Our national movie history
Making Movie History panelists during DOXA Industry Day at the SFU Goldcorp Centre for the Arts on May 7, left to right: Michelle van Beusekom, head of the National Film Board of Canada’s English-language production branch, and filmmakers Mort Ransen, Bonnie Sherr Klein and Anne Wheeler. Panel moderator was Marsha Lederman of the Globe and Mail. (photo by Fortune Hill Photography courtesy of NFB)
When it comes to their own history, Canadians haven’t had a great track record for recording their success stories. So, when Michelle van Beusekom had an opportunity to produce Making Movie History: A Portrait in 61 Parts, an anecdotal history of the National Film Board of Canada, she was thrilled to jump on board. Told through portraits of legendary artists and filmmakers who have worked at the NFB since its establishment in 1939, the free iPad app was released last month at the DOXA Film Festival in Vancouver.
Present at the launch were B.C.-based filmmakers Mort Ransen, Bonnie Sherr Klein and Anne Wheeler, who participated on a May 7 panel with van Beusekom, who is head of the NFB’s English-language production branch. The panel was moderated by Marsha Lederman of the Globe and Mail.
It took five years to make Making Movie History, which consists of 30 profiles in French and 30 in English, and van Beusekom is hoping movie lovers will watch it.
“It delivers a fascinating look at the origins of cinema in Canada and insight into the stories of early founders of cinema craft in this country,” she told the Independent.
The portraits are of individuals who participated in the NFB from the 1940s through the 1980s, with a special focus on the earlier years, when the NFB was founded as a government-funded but independent organization with a vision to primarily create documentaries in the public interest. “It created this space where talented people could practise their art, develop a filmmaking tradition in this country and use this art form in the public interest,” she explained.
Over the course of working on the app, van Beusekom gained a keen appreciation of the role of women at the NFB from early on.
“As young men went overseas to fight in World War Two, it created opportunities for women in secretarial roles, cinematography, camera, editing and directing, and many were recruited to the NFB,” she said. “When people talk about women’s cinema in Canada, they talk about Studio D, which started in 1974. Until now, the 1940s generation of pioneers of women in Canadian cinema has almost been forgotten. I learned about Gudrun Parker, Evelyn Spice Cherry, Jane Marsh Beveridge and Laura Boulton, which was huge for me. These were names we didn’t know much about and it changed our perception of women’s roles in Canadian cinema.”
The intention of the app is not to be a comprehensive overview, but to provide a portrait that ideally captures the spirit of the individuals profiled and the spirit they brought to the organization. One of those individuals is Klein, who came to Canada with her spouse as a conscientious objector and worked at the NFB. One of her projects was Challenge for Change, where she used film to address social problems such as chronic poverty. Klein was also a foundational figure at Studio D, which operated from 1974 through 1996.
She recalls the NFB as “a Mecca for documentary films, the only place in the world with a government-funded but independent filmmaking agency” in 1975, when she became involved. “We were using films to give people a voice, people who hadn’t spoken for themselves before on screen,” she told the Independent.
Newly graduated from Stanford University at the time, Klein remembers that, back then, the only documentaries around were those made by National Geographic. At Studio D, Klein helped make films by, about and for women, training and nurturing filmmakers, including camera and sound women in this country for the first time.
Things have changed since then for women in the industry, but not that much, she said. “Now, it’s superficially better. There are a lot more women in the film world and graduating from film schools and a lot more diversity among those women. But, are women really getting a chance to tell their own stories, as opposed to just being in the workforce and working on the same old stories?”
Klein noted that nine out of 10 of the last Telefilm Canada (government-funded) films were directed by men. “Women will tell you there’s still a glass ceiling,” she said. “They can only make films up to a certain budget, and they’re not making series, so it’s not great. But the NFB just made a historic commitment for gender equity across the board in all its projects. That commitment sets the bar and challenges other agencies who have lots of money, to do the same.”
According to the Women in View On Screen Report (October 2015), of the 2013-14 fiscal year’s feature-length films by Telefilm Canada, women represented 17% of directors, 22% of writers and 12% of cinematographers credited; in the under $1 million category of film investment, women directors constituted 21%; in the over $1 million category of film investment, women directors constituted four percent. Of the English-language drama TV series between 2012 and 2013, 17 of the 29 series did not have a single woman director on any of their 151 episodes, and not one of the 293 episodes employed a female cinematographer.
The Making Movie History app is available from the iTunes Canada app store, as well as at nfb.ca/makingmoviehistory.
Lauren Kramer, an award-winning writer and editor, lives in Richmond. To read her work online, visit laurenkramer.net.