When Tanya Tree happened upon the Bailey family in 1966, she thought she’d found just what she needed. Then 22, she had but one film under her belt (The Merry Go Round), when she ventured to take on the challenge of making a film that would expose the issue of poverty for the NFB.
The result, The Things I Cannot Change, drew immediate praise for its intimate, powerful cinema verité portrait of Kenneth and Gertrude Bailey, as they struggled against the world and tried to feed nine children (ten by the end of the film, as Gertrude would give birth on camera—a first for a national broadcast). But in retrospect, critics charged that Tree had shown grave indifference to the Baileys, and that her ostensibly progressive film had done them irreparable harm. Kenneth Bailey said as much in the sequel, Courage to Change (1986), in which he actually blamed his alcoholism on the first film.
In a 2010 interview, Tree told author Brenda Longfellow that the charges against her and the films were “bullshit,” but the films remain as cautionary tales for documentary filmmakers, rife with pioneering mishaps of exploitation and voyeurism, despite the best of intentions. And the first film became the launch point for the NFB’s epic Challenge for Change programme.
Later in life, Tree became a font of knowledge for those wishing to examine the NFB’s glory days. In documentaries focussing on the lives of Oscar nominees Ryan Larkin and Arthur Lipsett, she provided valuable insight into the Board’s most innovative and experimental period.
Tree’s own filmmaking slowed down over time, and that’s too bad, given that the films she did make have proven so enduring. I still screen The Things I Cannot Change and Courage to Change in my film classes at Concordia, and they never fail to ignite passionate responses and debates among the students. They hearken back to a time when cameras were not ubiquitous, and when filmmakers—and their government backers—dared to think they could solve a problem as epic as poverty.