Canadian Cinema Pioneers & Newcomers Celebrate at 60
Voyeurism, communism, anti-Semitism, racism, ethnic conflict, drug addiction-are these tabloid headlines or topics of recent Canadian documentaries? Canada's National Film Board courts controversy with its latest docs. The NFBC is alive and kicking at 60, with much to celebrate, having successfully weathered '90s reorganization and downsizing without compromising its outstanding documentary tradition and its commitment to Canadian artists and issues.
Leading the NFB's list of prize contenders in the year 2000 are two documentaries made by first-time directors. Through a Blue Lens is a gripping video documentary made in collaboration with Vancouver police who patrol the city's skid row district. When it was televised on the CBC recently, over a million viewers tuned in, more than the nightly audience for the national news. Through a Blue Lens will be shown March 7 at 7 p.m. on Cinemax and will be the subject of an upcoming feature on ABC's 2020 Veronica Mannix approached NFB producer Gillia Darling Kovanic with the idea for the film, while shooting a different film in Vancouver's downtown eastside, Mannix and her husband, Emmy-winning cinematographer Dan Mannix, were befriended by the beat cops who patrol the area, and use video cameras in their work. That led to the idea behind Through a Blue Lens.
"You can spend a week down here—or an hour—and you'll get the footage you're looking for," says Mannix. "But it's not the real story. We were there for eight months, and when we hooked up with these guys, they took us into places we couldn't have imagined existed. What they showed us was desperation in its most tangible form."
Just Watch Me: Trudeau and the '70s Generation was the idea of Catherine Annau, who worked in film, radio and journalism but had never directed a film before. Annau came to Toronto-based producer Gerry Flahive with the idea of looking at the generation born in the '60s through a unique frame: Pierre Trudeau, the controversial Prime Minister whose policies shaped the lives of the new generation. Cameraman Ronald Plante spent a week behind closed doors with Annau, clueing her in to the "dirty secret" that this was going to be a "talking heads" film, assuring her that this pejorative term could be turned into a real strength. More than 400 responses to a classified ad were winnowed to eight individuals.
Annau had one-and-a-half days to interview each subject, which demanded a quickly formed level of intimacy and trust on both parts. When veteran editor Craig Webster joined the film, he asked the big question: "What is this film really about?" The answer proved surprising: "It's a love story." Everyone in the film acknowledged falling in love with the "other"—the other culture, the other language and, in the case of Quebecois separatist Sylvain Marois and Anglo Meg McDonald, each other. (The film's title in French is "Frenchkiss: la génération du rêve Trudeau.")
DOCUMENTARY AND TELEVISION
Television has become the major distribution outlet for NFB films today. Although some titles may be re-edited for educational purposes or released on home video, most will be seen on cable or broadcast TV, reaching audiences in the millions. Having television in at the start as a co-producer insures a distribution outlet for a work, but the NFB often invests in projects that would seem risky from a broadcaster's perspective. Even experimental documentaries, which may never appeal to commercial broadcasters, continue to be funded. For example, independent director Elida Shogt received support from the NFB's Filmmakers'
Assistance Funds for her recent short experimental film, Zyklon Portrait, which was screened at the Amsterdam Documentary Film Festival. This poetic essay on the gas used in the Nazi's concentration camps, and Shogt's family members who died there, may never be seen on Canadian television. But it was made with help from the NFB and will be seen in festivals that recognize the cutting edge of documentary innovation.
In the late '50s and '60s, the NFB helped give birth to the cinema vérité movement. Researcher Kirwan Cox championed the idea of a film about cinema vérité told in the words of the men and women who invented it. Peter Wintonick, co-director of the acclaimed Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media, was chosen to direct it. Cinema Vérité: Defining the Moment benefits from the cooperation of both the French and English units at the Film Board, which is appropriate since pioneers on both sides left their mark on the style. Wintonick's crew traveled to France, England and the United States as well as across Canada to track down the heroes of a movement that remains for many documentary "reality."
Wintonick and Cox interviewed Jean Rouch, Ricky Leacock, Bob Drew, Fred Wiseman, Al Maysles, Terence McCartney Filgate, Michel Brault, Bill Greaves, Pierre Perrault, Wolf Koenig, Roman Kroitor, Karel Reisz—25 people in all. They reveal, among other trade secrets, the vitality of filmmakers, many of whom are in their 70s and still inventing new and better ways of telling real-life stories.
Pierre Lasry tackled anti-Semitism in his entertaining and illuminating film about Shylock, arch Shakespearean villain. With film clips of performances by Orson Welles, Sir Laurence Olivier, Dustin Hoffman and Ron Liebman each playing the merchant of Venice, Shylock examines how this character has come to embody changing Western attitudes towards Jews over the last 400 years. It will air on BRAVO April 23 after opening at the New York Jewish Film Festival in New York. Sunrise Over Tiananmen Square, a visually splendid autobiographical portrait, explores what it was like to grow up in China during the Cultural Revolution. It was made by the talented artist animator-turned-documentary-maker, Shui-Bo Wang.
Jeni LeGon: Living in a Great Big Way aired on New York's public television affiliate WNET in February. American audiences are sure to enjoy this wonderful film portrait of the legendary African-American dancer and choreographer who starred with Bill Robinson and Fats Waller in Hollywood films of the '30s and '40s, and sang and danced with Count Basie's Orchestra. At 80, Legon continues, a force of nature still dancing and following her dream.
Like Jeni Legon, the National Film Board is also going strong. When the NFB celebrated its 50th anniversary in 1989, one veteran producer remarked: "The first 50 years were the easy part. The next 50 are the challenge." Ten years later, it seems safe to say the people charting the future at the NFB are doing a fine job, if the films mentioned here are any sign. May there be many more like them to come.
Deirdre Boyle is the author of Subject of Change: Guerrilla Television Revisited (Oxford, 1997), a history of '70s video documentaries. In 1988 she won an ACE award for programming the best documentary series on cable TV. She is senior faculty in the graduate Media Studies Program at the New School University in New York City.