The POV Interview: Tom Perlmutter

34 mins read

When Tom Perlmutter was selected to be the chair and Film Commissioner of the National Film Board (NFB) last spring, he declared a passionate commitment to what he feels is “one of the most vital cultural institutions in the world.” That intense loyalty to the Board, mixed with a clear cool analytical sense, marks Perlmutter as an individual who is uniquely qualified to run an organization that has encountered many changes in the past decade. Financial cuts hurt the Board tremendously in the ’90s and it was only due to the acumen of Jacques Bensimon, Perlmutter’s predecessor and first employer at the NFB, that the venerable body has righted itself.

Now, Perlmutter, who was Director-General of English Programming during Bensimon’s regime, is heading an institution that still has to deal with its own identity and purpose in an age when digital technology, private sector incursions and a Conservative government are providing fresh challenges. As an NFB veteran and a former producer of documentaries at such vibrant companies as Barna-Alper and Primitive Entertainment, Perlmutter must use his considerable skills as a savvy negotiator, creative thinker and bilingual communicator to skipper his formidable documentary ship through troubled waters.

Will Perlmutter be up for the difficulties that lie ahead? Speaking to the NFB Commissioner, it’s clear that he’s ready to take on any fights that might come his way. Here, surely, is a man with a plan. And like Bensimon, but unlike most previous Commissioners, Perlmutter’s vast experience producing work in the private as well as public sector makes him truly a “filmmaker in residence.” In this interview, Perlmutter talks frankly about his aspirations for the NFB.

TP: Tom Perlmutter
MG: Marc Glassman, editor of POV

MG: How do you manage the expectations that the independent doc-making sector has in a time when the NFB has less resources?

TP: The starting point has to be a very clearly articulated sense of what the NFB’s mission is and what we should be doing. I think there has not been enough clarity about that in the past and that’s led to a whole set of expectations, including the question, ‘how do I get in?’—as opposed to someone else.

So, number one—clarity of goals. Secondly, I’ve asked the English and French programme to do a few things, which will be subject to a more intense consultation process with the independent sector. Be a lot clearer about the criteria and the process in terms of how things get done at the Board. Put together an arrangement, a client charter, of what that process would look like, what the response time should be, how things get decided, and so on and so forth.

MG: You spoke eloquently at Whistler about the NFB’s brand and the institutional mandate that goes back more than sixty-five years. Is that, in fact, still the mission?

TP: For me the Board is about the imaginative re-visioning of a country, fundamentally. It’s about the place where through creative engagement with the audio-visual media there’s a possibility of exploring things that are just not possible elsewhere. The actual Act, the legislated mandate, talks about reflecting Canada to Canadians and the world; the language itself may seem passive. ‘What we’re doing is we’re just holding this mirror and you’re going to see yourself.’ Actually it’s a lot more dynamic.The moment you hold up a mirror, it’s a dynamic act. There’s a relationship going on. There’s a dialogue.

In terms of the creative engagement, it’s about positive transformation. It’s a process, particularly in Canada, driven by a country that demographically, in terms of its ethnic base and considerations about its aboriginal population, is constantly shifting, in a media-driven universe that’s also in profound transformation. We have in the NFB a public sector institution that is both aware of and driven by the notion that we can be one key fibre in managing this transformation, allowing a nation to engage in a creative reflection about what it is. That’s tremendously powerful to me.

MG: Should the NFB consider transforming itself into a post-graduate institution that would employ young filmmakers, who would be driven to deal with those issues that you just articulated?

TP: I would be very much against that.

MG: Why?

TP: Once you define your self as a learning institution, you’ve cut yourself off from what is essential about everything I’ve talked about, which is the active, engaged process of producing something in a creative way. To limit it just to emerging filmmakers is a whole ghettoisation. You’re not allowing for the nurturing and transformative possibilities of engagement, of making and allowing creative communities to interact. And there’s nowhere else besides the Board that is going to allow experienced filmmakers, in a consistent way, to engage in a kind of laboratory of creation and reflection.

MG: As the NFB does?

TP: Yes.

MG: The Board is, as you say, in the unique position of producing point of view documentaries, allowing on occasion senior directors to do very innovative and challenging work. But in many cases, you have to work with broadcasters on co-productions. Does that diminish expectations for those productions?

TP: That’s been part of the problem in the past. We’ve allowed our sense of that mandate and mission to be diluted for operational reasons and that damages the Board and the industry. Allowing people occasionally to experiment is fundamental to me. It’s my consistent message internally that we have to be original, and not just for the sake of originality. But we’re not there to create a mould and then be able to say, ‘okay, we’ve created this formula. We can now repeat it.’ That’s the beauty and the challenge of the NFB.

We’ve done a Filmmaker in Residence program at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto. [ residence/] It’s an amazing project that, with Challenge for Change, creates community engagement in a 21st century way. It’s one that has spanned all sorts of worlds by giving a reality to and a voice to disadvantaged people [by embedding filmmakers democratically in an inner city situation]. It has won all sorts of creative awards in the world of new media and at the same time has been written up in the Canadian Medical Association Journal.

Now, we’re looking at what’s next. What’s next is not ‘how do we replicate this in other communities?’ We absorb lessons, but we keep pushing envelopes.

As a public institution we have an enormous responsibility having tax payer dollars. It’s absolutely incumbent on us to push ourselves to the furthermost reaches in terms of risk taking. Interms of being able to open doors. In terms of achieving that level of mission.

Now how does this relate to broadcasters as co-producers? We have to be very clear. When we’re going to engage in a project with a co-producer or a broadcaster, we can’t compromise on our mission. Can we work together to create something? At the end of the day may be the broadcaster needs a shorter version, but our starting point needs to have that creative drive.

I’ll give you a couple of examples where broadcasters have joined us in the risk-taking. We worked with Barna-Alper and History Television on The Dark Years, a history of the Great Depression, which was broadcast as three one-hours for a history documentary series. From the first we were trying a different kind of narrative structure that wasn’t the traditional A-Z of a particular era. More interestingly, we had proposed and pushed through the notion of ‘let’s do this first ever history series in animation.’

That’s an enormous risk. It was a big risk for History Television to break their boundaries. The reason we got involved and the reason I was really keen on it was because we were engaging in a fundamental look at a history that had relevance to today. It wasn’t distant from us. So all of these things meld and you say, ‘we were able to work together in consensus but not in compromise.’

We worked with Bob Culbert at CTV on a feature doc with David Paperny based on William Sampson’s book Confessions of an Innocent Man, and you know, Bob needed his one hour TV version, and we were interested in a theatrical feature documentary. Bob was terrific. He understood our needs and told us what he needed. Editorially, he brought a whole lot of smarts to that process which made things work. And I think that the film was stronger for the collaboration.

MG: You were a key figure in the Jacques Bensimon regime at the NFB as Director – General of the English programme, but now you’re your own man. What’s your assessment of the years with Jacques?

TP: I was completely committed to the vision that Jacques and we as senior management had put in place. I’m not sure I could have done what Jacques had to do when he came in. That was a tougher job, frankly. When I arrived at the Board in December 2001, I did a tour of the country.There was a sense elsewhere that the NFB had disappeared. And a sense of ‘where had it gone?’ My read of it was that the NFB as an institution was still in a state of post-traumatic shock. It had gone through these enormous budget cuts in ’96, losing half of its staff. The enormous cuts had affected what it was able to offer and deliver.

There wasn’t awareness—externally or internally—of how profound an impact that has when you take a knife so deeply to an institution. People reacted by saying, ‘well, we’re still the same institution even though we’ve been so seriously hacked.’ And I had this image of Monty Python’s Black Knight. You know the routine: his limbs keep being chopped off and he keeps insisting on being the knight. He’s going to keep fighting as opposed to saying ‘well, I’m going to be a different kind of entity.’ In a sense, the Film Board has been like that.

When I arrived the NFB had closed its libraries. It had closed a lot of its connections to Canadians. The strategy was ‘we can reach Canadians by being on television.’ And the Board was very successful in terms of being on television. But the unintended consequence was that once you go on television, you become anonymous. You disappear. There’s nothing that sets you apart from the flow of product. And that was a problem.

What Jacques brought to this place was a sense of ‘Okay, you’ve been through the shock, but let’s wake up. Let’s remake this place. Let’s assert what is utmost and precious about the Board and what is necessary both for this place and for this country culturally.’ And he put it on the map again. He extended and created all of those international connections, which have been absolutely tremendous. There was a level of energy and engagement that was terrific. But it was a starting point.You know, to do a profound transformation you’re looking at processes that may take five to 20 years. That’s what I feel is my responsibility, to take it now to that next level of things.

MG: And what is that next level of things?

TP: With the programming we’re doing, be a lot more honed and precise in terms of the Board’s mission. There are five key areas. One has to do with our emerging filmmaker programmes. This is working and creating programs that are effective—and cost-effective as well. We position ourselves at that place after the schools in terms of becoming fully engaged as a creative author in the world of audio-visual. The things we’ve done have been the best in the world, such as Hothouse in animation and momentum and soon. [ help.php]

Second, our community engagement programme. Working in that kind of revitalized Challenge for Change model. And again, no one can do this but the NFB because there’s no economic model for it. And yet, the level of innovation that comes out of it, the level of engagement, the social positions it allows for, and the creative voices that otherwise just would not get heard—well, it’s enormously important.

Thirdly, there are the major risk-taking projects. Whether it’s feature documentaries, animation, new media projects, we should always push and say, ‘what is distinctive? What new doors are we opening? In what ways are we doing things that bear that stamp of the NFB?’ And that stamp should change from a traditional view of the Film Board as being somewhat worthy and didactic to something that is constantly surprising and exciting.

Number four is getting engaged in projects of national interest and importance. We’ve recently announced the range of things we’re doing for the 400th anniversary of Quebec. And this allows us to play on the national stage in a different kind of way. It means we take the responsibility of being a cultural voice for Canada and an integrated voice, all the time never letting go of the fundamental notion that we’re creators. One of the lead projects we’re doing is with the Museum of Civilization in Quebec City. We’re doing a twenty-minute film about Samuel De Champlain. We’ve got Jean-Francois Pouliot to direct it.

MG: Yes, excellent director. Seducing Doctor Lewis (Le grand seduction) did well across Canada.

TP: And we’re doing a completely experimental mixture of live action, animation, documentary and stereoscopy with him. Pouliot doesn’t need to do this, but what excites him is the creative potential and possibilities we’re offering. Now, we’re in discussions with the Vancouver Olympic committee, about engaging Canadians in a cultural Olympia.

And the fifth thing is our collection. We have treasures that belong to Canada and the world. Jacques led the initiative and had the brilliant notion of doing the McLaren DVD box set. Well, that was tremendous. We’re having a serious look at how we can give back to the world these treasures of our past. Doing the McLaren or as we’re doing now, the collected works of Alanis Obomsawin. There’s a tremendous amount of work involved in remastering films and in terms of creating new texts and graphics. I would like to see us do things more immediately—not take four years—and create an NFB Classics label where we’d be able to put out wonderful animation and docs. You know, have Lonely Boy and Paul Tomkowicz and the Unit Band Studio D stuff out there.

MG: The Board seems to be more than dipping its toe into new technologies. I noticed that the Filmmaker in Residence website won a Canadian New Media Award, for instance. Do you see the NFB moving more in that direction?

TP: Well, it’s really about the consistent value of exploring our world through media. And new media, whether it’s web based or in other kinds of platforms, is part of that. Why would we restrict ourselves? For us, it’s about bringing those fundamental values of social engagement and creativity and authenticity to that world and saying ‘How do we engage with it? ’We’re in an audio-visual world that’s in profound transformation. And I want us to be ahead of those waves of transformation rather than trailing behind five years later.

MG: What would you say if the Conservatives said to you, ‘Tom, why are we giving money to the NFB when we have a vigorous private sector producing, distributing and broadcasting work? ’What is your response? What is your argument for them?

TP: I was asking myself that question when I came here, and I ask myself that everyday because I have to keep myself focused. And the answer is laid out in terms of continuity in the institutions that make up the fabric of the country. You have to have some sense of values. That’s certainly true for a Conservative government that anchors itself in the notion of family values.

You don’t have a family without a sense of continuity in your values. And that’s what the Film Board brings in terms of the larger family, which is the nation. Canadians have invested in this institution for 70 years, and if I’m asked whether we are still valuable, I say, ‘Yes, because the NFB is continually redefining and re-interpreting itself while bringing a level of distinctiveness to the Canadian cultural fabric.’ The value of the brand, in and of itself, domestically and internationally, is phenomenal. We’ve had, since I’ve been here, five Oscar nominations out of the English programme. Four in four years. I mean, that’s utterly remarkable. It says to the world, ‘this country is exciting, interesting and worth thinking about.’ Not simply in the domain of the audio-visual but in the largest possible sense.

And finally I have to say that there’s a responsibility for any government to nurture the institutions that are central to the nation and to be able to say, ‘this is our responsibility. We are here as stewards of the Canadian people and we have to make sure that their institutions remain vibrant.’

MG: Are there enough jobs for women in Canadian film? Should there be more women making documentaries?

TP: It’s been something of great interest and concern to me, from early on in my arrival here at the Board. Since I was the head of the English programme, I’ve looked at what that balance was internally. Overall we’ve done a very good job in ensuring parity within the Board. It wasn’t enough for me because one of the other observations I had was , while we had the women filmmakers, we still hadn’t pushed farther in terms of having a more fully engaged women’s point of view or, if you will, a feminist point of view.

I had discussions with [Virage producer] Monique Simard about various projects and I said, ‘what I’d really like to do is take Judy Rebick’s book Ten Thousand Roses on the history of feminism; can we adapt that? Because I think it’ simportant.’ And she said ‘yes,’ so with her, we’ve optioned the book and we’re proceeding with it. We went through a process of finding a new generation of women filmmakers to take on the project and bring a new perspective to it.

MG: Have you ever considered the possibility of offering veteran filmmakers, or even emerging filmmakers who’ve done one successful film—like a Yung Chang, for example, a two or three picture deal, where they’d get a chance to work with the Film Board over a period of six to seven years?

TP: Yes. In fact, I’ve been having discussions exactly like that. Yung did his first film, a short, for the Board and I remember when I saw that, how impressed I was by the qualities that became even more evident in Up the Yangtze. I have also been thinking more and more about veteran filmmakers. When you have really talented people who struggle and continually say, ‘What’s the next project?’, I think that’s a problem. Secondly, I’m very keen to create a sense that we have documentary stars. And being able to think ‘how can we build careers’ rather than say ‘Okay, this is a great project’ to one film and when offered the next one, say, ‘Well, no I don’t care for that.’ How do you create a relationship that allows you to support a filmmaker and have a retainer vote of some sort and develop things and be able to ask,‘Well, what should that next film be?’ We’re having discussions with a number of filmmakers exactly along those lines.

MG: I’m wondering if you have something to say about the process and the hiring of Cindy Witten to essentially take the job that you used to have as the new head of English Programmes at the Board.

TP: I had very clear requirements. You want someone who has a level of creative imagination and vision for that endeavor—and a strong strategic sense. Because you’re managing some twenty-odd million dollars and a hundred staff, you need somebody who knows how to manage. I saw all of that in Cindy, frankly. What I saw was someone who with in a very commercial situation [at Alliance Atlantis and History Television], was driven by bottom line goals, was able to deliver on financial and structural requirements while at the same time remain passionately committed to giving filmmakers room to flourish within that environment.

MG: Can we indulge in a blue-sky moment? What would be the best possible outcome of your reign as NFB Commissioner?

TP: I want the NFB to be recognized as the kind of place that everyone looks up to and says, ‘If I could work with the Film Board, that would be the epitome of creative heaven,’ that they’d feel ‘I’ve arrived somewhere,’ if they worked with us.The work produced here would always be remarkable—or close to it. There’d be a level of expectancy where people would say, ‘Oh! There’s an NFB film coming out. I must go see it!’ That would be success on the production side.

On the other side, which is also absolutely central and crucial, and is taking a lot of energy and drive now, is the issue of accessibility. We have to make our films a lot more accessible to Canadians in the next five years—and hopefully much sooner. And there’s a whole range of strategies, some of which we will be announcing later this year, in terms of what we’re doing. We launched in early January a digital cinema project in five francophone communities in Atlantic Canada. We’re going to see how that evolves. We’d love to roll that out nationally, if we can find the financing.

My objective is to have a constant and fully engaged presence with Canadians. And that’s very different from just being available on television. We need a digital strategy. This country doesn’t have one. I need to find money to digitize the collection and to put in place the whole thinking around what a digital strategy could be. The British government gave the BFI [British Film Institute] 25 million pounds in September for digitization. The French government gave substantial funding to their national audio-visual institute for that purpose. The Dutch published a national strategic plan for digitization.

MG: Would you consider that strategy not just for the NFB, but also for the heritage of the CBC and some independents as well?

TP: We need a national strategy that includes all of this. The National Archive did publish a paper in October around digital strategies, but their focus was very much in terms of digitizing documents. We need something that brings together all of these institutions. It’s about preservation, obviously. But it’s also about an economic future.

We need two other things to support those two key pillars of programming [films] and accessibility. One is, the structure of the NFB needs to shift. What does it mean to have a creative organization for the 21st century? What’s the model of that? How do you structure things, given the changing nature of the industry? How do you make the Film Board a more decentralized, less hierarchical, more vibrant institution? It’s an amazing place. The people here have passion, commitment, talent and lots of strengths. I just want to see it all being better used.

Finally, financing is utterly central to our concerns. We’re in a creative renewal mode while in deep financial compression. I mean, we’ve been losing purchasing power significantly over the past ten years. We’re not indexed. The NFB is eroding quite substantially and we need to find solutions to that, and yet what we’ve actually achieved has been tremendous. But we’re reaching a point where we can’t go on like this. We’re going to have to make some tough choices in terms of what we can do in the short term and look at what the solutions into the future are.

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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