An anthology celebrates the NFB’s Challenge for Change documentaries.

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Thanks to the National Film Board, Canada has had considerable influence on the evolution of documentary filmmaking. One of the most significant movements within the NFB was their Challenge for Change/Société nouvelle series (1967–80), which aimed to marry new doc filmmaking techniques with progressive politics.

Challenge for Change: Activist Documentary at the NFB of Canada (McGill- Queen’s Press, pb, 576 pages, $34.95), co-edited by Concordia film studies prof Tom Waugh and doctoral students Michael Brendan Baker and Ezra Winton, is an epic examination of this movement, including meditations on a broad range of the CforC/SN films and examines their ongoing influence and legacy. The book offers up some excellent assessments of the films in focus, including Brenda Longfellow’s fascinating look back at The Things I Cannot Change, the 1967 doc about a poor Montreal family, the Baileys, which has long been held up as an example of exploitative filmmaking (a bit of conventional wisdom that Longfellow challenges). The book also reads like a veritable who’s who of Canuck documentary filmmaking, including Colin Low, Dorothy Todd Hénaut, Kathleen Shannon, Irene Angelico, Tanya Ballantyne Tree, Katerina Cizek, George Stoney and Bonnie Sherr Klein, among many others (Klein’s daughter, Naomi, supplies the book’s foreword).

The idea for the book began during a film-studies seminar conducted by Waugh at Concordia. “Our entire class went out and interviewed CforC/SN filmmakers and produced over a dozen videotaped conversations with iconic NFB alumni,” Baker recalls. “These were subsequently transcribed, edited and compiled for a book project, until responses from several publishers made it clear that an interview book on the subject wasn’t really viable.”

Waugh and Baker pushed ahead with the idea of a volume on the subject, given the films’ international renown and influence. “These films were a known entity within Canada because of the reach of the NFB’s non-theatrical distribution and the broadcast of several entries on CBC, but its profile really grew as time went on and filmmakers from around the world gained access to the films,” notes Baker. “It’s not an overstatement to say that CforC/SN served as a how-to guide for activist filmmakers the world over.”

Waugh says the CforC/SN films were part of a Cancon explosion of a specific period. “The years from the mid-’60s to 1980 were very exciting for Canadian cinema, not only because the government launched the Canadian Film Development Corporation in 1968. We were fascinated because the state was also funding a coast-to-coast experiment in the use of radical documentary on the grass-roots level to empower communities and change society. This may have been Utopian, but the legacies of resilient, angry and resourceful citizens’ voices, or artists using 16mm and new portable video to enable change—from the Mohawk reserve of Akwesasne to Fogo Island, Nfld., are stirring and illuminating in themselves.”

Winton says that “the most gratifying thing about working on this book for the past three years has been seeing an otherwise overlooked important media moment in Canada’s history brought to the surface in the form of the book. As well, the NFB’s website now allows viewers to stream many of the films on computers. CforC/SN is a precursor to current social media and it is doubtful that many in the YouTube generation are knowledgeable about the program. I’m very excited that we’ve helped to ensure this incredibly dynamic initiative is not only remembered, but discussed in the current moment of social media and documentary popularity.”

Waugh adds that the films were inherently optimistic, in their bids for progressive social change: “If we can recycle this era of passionate commitment and artistic conscience, I think it will feed into the current renewal of the documentary and the dream of media democracy.”

A long-time contributing editor at POV, Hays teaches film studies at Marianopolis College and Concordia University. His articles on documentary have appeared in Cineaste, The Globe and Mail, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Toronto Star.

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