The NFB at TIFF 2014

by Marc Glassman

TIFF wouldn’t be TIFF without the NFB. In fact, cinema history in Canada effectively starts with the formation of the Board 75 years ago this year. Veterans of the festival (back in the day when it was called the Festival of Festivals) will fondly recall that the Canadian film party was hosted by the Board for many years before it was supplanted by the even more extravagant “schmooze” hosted by Moses Znaimer at CityTV. Early festivals premiered many NFB films and that practice continues this year with the launch of two strong documentary features, The Wanted 18 and Trick or Treaty?

Before getting into discussing them, it’s nice to note that TIFF is paying a small tribute on his centenary to the NFB’s first animator, the great Norman McLaren, with the screening of his wonderfully abstract and innovative 3-D piece Around is Around. McLaren was Canada’s first star director, winning an Oscar, a Palme d’Or at Cannes and a Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival for three of his films— Neighbours, Blinkity Blank and Rhythmatic —during his heyday in the 1950s.

Still going strong in her 80s is one of the Film Board’s icons, Alanis Obomsawin. The preeminent First Nation’s filmmaker in the world, she was recruited by the Board in the late “60s and has remained with them for well over 40 years creating a remarkable body of work that has cast a clear light on the injustice system that has created an impoverished way of life for many of Canada’s indigenous peoples. There’s love, wit and passion in Obomsawin’s film—they’re not dry and solely didactic. But it’s fair to say that her films do burn with a righteous anger at the ongoing treatment of her people in this supposedly enlightened country.

Obomsawin’s new film Trick or Treaty? is one of her best documentary features. It takes on a difficult subject, the infamous 1905 Treaty number 9 and the equally nefarious Bill C-45 (proposed and passed by the current Harper administration). She makes these two legal documents relevant to a contemporary film-going audience by placing them in a controversial and newsworthy event, the Idle No More rise-up in 2012 when Chief Theresa Spence of the Attawapiskat nation staged a hunger strike in protest of Harper’s Bill C-45 bill.

Cutting between scenes of the massive demonstrations held in Ottawa with Spence present and talks with other prominent First Nation’s figures—often chiefs—about the pernicious effect of the 1905 Treaty, the NFB’s masterful director dramatizes to what extent politics can affect people. The 1905 Treaty is a notorious example of how an imperialist power and a mega-corporation—Canada, through the British Empire and the Hudson’s Bay company—-manipulated naïve Chiefs to give away the exclusive rights to much of Northern Ontario and parts of Quebec in exchange for more financing for reserves and the reassurance that a partnership would ensue.

One of the few positive effects of the Treaty was that the Federal government couldn’t make decisions about the use of water without Native approval. Bill C-45 massively undercuts that right; hence, the demonstrations. (This is an over simplification of the legal documents but hopefully it captures the spirit of the opposition to them.)

Shot mainly in verité style, Obomsawin’s film reaches a superb peak in a highly pictorial and emotional climax that evokes the power of the land and the claims of First Nation’s peoples to it. (For more, read our new profile of Obomsawin here.)

The Wanted 18 tackles another major topic, the conflict between Israeli authorities and the Palestinians. Set during the first Intifada in the late 1980s, it relates one of those crazy documentary stories that can only work because it’s true. With the Israeli occupation at its height, Palestinians in the West Bank town of Beit Sahour were bereft of dairy products. Town leaders bought 18 cows and set up a collective farm to answer a basic need—to have milk.

The Israelis tried to seize the cows only to find that they’d disappeared into the mountains and rough terrain in the area. Countless attempts proved unsuccessful as the cows and their Palestinian farmers became masters at finding new, inaccessible spots where they could hide—leaving the milk to flow and the Israelis to become angrier and angrier.

This amazing tale is recreated by Palestinian artist Amer Shomali and veteran Canadian doc director Paul Cowan using stop-motion animation, interviews and drawings to illustrate how people can survive nearly anything if they have imagination and faith.

Co-produced with foreign partners and Montreal’s Ina Fichman of Intuitive Pictures, this NFB film is bound to draw attention at the Festival. With its combination of animation, drama and documentary, The Wanted 18 fulfills the NFB’s promise of presenting human rights issues through a diverse set of genres and styles—to properly inform Canada about the world around them. (Click here to read about the making of the film.)

Please visit our TIFF Docs Hub for more reviews and features.