Canada and the Documentary

POV's editor introduces our special Canada 150 issue

23 mins read

“Just as the beaver, the colour red and the Maple Leaf tartan have Parliamentary sanction as our official animal, hue and textile, so should documentary be designated our particularly Canadian cultural form.”


So wrote documentary filmmaker Kevin McMahon in a 2012 National Post op-ed. And indeed, there’s much reason to support this view. It’s not just that Canada produces dozens of excellent documentaries every year; nor is it that Canadians are among the world’s leading documentarians. Neither is it just that events like Hot Docs, RIDM and DOXA are among the best documentary festivals in the world, or that Canadian documentary techniques and interests have been at the vanguard of the form for decades. Documentary is Canada’s national art form because the history of our cinema—and, in important ways, the history of our country—has been written in documentary. If you want to understand the Canadian psyche, you have to watch Canadian documentaries.

This special edition of POV celebrates Canada’s contribution to the documentary. It does so by critically assessing both this country and the art form that we claim as ours. Through two series of articles, we explore the ramifications of two questions: What is Documentary? and What is Canada? In our first section, which you’re presently reading, the idea and history of the Canadian documentary are considered, as is a selection of “Doc Essentials.” The second section frames a discussion of this country through its documentary history. It offers a multifaceted perspective through a set of themed, critical essays; a regional overview of doc productions; and a look at significant communities that make up our national identity.

Documentary cinema and Canada have been intertwined since the first non-fiction feature film Nanook of the North was released in 1922. It’s fascinating to look at Robert Flaherty’s debut documentary feature now and realise how many of the contradictions inherent in the form have been there since the beginning.

Shot in the Canadian north, the American film purports to tell the real-life story of the Inuk (then called Eskimo) Nanook, his wife Nyla and their extended family, who hunt animals with spears and a harpoon. Arriving at a trading post, Nanook hears a gramophone for the first time and is so confused and excited, he tries to bite the record to taste a sound. Eventually, Flaherty’s doc settles down and records scenes of hunting and fishing that have dignity and a sense of authenticity. The building of the igloo, for example, is a lovely scene, although obviously staged by the director. Perhaps the strongest sequence is the ending, where the cold night is evoked, with dogs prowling outside the igloo while wolves howl at the moon and the unrelenting snow blows across the landscape.

It’s long been known that Flaherty, the poetic father of the documentary, wasn’t above embellishing his stories. Nanook’s real name was Allakariallak and Nyla wasn’t his wife. She and another member of Nanook’s imaginary family, Cunayou, were actually Flaherty’s “wives,” whom he abandoned (along with a son) when he departed the North for good in 1922. The real tale of Nanook of the North reveals the potential contradictions in creating a documentary.

After more than a decade in the Canadian North, the neophyte director decided that he wanted to make a film there that was dramatic, not just a travelogue. He did this by creating a story grossly over-emphasising the difficulty the Inuit may have had in getting enough food to eat for the winter. Flaherty decided to create characters to portray his version of their lives. Not only did he hire “Nanook” and his extended “family” to play characters in his film, he got them to stage walrus hunts and fishing expeditions using old hunting equipment that had been long been replaced by the rifle. The Inuit had encountered Canadians for decades; many wore some Western clothing and knew about how records functioned long before 1922.

Documentary film—and, even earlier, photography—entered the world enmeshed in ethical considerations. Should the visual evidence that documentarians put before us be true? When is representation fair if the maker isn’t from the community of the people depicted? Is there a difference between having a point of view and selectively presenting events so that one favours the filmmaker’s opinion? Can any documentarian honestly say, “I presented what genuinely happened?” Is a “higher truth” attainable if the filmmaker deliberately distorts the facts? Advocates of Flaherty evidently believe so—and we will see that other documentarians would alter reality to prove their points in the decades that followed those foundational works.

Documentary is an art form that raises so many questions of conscience that one could just as easily write about it in terms of spirituality as aesthetics or politics, as historians and critics usually do. Certainly, it’s a form that deserves to be appreciated for its inherent power of persuasion—just look at Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will or Nick Ut’s photograph of a naked young Vietnamese girl (now a Canadian woman) running in anguish after being bombed by napalm—and aesthetic power: think of Peter Mettler’s beautifully rendered tracking shot of endless rows of people working in a Chinese factory in Manufactured Landscapes, which mirrored the immersive photography of the film’s subject, Ed Burtynsky, and absolutely fit into the political and artistic design of director Jennifer Baichwal.

After the success of Nanook, documentary production in Canada was quite minimal until 1939. The films shot by the Canadian Government Motion Picture Bureau were travelogues with little artistic merit. The first Quebecois director, George Valiquette, shot three docs for the Canadian government on Arctic Expeditions in 1922, 1923 and 1925. The most noteworthy talent to emerge was Gordon Sparling, who directed the Canadian Cameo series of short docs for Associated Screen News intermittently from 1932 to 1954. His masterpiece Rhapsody in Two Languages (1934) is a city symphony film set in Montreal, which captured the contrasts in an urban environment that embraced the new—flashy cars and a spectacular nightlife—with the old: horse-drawn carts carrying eggs and milk that pass by ancient churches with their aging parishioners.

Then came 1939 and everything changed. On May 2, legislation was enacted that created a National Film Commission (soon renamed the National Film Board), which would “make and distribute films designed to help Canadians in all parts of Canada to understand the ways of living and the problems of Canadians in other parts.” The author of the report that led to the Board’s creation was John Grierson, a feisty Scot who had been hired by Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King to come up with a national film policy. Grierson had coined the term “documentary” to describe Robert Flaherty’s second feature, Moana (1926), in a rave review he wrote at the time of the film’s release.

Soon after that review, the Scottish journalist directed his own eye-catching documentary, Drifters (1929), about the working lives of the British North Sea herring fishermen. Throughout much of the ’30s, Grierson produced classic documentary shorts in England, but, faced with increasing bureaucratic difficulties, he was pleased to come to Canada to become the first Commissioner of the National Film Board (NFB).

During World War II, the NFB grew rapidly. By 1942, “its staff ha[d] grown from forty to five hundred people… [and produced] between three and four hundred films a year,” according to Grierson in his Canadian Affairs article, “A Film Policy for Canada.” One of those films, Churchill’s Island, won the first Academy Award for a documentary short in 1941. Grierson had created two series, Canada Carries On and World in Action — 15-to-20-minute newsreels, which were released in theatres in Canada and abroad. The big success, “World in Action,” which dealt with international issues, (and had produced Churchill’s Island) was regularly shown in 6500 cinemas worldwide.


Churchill’s Island, Stuart Legg, provided by the National Film Board of Canada

Central to Grierson’s aim—and that of the NFB—was to position the documentary as Canada’s way to make an impact in world cinema. “I know that Canada can’t compete with Hollywood,” he wrote in his policy article, “but in the bright new field of national information and civic interest, there is no reason why Canada should not lead the world.” While Grierson’s work was instrumental to the promotion of the documentary as a central cultural and communications bulwark of Canada—and an area where this country would earn global respect—it didn’t mean that he was above manipulating reality.

12 years later, Grierson’s greatest protégé Norman McLaren won another documentary Oscar for the NFB. His film Neighbours (1952) was hardly a documentary, but it’s fascinating to realise that an anti-war parable, shot with actors who are “pixilated” through stop-motion and manipulated camera speeds, could be regarded as “real” by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and deserving of an award.

The NFB’s next big breakthrough was the creation of direct cinema, the precursor of cinema verité. It had a worldwide impact on the documentary. In 1957 and 1958, the first generation of English Canadian filmmakers at the Board—Colin Low, Roman Kroitor and Tom Daly, all of whom worked at Unit B—began to experiment with the use of such lighter-weight portable cameras as the Arriflex and sound equipment that could record dialogue and be synched through editing into the final film. Inspired by the French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson’s seminal book The Decisive Moment (1952), they wanted to capture the drama inherent in everyday life.

At the same time, young Quebecois filmmakers Michel Brault, Gilles Groulx and Marcel Carrière, who were also at the Board, were able to obtain funding for a short film about a snowshoeing festival in Sherbrooke, Quebec. Les raquetteurs (1958) was a success, freeing documentary for the first time in the sound era from the constraints of location shooting and, in particular, sound. That same year, the Unit B team created Candid Eye, a groundbreaking series for CBC-TV. Consisting of 13 documentaries, Candid Eye included such films as The Days Before Christmas, a charming look at Montrealers preparing for the festivities, and The Back-breaking Leaf, a tough look at migrant workers harvesting the tobacco crop in rural Ontario.

Les raquetteurs, Michel Brault & Gilles Groulx, provided by the National Film Board of Canada

Terence Macartney-Filgate, who directed those two Candid Eye films, went down to the U.S. and was, along with D.A. Pennebaker, Albert Maysles and Richard Leacock, a significant member of Robert Drew’s team, which produced Primary (1960), the first American cinema verité film. That same year, Michel Brault was, famously, the key cinematographer on the Parisian documentary Chronique d’un été by Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin, the first feature verité production.

By now, this account approaches the realm of the Canadian documentary history that is written about in this special issue of POV. As editor of this special issue along with my colleagues Pat Mullen and Daniel Glassman, it’s now possible to mix descriptions of the essays in this edition while recounting the complex tale of Canada and the documentary. Martin Delisle, for example, covers Brault — Les raquetteurs and the verité feature Brault co-directed with Pierre Perrault, Pour la suite du monde (1963) — in his account on Quebecois documentaries. The two films are featured as Doc Essentials in the selection which offers a précis of each one chosen. The “essentials” aren’t comprehensive, but they offer a sampling of some of the great documentaries that have been made here.

The NFB continued to make signal contributions to the art of cinema and the discourse surrounding film practice throughout the ’60s and ’70s. IMAX’s widescreen technology came as an outgrowth of In the Labyrinth (1967), the immersive multi-and-wide screening experience created by Roman Kroitor, Colin Low and Hugh O’Connor for Montreal’s World’s Fair. Kroitor went on to co-invent IMAX, and one of our “essentials,” Graeme Ferguson’s North of Superior (1971), was the first film screened at Ontario Place’s Cinesphere, the world’s first permanent IMAX movie theatre. By contrast, Low went lo-tech, working with the community of Fogo Island, Newfoundland on a far-reaching Film Board project, Challenge for Change. Ezra Winton, in his article on political documentaries, and Darrell Varga in his piece on Atlantic Canada’s doc history refer to the radical aspect of Challenge for Change, in which the documentarian shares responsibility for the final film with the people portrayed.

In the 1970s, the Film Board created Studio D, the first national feminist film production unit in the world. Although the studio ran into internal political difficulties at the NFB, it’s fair to point out that Canada was the first country to embrace feminist documentary-
making in such an extensive way. Kiva Reardon’s essay “Unfinished Business”: examines Studio D and its complicated history, which anticipated the recent commitment to gender parity in film production by the NFB.

Reardon’s piece is part of a segment in this issue that explores identity politics. The Governor General of Canada endorsed multiculturalism, as a national principle, as early as 1935. It was finally passed into law in 1988 and certainly defines this country as being respectful of the other, in terms of ethnicity, class and gender. Other articles in this section, that examine Canadian identity through documentary, are: a survey of documentary films by Black Canadians by Perry King; Asian-Canadians by Allan Tong; and the LGBTQ community by Matthew Hays.


Since the 1970s, there’s been a vast growth of the arts throughout Canada. Co-ops abounded particularly in the ’70s and financing for independent filmmaking grew thanks to Telefilm Canada (originally the Canadian Film Development Corporation), the Canadian Media Fund (previously the Canadian Television Fund), the NFB (with its regional outreach plan) and provincial arts councils. POV has a special segment on the growth of docs in the regions, thanks to the efforts of David Spaner (B.C.), Jordan Kinder (Alberta), Alex Rogalski (Saskatchewan), Kevin Nikkel (Manitoba), Adam Nayman (Ontario), Martin Delisle (Quebec) and Darrel Varga (Atlantic Canada).


It must be noted that a major factor in the growth of independent documentaries in English Canada is the Documentary Organization of Canada (DOC). Although Adam Nayman does refer to DOC in his Ontario article, it can’t be over-emphasised that the fighting spirit of documentarians across the country has not only produced films of great artistry and content, but that the organisation has fought ceaselessly to ensure that the financing and distribution of Canada’s documentaries is still a priority.

POV commissioned essays on major aspects of the Canadian documentary. Vincenzo Pietropaolo’s The Canadian Documentary Photography Scene covers photographic practice in this country for over 150 years. Andrew McIntosh’s Boots on the Crowned examines this country’s imperial roots and speaks movingly of the Indigenous historical narrative. Ezra Winton’s “Unsettling the Nation” offers a highly detailed survey of radical documentary discourse in this nation. Pat Mullen’s North of Hollywood is an engaging look at Canadian docs about art and artists. Liam Lacey’s The World Before Us examines the role that Canadian values play when docs are made by our citizens examining the world.


In Daniel Glassman’s Conceptual Docs, the varying forms of the documentary are examined, from the NFB’s Arthur Lipsett through artists Jack Chambers and Michael Snow, finally ending up with three of this issue’s “doc essentials,” Guy Maddin’s My Winnipeg (2007), Peter Mettler’s Picture of Light (1994) and Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell (2012). A through-line in this essay is the way documentary has changed shape and ethical form over the past century. This issue has been named after Polley’s film, which takes the stance that the use of dramatic and fictional elements in documentary is legitimate if it serves to convey the complex truth of the situation. Polley’s doc also emphasises the value in telling our own stories, a point with which we agree in sharing these Canadian perspectives.

Vivian Belik’s essay, Our Complicated Romance with the North is a personal look at what the North has meant to her as a “Southerner” from Winnipeg. For many Canadians, the North is our original site, the place where surveyors stayed alive to document this country’s most rugged environment. While some will argue that climate change has altered the land of the Inuit, it’s still the focal point for our identity. Returning to that land, almost a century after Nanook, it’s heartening to see such films by Inuit as Alethea’s Arnaquq-Baril’s Angry Inuk (2016) and Zacharias Kunuk’s docs and features. In a mirror image of Flaherty’s film, can we not claim Atanarjuat (2001) as a story, within an oral tradition, that is a document of Inuit culture? As the documentary and Canada’s place in it evolves over the years, it may be necessary to extend our definitions of documentary and the presentation of the truth.


Marc Glassman is the editor of POV Magazine and contributes film reviews to Classical FM. He is an adjunct professor at Toronto Metropolitan University and is the treasurer of the Toronto Film Critics Association.

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