The National Film Board

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The year is 1941. War rages throughout Europe as Nazi Germany marches seemingly at will over the continent.

England is doing its best to hold off invasion, but the near nightly bombings by the Germans have gone on unabated since September of 1940 and many wonder if the Nazis will soon be marching on English soil.

Across the Atlantic, in Canada, England’s former colony, prepares to join the war efforts…, and that includes wartime propaganda.

A series of documentary shorts called Canada Carries On are released and carried internationally in The World in Action series.

The shorts were created to boost morale among Canadians during the war, and one short stands out, Churchill’s Island.

Directed by Stuart Legg, a veteran of eight documentaries by this point, the film portrayed military and civilian involvement in the Battle of Britain, which raged from July 10 to Oct. 31, 1940.

Made $4,900, the film used newsreel footage, and ran for 21 minutes and 27 seconds while giving viewers their first images of the Royal Air Force in its fight with the German Luftwaffe..

This film might be mostly forgotten today but it holds a special honour.

Not only was it the first-ever Academy Award winner for Best Documentary Short, but it was also the first Academy Award for a new organization that now has more Oscar nominations than any other film organization outside of Hollywood, the National Film Board of Canada.

I’m Craig Baird…and this is Canadian History Ehx!

The story of the National Film Board or NFB as I’ll call it throughout this episode, has in many ways mirrored Canada for the past eight decades And to understand where it came from, we need to go back to a time when movies were in their infancy.

The NFB didn’t appear out of nowhere. It stood on the shoulders of those who came before, and those who laid the groundwork for what would eventually become the film industry.

In 1878, The Horse in Motion, a series of cabinet cards, was created by Eadweard Muybridge.

These cards depicted the movement of a horse and served as the first example of chronophotography. Today, this clip of a few seconds is seen as an important step in the development of motion pictures and if you’ve seen Nope by Jordan Peele from 2022 you’ve seen it referenced.

Celluloid photographic film and motion picture cameras began to appear by the late 1880s  and the first public film screenings began in 1895.

In the autumn of 1897,  as the motion pictures industry dawned, a farmer from Manitoba named James Freer e bought film equipment from the Edison Film Company. He was inspired and tried to capture the farming life of his province by making short films..

Called Ten Years in Manitoba, the film was simply a compilation of scenes, featuring men working in a wheatfield, the harvesting of a crop, a train passing over the prairie and the arrival of the CPR Express at Winnipeg.

One scene was of a man staking grain on his farm.

That man happened to be Thomas Greenway, premier of Manitoba, and was possibly the first politician to ever appear on film.

The Canadian Pacific Railway saw the potential of such films as propaganda to attract immigrants to settle in Canada’s West.

The company arranged for the film to be showcased in the United Kingdom in April 1898 to encourage people to move to the Canadian Prairies.

With that, the era of film, and its power to shape people’s opinions, had arrived.

Fast forward two decades, the First World War was coming to an end and in September 1918, the Canadian government created the Canadian Government Motion Picture Bureau.

This organization was the first government film production company in the world. Their  goal was to advertise Canada’s scenic attractions, agricultural resources, and industrial development.

The Bureau distributed films throughout Canada, the Commonwealth, as well as France, Belgium, Argentina, Chile, Japan, China, and the United States.

At its peak, in the mid-1920s, the Bureau was releasing 1,000 prints of its films into the United States alone.

Those good days for the Bureau, were not to last as the world was quickly changing.

With The Great Depression came  tougher times which hit the Bureau along with budget cuts resulting in bland poor quality films.

Its reputation declined and because they failed to invest in sound film, the films released were seen as outdated.

Frank Badgley, the Bureau’s director from 1927 to 1941, recommended the transition to sound films early on, but the organization didn’t switch until 1934 and by then, it had lost most of its theatrical distributors.

In February 1936, Ross McLean, secretary to the Canadian High Commissioner in London, recommended a study into the production of promotional films in an attempt to boost Canada’s former glory as a film producer..

Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King agreed and appointed British filmmaker John Grierson to review the growing failures of the bureau and offer recommendations to the government.

Grierson brought forward a report that led to the National Film Act which was passed in 1939 written by Grierson himself.

This led to the formation of the NFB. Under the Act, the Bureau was responsible for the technical production of the films, and then they would be distributed by the new organization, the NFB.

As the world fell into war in 1939, Grierson recommended that the Bureau and the NFB merge for efficiency and cost effectiveness.

Two years later, in 1941, the NFB absorbed the Bureau and one of the most prestigious film studios in the world was created.

Grierson became the first commissioner and he served from 1941 to 1945. During his first years at the helm of the organization, it grew from 50 staff to 250. It also won its first Oscar for Churchill’s Island. In the 1943 Best Documentary category, the National Film Board received two nominations for High Over The Borders and Inside Fighting China but neither film won.

Hoping to regain the mass distribution that the bureau had in the 1920s, Grierson, worked with Famous Players a major theater chain to have them include NFB films. Thanks to this, productions like The World In Action reached 30 to 40 million people in the United Kingdom and United States each month.

The series, Canada Carries On, reached 2.25 million people and the newsreels released by the NFB were seen by 40 to 50 million people per week.

While Grierson did many important things in his tenure as commissioner, he changed the NFB forever by hiring one man

Norman McLaren was born in Scotland and began to experiment with animation in the 1930s. He released Seven Till Five and Camera Makes Whoopee in 1933 and 1935.

Both films won prizes at the Scottish Amateur Film Festival which were judged by Grierson.

After spending time covering the Spanish Civil War as a cameraman, and then working as an animator in New York City, he was invited by Grierson to come to Canada.

McLaren was asked to create a promotional film to remind Canadians to mail their Christmas cards early. This became the 1941 film, Mail Early and it was the start of his career that would alter the National Film Board and animation forever.

After several more films in 1942 and 1943, McLaren could no longer keep up with the demands for animation a the NFB. He asked Grierson to recruit art students so he could start a small animation team.

Grierson approved the request and Studio A, the first animation studio for the NFB, was created in January 1943 with McLaren as its head.

McLaren was a pioneer. His use of visual music, abstract film, graphical sound, and drawn-on-film animation were revolutionary for their time, and he was instrumental in making the NFB a world leader in the world of animation.

Since then, the NFB has won seven Oscars for animated films. McLaren won one Oscar for his work and was nominated for four others between 1953 and 1968.

The NFB named its Montreal head office building the Norman McLaren Building to honour him and his impact on the organization.

Along with the accolades and the little gold men there’s one story that stands out… and although I can’t verify its authenticity, I want to share it with you because it’s a good tale, nonetheless.

In August 1942, after the Dieppe Raid and as reports of  manacled Canadian prisoners of war spread, Grierson proposed that the NFB show how Canada treated German prisoners.

A film was produced, directed by Ham Wright, that showed captured German sailors playing football and enjoying meals at camps in Canada.

The NFB only made one copy and sent it to the Swiss Red Cross. The organization then deliberately let it fall into the hands of the Germans. Grierson later learned that Adolf Hitler had seen the film and ordered the Canadians released from their manacles.

BUT as the fame and prestige of the NFB grew, Grierson rarely had the support of the Canadian government. Many were openly critical of some of the films, including Inside Fighting Russia, released in 1942.

Members of parliament felt it showed support for the Russian Revolution. Despite the Russians being our Allies during the war, communism was still a hot button topic in Canada.

It wasn’t just the Canadian government that grew critical of Grierson. The FBI opened a file on him in 1942, feeling that his World in Action newsreel series was becoming too left-wing. When Igor Gouzenko defected from the Soviet Union to Canada in 1945, he told authorities of a Soviet spy ring of Canadian communists,  and implicated  Freda Linton, Grierson’s secretary.

She was considered to be a strong candidate as a spy and a warrant for her arrest was issued in 1946 but she disappeared. She eventually surrendered in 1949 but by then the charge against her was discontinued.

Due to that connection, Grierson was accused of being involved with the Soviets, but nothing was ever proven. Nonetheless, the man who essentially created the NFB, resigned from his position in 1945.

At the time he resigned,  NFB had grown to a staff of 787,  released more than 500 films and  received four Academy Award nominations, winning once.

Replacing Grierson was Ross McLean.

When the NFB was established, Grierson returned the favour by hiring McLean to serve as Assistant Film Commissioner. Now as Grierson’s successor, McLean also found himself without support from the federal government. McLean was ordered to assist the RCMP in screening  NFB employees and the RCMP told him to fire a list of suspected employees. McLean refused to fire anyone without proof of disloyalty.

In 1947 his nephew, Grant McLean, released The People Between for the NFB in which the government felt favored the Chinese Communist Party.

Quebec Premier Maurice Duplessis, a man who saw communism as a great evil, ordered all NFB films removed from schools in the province on accusations that they supported Communism. In 1949, McLean was told his contract as commissioner would not be renewed.

Many members of his staff threatened to resign in protest, including Ralph Foster, the assistant commissioner, but McLean convinced them not to because he felt  those actions would harm the NFB.

In 1950, McLean was replaced with William Irwin, a man who had spent years working at MacLean Magazine.

The government wanted him to restore the public image of the NFB, which they felt was damaged. They also wanted to combat the perceived threat of communism within the organization.

While many staff were concerned about his inexperience in the film industry, Irwin quickly established himself as a supporter of the NFB and its employees.

He rewrote the National Film Act to make the NFB independent from government control, and moved the headquarters to Montreal to give it distance from visits by politicians in Ottawa.

If the RCMP thought Irwin would support their efforts, they were wrong. He too refused to fire any employee unless disloyalty was proven. Eventually, the RCMP asked that only three of the 36 employees they suspected be fired, which Irwin agreed to. Irwin centralized the film production of the NFB with one person overseeing the four departments.

In 1951 it began French language film production. Irwin also took the NFB from the silver screen to people’s homes. In 1953, the NFB released its first television series, Window on Canada, made in partnership with the CBC.

but this wasn’t the beginning of a beautiful friendship…

In a trend that continued for two decades the relationship between the CBC and the NFB was tenuous at best…

The CBC opposed increasing NFB productions because they thought it would limit the broadcaster’s growth. Those in the NFB opposed moving into television as it was seen as a lesser medium to film. In 1955, half of the productions made by the NFB were made for TV. A year later, the CBC made Hawkeye and the Last of the Mohicans, a historic drama series which prohibited any NFB involvement.

Then they prevented the NFB production of Jake and the Kid from being shown on the network. After Irwin resigned as commissioner in 1953 b, Albert Trueman took over. He was previously the president of the University of New Brunswick, and under him the NFB moved into new headquarters, located in Montreal. Constructed between 1953 and 1956, costing $5.25 million it remained the NFB headquarters until 2019.

Despite everything the organization had done, the NFB still had trouble with Canadian governments. In September 1954, Quebec censors demanded that the NFB pay $20,500 per year in a censorship fee. Trueman agreed to avoid controversy, but he was able to reach a compromise in which censors were given one print of each film. If they found an issue, then all future prints  would be censored and the NFB would pay an annual fee of $2,500 to $3,000 not 20K.

Trueman left his position as commissioner in 1957, and was replaced by Guy Roberge, the first French-Canadian commissioner of the NFB. Roberge was a prominent Canadian lawyer and served as a Liberal member of the Legislative Assembly of Quebec from 1944 to 1948. He had also served on the board of governors of the NFB. His appointment came at a time when there was minimal French-language production at the NFB.

To change this, several Quebec filmmakers were hired including Pierre Perrault, Michel Brault and Gilles Carle. They all played seminal roles in developing Quebec cinema in the 1960s and the growth of the Quiet Revolution that transformed Quebec culture throughout the decade.

In 1963, the NFB released its first English language feature length film, Drylanders. It also marked the first film outside the documentary format.

Silent movie icon Buster Keaton made his last silent film ever with the National Film Board. Railrodder, was released in 1965 and was a 25-minute series of mini-adventures as he follows the Canadian National Railway line across Canada.

As is the case in Canadian media with growth comes the need for more revenue Roberge proposed the creation of a film financing organization to aid Canadian productions. This proposal was approved by the Canadian government in October 1965, and the Canadian Film Development Corporation Act was introduced in June 1966 and approved on March 3, 1967.

Roberge left his position on April 1, 1966 and declined to choose someone to succeed him as commissioner.  After Roberge came Stuart McLean’s nephew, who was the new commissioner on a temporary basis.

Meanwhile the relationship between the CBC and NFB went from bad to worse.

In 1966 the CBC terminated its NFB contracts after the NFB demanded the CBC air its films commercial free, which CBC refused to do.

As Canada hit its Centennial Year, the NFB was in fiscal decline as its budget seemed to be cut on a near-yearly basis. By the time Hugo McPherson was appointed as the NFB’s new commissioner in April 1967, expenditures had reached $10 million per year. With the cost of filming rising, McPherson asked for $500,000 from the government to prevent firing of 10 percent of the organization’s workforce. The government refused.

In order to bring in revenue, the NFB made peace with the CBC. In 1969, the CBC and NFB reached a new agreement where the CBC could air commercials during NFB programs. Despite this agreement, revenue declined from $2.2 million in 1968 to $1.6 million in August 1969.

Amid the budget cutbacks, there was a bright spot. The previous year, Willie Dunn wrote his song The Ballad of Crowfoot, which was turned into a 10-minute film. Not only is this considered to be the first known Canadian music video, but Dunn was the first NFB Indigenous film director..

It gave Alain Obomsawin, who directed her first film for the NFB, Christmas at Moose Factory, in 1971 a home. For the next half century, Obomsawin would become one of the most celebrated directors, Indigenous or otherwise, in Canada.

She has released over 50 films with the NFB, with her most recent being Bill Reid Remembers on April 30, 2022.

In August of 1970, the government approved $1 million to cover the NFB’s salaries but McPherson was not informed. It was hoped that  he would institute budget cuts before he knew he had more money.

As a result, McPherson laid off 17 people that year, and suspended the computer animation program.

Amid the stress of constant cutbacks, McPherson left as commissioner, and they brought in a new man named Sydney Newman.

Newman had worked as director for the NFB in the 1950s but had spent the previous 12 years working for the BBC where he pioneered television drama for the network. There he launched two shows, one was the highly successful The Avengers.

The other was, a little show that some of you may have heard of… in my personal opinion, it’s one of the greatest shows ever made: Doctor Who. During the Newman years, budget cuts continued as the federal government looked to cut its federal budget by a $1 billion dollars.

In 1975, $500,000 was cut from the NFB budget, and two years later, 65 people were let go from the organization. As it had so many times before, the NFB soldiered on and continued to put out great content and serve as a pioneering organization for up and coming directors.

In 1975, International Women’s Year, Newman supported Kathleen Shannon proposal for the NFB to focus on films made by, and about, women. 

It was called the Jewel in the Crown Corporation, and from 1975, until its closure in 1996 due to, you guessed it, budget cuts, Studio D produced 134 films of which three won Academy Awards.

Newman was replaced by his assistant commissioner, Andre Lamy in July 1975. The most notable aspect of Lamy’s time was the release of several politically-sensitive French Canadian productions that Newman had banned during his tenure.

These films were banned because of the October Crisis of 1970, when the Quebec separatist organization, the FLQ, kidnapped the deputy premier of Quebec, Pierre Laporte, and British diplomat James Cross.

Laporte was murdered by the organization, leading to the only peace-time implementation of the War Measures Act, which suspended civil liberties for a time in Canada.

Lamy had advised Newman to ban the productions due to the crisis but by 1975, Lamy felt enough time had passed for the distribution of the films.

Lamy served until 1979, when James de Beaujeau Domville became the commissioner.

Like his predecessors, Domville faced budget cuts, but he received praise for changing the NFB policy in supporting the Canadian film industry by allowing private companies, rather than the NFB, to undertake the majority of sponsored film production.

In 1979, during his tenure, Encyclopedia Britannica offered to buy the NFB for $100 million, or $354 million today. This offer was refused.

Two of the most famous vignettes of the NFB were released during this time.

The first was the Log Driver’s Waltz, which I covered on Feb. 8, 2022

The NFB vignette was directed by John Weldon, who had won the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film in 1979 for Special Delivery..

Released in 1979? The Log Driver’s Waltz celebrated the art of log driving, which is the act of taking felled timber down rivers to be transported to sawmills.

This was very common in the 1800s and into the 1900s. Lumberjacks would cut down the trees, and transported the logs down to the river and put them into the water.

The river took the logs quickly and for no cost, to the sawmill.

To ensure that the logs made the journey, workers walked and ran on the logs as they floated down the river. It often resembled dancing, hence, the name…the Log Driver’s Waltz.

In 1977, CBC’s children’s programming department had contacted the NFB and requested they produce several short films that could be used between programming.

The federal government was also in favour of this, wanting to promote national unity.

For the next three years, 80 filmmakers from across the country began to make films. Without a doubt, the most famous is the Log Driver’s Waltz.

To this day, the film is one of the most requested in the entire collection of the National Film Board. It has also been adapted into a children’s book. Speaking of children’s books, the second popular vignette came from the 1979 short story, The Hockey Sweater, published by Roch Carrier.

It was turned into The Sweater, an animated short by the NFB the following year. The story follows a young boy who worships Maurice The Rocket Richard of the Montreal Canadiens. When he needs a new hockey sweater, his mother orders one from the Eaton’s catalogue. Unfortunately, a Toronto Maple Leafs sweater arrives instead, the hated rival of the Montreal Canadiens.

The film was made for $199,000 and has become one of the most popular works by the NFB.

It also won the Best Animated Film Award at the 1981 British Academy Film Awards.

Meanwhile the man that oversaw those two successes  left his post as commissioner in 1984 and was replaced by Francois Macerola. In order to cut costs once again, Macerola reorganized the NFB’s distribution offices and cut staff from 26 to 12. The NFB also attempted to create its own television channel but failed.

Macerola also reduced the full-time permanent staff of the organization from 1,085 in 1982 to 728 in 1989. By the mid-1980s, the NFB had released 4,000 films since its inception but many directors complained that resources were being drained by bureaucratic excess.

Donald Brittain said in Macleans in 1988,

“The bureaucrats waste vast amounts of money preparing useless proposals, providing lavish furnishings and installing computers that nobody knows how to use. The board taught me my craft and still backs my films, I would hate to see it die but to survive, every loose penny must be spent on filmmaking.”

At the same time, Macerola stated that the real issue at the time was that the NFB needed another $10 million a year to fulfill its mandate, something it was not going to receive.

Macerola left in 1989, and Joan Pennefather made history as the first female commissioner of the NFB. She served until 1994 and was followed by Sandra Macdonald, Jacques Bensimon and Tom Perlmutter. Today, Claude Joli-Couer serves as the commissioner of the NFB, a post he first took on in 2013.

For the past 30 years, the NFB adapted and produced films about Canada, its people and its history. All while receiving accolades. From 1994 to today, the NFB won three Academy Awards in 1994, 2004 and 2006.

The NFB also saw the importance of streaming earlier than most.

In 2009, the NFB launched its first streaming app where, you can stream hundreds of films and documentaries from the organization’s vaults. Today, 6,000 films are available on the website and app which receive hundreds of thousands of views a month.

I can’t tell you how many hours I have spent watching old documentaries about Canada over the past few years. By 2013, the NFB was devoting 25 per cent of its budget to interactive media, including web documentaries in which it is a pioneer making Canada a major player in digital storytelling.

That is the story of the National Film Board, but I want to talk about one more amazing film from the NFB that is still revered to this day.

Norman McLaren, the man who created the animation branch of the NFB in 1942wrote, directed and produced Neighbours. If that wasn’t enough, he also created the soundtrack in a very unique way. He scratched the edge of the film, creating various blobs, lines and triangles that the projector read as sound.

The film follows Jean-Paul Ladouceur and Grant Munro, who represent French and English Canada respectively. They live in adjacent cardboard houses but when a small flower blooms between their houses, they fight each other to the death over ownership of the flower.

The film used pixelation, pioneered by Munro himself.

This creates the stop motion style of the humans in the film. At one point in the film, the two neighbours levitate which was achieved by having the actors jump upward and photographing them at the top of the trajectory.

This eight-minute film is called one of the most controversial films ever made by the NFB due to its anti-militarism and anti-war message. The original cut included a scene of the two men murdering the family of the other man. This scene was cut to make it more palatable for American audiences.

During the Vietnam War, public opinion had shifted against war and McLaren was able to reinstate the sequence, which is relatively tame by today’s standards.

The film is now revered and considered a landmark of animation, and Canadian film in general. It won a Canadian Film Award and an Academy Award in 1953. It was declared a masterwork by the Audio-Visual Preservation Trust of Canada and, perhaps most significantly, the United Nations added it to its Memory of the World Programme, which safeguards the documentary heritage of humanity against collective amnesia, neglect and the ravages of time.

And, of course, you can watch it on the NFB app, website and YouTube channel.

I would like to thank the National Film Board, and Katja De Bock, for providing me with access to videos not available on their app, and also thank you to Camilo Martin-Florez for speaking with me about the history of the NFB.

Information from Canadian Encyclopedia, Library and Archives Canada, Macleans, Wikipedia,

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