NFB Announces Gender Parity in Film Production

Stories We Tell director of cinematography Iris Ng with director Sarah Polley.
Photo by Ken Woroner / National Film Board of Canada

By Pat Mullen

On today, International Women’s Day, comes a historic announcement for the Canadian filmmaking community. Following suit with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s balanced cabinet, the National Film Board of Canada announces its commitment to gender parity in film production. This news comes following NFB commissioner Claude Joli-Coeur’s speech today at the Vancouver International Women in Film Festival. The NFB’s new three-year plan says that women will direct at least half of its productions and half of all production spending will be allocated to films directed by women. In a bold move, the NFB plans to put these stats online for the public to track.

Among the diverse films produced by the NFB, some of its notable films by female filmmakers include, but are not limited to, Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell, Alanis Obomsawin’s Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance, and Mina Shum’s Ninth Floor. This effort is a contemporary extension of the NFB’s pioneering Studio D efforts in 1974, which devoted itself to films by women. New female-directed films coming up soon from the NFB include Alethea Arnaquq-Baril’s Angry Inuk, Andrea Dorfman’s 160 Girls, and Ann Marie Fleming’s Window Horses.

Even without the new support for female filmmakers, women are doing well by the NFB. Numbers from the NFB state that “fifty-five percent of the NFB’s producers and executive producers across Canada are women, with 66 percent of upper management and 70 percent of NFB Board of Trustee positions staffed by women,” while 35 out of 48 upcoming projects from the English Program credit female directors or co-directors. However, a recent study from Women in View indicates that Canadian women are greatly underrepresented in key creative production roles based on 91 films surveyed.

Here is an excerpt of Joli-Coeur’s speech announcing the new steps:

With its long history of supporting women in the industry, the National Film Board is known as a place where women can create something meaningful, and really shape the direction of public filmmaking – on the screen, behind the camera, in every field… including in senior management.

This work began back in the 1940s, with some of the early pioneers in Canadian women’s cinema. Some of the women who came to work with us were already established filmmakers, like Evelyn Spice Cherry and Judith Crawley, while others started in entry-level positions and quickly rose up the ranks – women like Evelyn Lambart, who was Norman McLaren’s right hand before becoming an accomplished filmmaker herself.

In the 1960s, Anne Claire Poirier and Kathleen Shannon led the fight for more resources for women’s filmmaking at the Board. Shannon then took it a step further, lobbying for a separate women’s production unit. It was a difficult struggle for Kathleen and her colleagues, but she was successful.

In 1974, Studio D was founded. It was the world’s first publicly funded studio devoted to making films by and for women. And it produced some of the NFB’s most famous films, including 3 Oscar winners: Beverly Shaffer’s I’ll Find a Way, Terre Nash’s If You Love This Planet, and Cynthia Scott’s Flamenco.

Since then, an incredible number of talented women have come to the NFB to hone their craft and leave their mark: artists like Torill Kove, who won an Oscar with The Danish Poet; Mina Shum, with Ninth Floor, which recently travelled across Canada as part of TIFF’s Top 10; and Sarah Polley, with Stories We Tell, which became our most popular theatrical documentary of all time…

I mention this because just like filmmaking, the digital and interactive space is male-dominated, despite great work being done by women. Groundbreaking work like I Love Potatoes and Kat Cizek’s acclaimed Highrise project show the central place women creators hold in the interactive work being done at the NFB…

Yet the fact remains that, in 2016, we’re still, as an industry, having this conversation about women being fully represented, on screen, off screen and in key industry positions.

Personally, I find the lack of representation unacceptable, given the amazing talent that exists.

At the NFB, we are pretty close to parity, but it’s not enough.