summer 1995), p. 24-29.
Shannon, Kathleen. "Women Making Films: Kathleen Shannon." Pot Pourri (June 1974), p. 2-6.
Sherbarth, Chris. "Why Not D? An Historical Look at the NFB's Woman's Studio." Cinema Canada. No. 139 (March 1987), p. 9-13.