Are the filmmakers whistling in the fields?

34 mins read

When Jacques Bensimon became the Government Film Commissioner and Chairperson of the NFB (National Film Board of Canada) and ONF (Office national du film du Canada) in 2001, he quickly developed a five year plan, which he intended to be the basis of a revitalization of what many Canadians perceived to be a moribund institution. In his self- imposed mandate, Bensimon acknowledged the institution’s decline: “My aim, in the coming years, is to see that creation, excellence and relevance are once again at the core of the institution to which we are all proud to belong.” He noted further that the NFB continued to have a role to play, “as a lighthouse, to permit Canadian audiovisual works to shine around the world, and a responsibility to act as Canada’s cultural conscience.” To get there, Bensimon envisioned the promotion of a production slate that would strengthen the NFB brand,“so that it is easily and clearly understood: films that advance social debate, films that innovate, and films that educate.”

Bensimon’s statements were bold, but fully within keeping of the Film Board’s international reputation. As anyone who travels the planet’s major film festivals knows, in the eyes and ears of many, the National Film Board still stands as one of the most original spots in the world where independent, long-form, and process-oriented documentary, personal vision and artist-driven animation are given preferential treatment. And while its original mandate, to “reflect Canada to Canadians and other Nations” has morphed in the intervening decades, the Board is still the leading public producer of audio-visual projects built on a core expression of pedagogical and socially engaged conscience, reflecting linguistic and cultural diversity, media literacy and one which has championed a multiplicity of aboriginal voices.

Despite its sterling reputation overseas, the National Film Board’s reputation at home is hardly sacrosanct. Storm clouds have been gathering in unprecedented ways even during Bensimon’s innovative reign. The threat to traditional forms of media distribution, including those of the NFB, has grown larger over the past five years. Although the Board has long since shifted from its old approach of screening in church basements, the institution is still reliant on launches in festivals and community centres, niche television broadcasts and DVD sales to educational markets. When millions of viewers can now obtain video from the Internet’s Google owned billion dollar YouTube or through alternative delivery of image bytes on cell phones, it doesn’t take much to imagine film and television producers, public and private alike, questioning the future of the Board.

Further complicating matters is the ongoing ideological contest between the ideals and ideas of public space and those of private ownership. It’s a dispute made more inhospitable in conservative times, like the current one. It’s true that most Canadians continue to support the NFB’s mandate of national, linguistic and cultural preservation and its creative initiatives. But right-wing elements in Canadian society have always been adverse to public support for culture, and they could use this time of technological change and globalization to demand further evisceration of the Board’s funding. Finally, there’s been the occasional and long-standing griping about the Board’s own bureaucracy from within the ranks of the NFB’s usual base of supporters— independent filmmakers and producers, writers and artists—all of whom have critical tales to tell of dealing with or working inside, “the Board.”

This POV interview is a chance for us, and the NFB principals, to reflect upon the original strategic plan, its accomplishments, changes, diversions and setbacks. It gives us the opportunity to see how the NFB has adapted to reality media, new technologies and modes of viewing and distribution. We can begin to assess the role the NFB has in the current era as well as its future. There has been criticism that the NFB has spent too much time, energy and money promoting itself, or on intra-governmental communications, rather than on effectively promoting the films it is producing. POV wondered whether Bensimon’s goal of greater visibility has fared well, nationally and globally. Has the NFB’s online development been successful? Is the Board doing well in international co productions? Has distribution been revitalized? Has the Board been able to nurture new filmmakers? How well have Jacques Bensimon and Tom Perlmutter, his appointed head of the English Production Branch, responded to the changing media and political environments? How successful have they been in implementing the goals set forth in Bensimon’s five year plan? To misquote Stalin’s imperative to Shostakovich, are filmmakers now whistling happy melodies in the fields? POV editor Peter Wintonick sat down with Jacques Bensimon (JB) and Tom Perlmutter (TP) during the recent Toronto International Film Festival to discuss these and other issues.

POV: Self criticism is always a good tenet when creating five year plans. Can you evaluate how successful you’ve been in implementing your mandate over that time?

JB: Let me start with the premise of why we started with a five-year strategic plan. I had decided that the creative juices that feed the NFB would be found out in the street. How do you bring that extra spark into the organization? What the strategic plan articulated was that now a filmmaker could come to the Film Board and be given the keys to the institution and told: ‘OK, what can you do to redesign this organization?’ We decided to go with those points (of the strategic plan), to open up the diversity of filmmaking, to train the younger generation of filmmakers. I felt there was a gap there, that the passing of the baton across generations of filmmakers had not taken place.
When I came to the NFB the silos were like walls, French, English, International, Distribution, and Production, not talking to each other, going towards the same goal at their own speed. We said: ‘that’s it, you’re working together and working for the same goals. You’re defending the same institution.’ We went through maximizing revenues through distribution and we’ve proven that the educational market is growing. We brought in pre-sales, which we weren’t doing at the NFB originally. So that approach and that maturity was missing. And we went on to domestic and international co-productions in a big way, which became a source of money and exchange. Since we wanted to transform the organization to build back to the point where the filmmaker is the centre of every action, it allowed accomplished filmmakers to partner internationally, so we opened up areas where Canada as a country had not excelled before and made agreements with such places like England, France and China.

POV: Jacques, how close does your philosophy adhere to Grierson’s original approach, over sixty years ago? Is he outdated?

JB: I really think that (NFB founder) John Grierson’s philosophy was that of a modern man. He wanted to give a voice to
the voiceless. By doing so, he may not have foreseen a digital universe, but he triggered everything that we face today. With the Challenge for Change in the 70s, we   did try to do that;it was a metamorphosis of Grierson’s spirit.
Social conscience and social engagement are very important. It permeates every pore of the body of the NFB. At the same time, if you’re not careful, you can take that (consciousness) and be so politically correct that you can make very mediocre films. So, it’s the balance between the Griersonian philosophy and the artistic vision and creativity of someone like (the NFB’s universally acclaimed animation genius Norman) McLaren that is essential. That’s the spirit we’ve tried to preserve.

TP: The other part of the social engagement equation is connecting with citizens and the audience. And it’s not just about the filmmaking. It’s also the new processes of doing things. When the Iraq war started, the debate about embedded journalism emerged. We said, ‘let’s put the notion of the embedded filmmaker on its head and be able to do it in our own local situations. So we worked with St. Michael’s Hospital and documentary filmmaker Katerina Cizek. The hospital was interesting because it’s recognized as a pioneer of partnering with inner city communities around such projects as delivering healthcare to the homeless, to HIV populations, the elderly. We’re taking a risk. Part of the creativity is that Katerina, as the Filmmaker in Residence, is going to work with those communities so that they can tell the story, sometimes to each other, sometimes to larger groups. One thing the Film Board can do is give people time and the ability to be immersed. Filmmaking is not about going out there just to vacuum up any old idea, shoot two or three weeks, package it and then throw it out there to entertain people. It should pose a whole set of issues, creatively, ethically, and so on. If a filmmaker says, ‘I’m going to engage myself in a total immersion,’ like a young filmmaker in a project we are supporting who’s going up the Yang Tze river for six months, living within those communities, it’s a level of risk-taking that we can take that few others can.

JB: In the ’70s and ’80s, the Board got deprived of what, in my view, should have been an NFB channel. I think that was a major error in Canadian (regulatory) policy because by depriving the Board of a voice, they were preventing the NFB from pushing the author’s point-of-view in a major way. We would have been a world leader in author-driven point-of- view documentary on television. But in every error, there is a positive side. It meant that we needed to open up to new technologies. When we started to develop the Parole Citoyenne, Citizen Shift websites, it gave us the capacity to bypass the intermediaries and the ability to connect our creators directly to their audience. This is the future of the NFB. We have kept our faith in point-of-view filmmaking, and we’ve carried that into another (digital) universe.

POV: Can you describe for us the kinds of assistance that are being offered to the new generation of filmmakers?

TP: One of our great successes has been the emerging filmmaker programme, which is unique and probably among the best in the world. It’s unique because it has the ability to combine training with hard-core production. Emerging filmmakers come to the program with some kind of training or film school background. We provide environments for them where discipline and time frames are created and controlled. We put together workshops for emerging filmmakers by leading practitioners, and team them with leading craftspeople, cinematographers, editors, and so on. It’s been very successful. There’s a programme in Ontario called Momentum where there’s a week of workshops and we get 120 young filmmakers. We tell them to submit a proposal for a ten- minute film, and we’ll do four of those. But even the ones who don’t get to make a film, leave with a sense of connection to the Film Board, and to filmmaking. Opportunities do open for them. The four films that we do are fabulous. This year one of them went to Sundance. We took that model and worked with young Aboriginals. We called them First Stories and it’s been different because it brings together people who have not been to film school, but they are producing brilliant results. When we work with diverse communities I’m so aware it’s not what we’re doing for them, it’s what they’re doing for us—rejuvenating us, and bringing their talent, perspective and connection. It matters to us, and it matters to Canada to have that point of view available. No one else is going to do that.

JB: Other programmes include aid to the independent sector, helping filmmakers complete their films, to post-produce them and to go on and do what they need to do. The filmmakers these programmes have these supported over the years are a who’s who of Canadian cinema. We invest $1.6 million in that programme, on an ongoing basis. Anywhere from 120 or 200 projects are supported. We said in our strategic plan that 35% of our films will be made by emerging filmmakers. On average now we’re at 50%, and at times it goes beyond that, on the English side in particular. So I think we’ve delivered on that commitment. It will be hard to assess the success of the films, but I think you’re going to feel the impact of that in the next five to ten years. Those filmmakers will be the top-notch directors of this country.

POV: In this new private-public economy, can the NFB continue to play an essential role?

JB: I think with our new initiatives, we’re totally in touch with the Griersonian philosophy. We’re reaching out to the audience in a digital universe, because we want to put a camera in the hands of every citizen. Everybody should be literate in filmmaking. That is one of the basic pillars of the NFB philosophy. Keep moving into the realm of society so that everybody is equipped to communicate, with images, their point of view and be able to exchange with others. But the price to be paid during the last three decades for the NFB, in not having its own channel, is that our brand went underground. The brand of the NFB disappeared …from the church basement, or the synagogue basement, from the community hall. Why? Because it had become a consumer product. And because we’re into quality, because we’re into making gems, you don’t exhibit a gem in a Wal-Mart. And because our production was quantitatively getting lost in the broadcasting universe, we had to find ways to link back. The digital universe and the Internet allow us not only to plug back with Canadian citizens, but also to connect with other citizens, in an instant, internationally. That’s why we developed relationships with like-minded organizations. When we went to see the BBC the first time and when we did the deal with the BBC and the Film Council, we had other ideas in mind. We knew what was coming. When we went to NHK, it was because they had come up with high definition television. We built all the components in order to go into that (digital) universe.

TP: One such strategy is e-cinema. It allows you that flexibility of having screenings in different kinds of venues and connect with rural populations and remote regions as well as niche groups in urban populations. So there are new ways of connecting with audiences, even in a commercial way, with long tail possibilities for distribution. YouTube doesn’t mean the end of that. It means there are new forms. When we get into doing our cell phone movies, it will be driven by the notion of exploring a new medium. In the history of art, an important line is the history of miniatures; we should be thinking cell phones are a new medium instead of trying to compress every image (for that format). When you look at things like MySpace, YouTube, and Grouper, etc, we’re talking about a repeat of the early days in the US of television. But it doesn’t have to be only the US any more, it can be anywhere in the world. These spaces are all under three years old and their value has increased; what’s driving it is the creation of communities and the ability to interact.

JB: The Griersonian vision of every citizen in the country becoming a filmmaker, an actor, an activist, should be driving the philosophy of the NFB in the future. We could be making a film during this interview about our relationship, and it could be broadcast this evening. To me the speed of the process has to be comprehended, harnessed, and strengthened so that you speak the language that the medium gives you. The creation of MySpace or YouTube is giving us the idea that there is an ephemeral quality to these things. They are born, they live, they disappear and move on and reproduce themselves…
POV: Or get bought out.

JB: Or get bought out. The common link in all of this is the creative process, and how can we, in a crass way, be making money out of it in order to make their next film. That is the challenge; so for the time being, we are experimenting. But the beauty of the NFB is that it now has the modernity and the luxury of being allowed to re-invent itself. That was our purpose during the last five years, to reshuffle this place. Now, what was at the bottom of the pyramid, which was the creative process, has come back to the top, and every department—human resources, marketing, distribution—has became part and parcel of the whole, rather than in silos, which is what we inherited here.

POV: Jacques, what happens when your term ends? Has the NFB been organized in such a way that the next team will be able to continue what you and Tom and the rest of your inner group have achieved?

JB: I don’t think anyone is indispensable. But I do think the NFB is indispensable to the ecology of our country and, for that matter, to the world. There is a team of managers around the table who are constantly reflecting and moving forward and updating our strategic plan. It’s now in the genes of the NFB to be part of this forward-looking strategy. Without an on- going search for excellence and innovation, the NFB won’t survive.

POV: What would you like to accomplish before your term as Commissioner is up?

JB: Establish the NFB within the digital universe in every one of its activities. POV Magazine has written articles about the problems of film distribution. Again and again we’ve hit our heads against the wall. If we put in $10 million to establish e-cinemas across the country, we would instantaneously solve the huge problem of making Canadian cinema accessible to our audiences. Holland did it, China and Brazil did it, why can’t we do it?

POV: Tom, what would you like to see continued that has begun in the past five years?

TP: The NFB can trigger things that wouldn’t happen without us. For example, we’re doing cell phone movies in partnership with Bravo!FACT. Now we’re working (on them) internationally. One of the unique perspectives that the Film Board brings is to ask of new media, ‘what’s the grammar?’ Secondly, the NFB brings social content. Thirdly, it asks, ‘is there going to be some kind of economic value?’ in terms of opening doors for Canada internationally. What I’m pushing for is to take something like our Citizen-Shift and ask, ‘how do you make it into some kind of socially engaged MySpace?’ Taking something that is enormously popular and has grown a lot every month, driven by its user engagement, and transform it.

POV: How do you see the NFB as a public institution at this moment?

JB: We’re positioning the NFB to become a totally different agency from the one that we’ve known, one that is forward- looking, ready to embrace what the digital universe is giving us. The NFB is the only agency I know in the country, which is ready to do that. What’s sad about the Canadian audio-visual world is that we’re still fighting yesterday’s battles. What’s confronting us is a mammoth undertaking: either we’re going to survive with the images made by our creators, or we’re going to be swamped and become consumers of other people’s products. And yet the battle (we often find ourselves in) is so microcosmic. (Instead of dealing with the larger issues), it becomes all about the survival of this agency versus the survival of (that) agency. We’ve put the NFB in shape so it could perform in the new digital universe, so now I’m saying to the other agencies, ‘are you up to par? Are you up to speed?’ There’s no doubt that politics and economics get in the way. It’s a part of the world in which we perform; but the pyramid is upside-down. What’s difficult is that (in Canada), we’re rebuilding things in the audio-visual universe in the wrong way. We should be making the creative interests (in our negotiations) the leading force. Our industry is all about deal making, about envelopes. When the NFB, for example, wants to discuss the viability of feature length documentaries, I say, ‘let’s dig deeper into the content, and find how we can refine and gear ourselves towards the narrative form needed for feature films.’ It’s a very complex way of putting a film together. You don’t make a feature simply by extending elastic over a one hour TV film: it’s got its own language, its own set of rules. Nobody’s talking about that. Everybody’s talking about ‘who shouldn’t carry the ball’ and ‘who should inherit the money’ and so on. Filmmaking here has been reduced to this: five main production companies and five distribution companies, at best. We’re not even the equivalent of a major studio in Hollywood. Outside of those companies, English and French, there’s hardly anything. So we should go back to the question with which the NFB, with John Grierson, started in 1939: ‘how do we create a film industry in this country?’ The public dollar has a huge moral value attached to it. How do you use it, how do you access it and how do you funnel it towards the creation of something that will help the citizens of this country and beyond? And those questions are not being asked. Instead, our cultural industries are battling the Canadian flag, and whether filmmakers should have ten points, because if they don’t, they’re not allowed to make anything.

POV: How have the voices and visions of underrepresented groups fared with the NFB over the last five years?

JB: I am the first commissioner since Grierson who wasn’t born in this country. The symbolism behind that is very important for a lot of people (born elsewhere). If we don’t hear their voices, we’re depriving ourselves of an enriched set of experiences. For us, it’s not a cliché. For instance, people are talking a great deal about Islam; well, there are at least ten films coming out of the NFB just on that subject alone. We’ve made sure that we continue to create programmes that invite people to come to the NFB.

TP: What we’re trying to do is define otherness as a Canadian value so that otherness becomes what we are in some fundamental fashion. So it’s turning it inside out and that means constantly challenging any level of comfort.

POV: That’s a truly radical statement to make.

TP: I only think in terms of gut and what I’m driven by. We’re talking about innovation, which comes because of the need to do something or to express something. It’s real…

JB: And you create the conditions for that…

TP: I think it’s important for me and for all of us is to anchor ourselves in some notions of authenticity. That’s driving a lot of it.

POV: What do you feel you haven’t accomplished?

JB: I was not able to get more funding for the NFB. We’ve made money at the NFB, but we haven’t increased our public allocation. We did not accomplish getting the mix of agencies (moving the same way). We knew that, if you re-evaluate the NFB, you also need to re-evaluate the audio-visual landscape in Canada; that if you redesign the NFB you have to have the courage to redesign the whole thing. It’s a domino effect. In five years I had four ministers, and every time I pitched the idea to review this ensemble of agencies so that we could avoid the waste and the duplication that we’re into, and that we’re all conscious of, in order to maximize the value of the public dollar that is invested in all this, I couldn’t do it. We did it within the NFB, but we were not able to influence the other agencies within the ministry.

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