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Tool for social change


Canada's National Film Board has used documentary films to give a voice to the voiceless.


MICHAEL MOORE gave the documentary a new status when "Bowling for Columbine" picked up an Oscar and "Fahrenheit 9/11" drew critical acclaim. But documentaries have been around for much longer. In fact, the documentary has long been acknowledged as a form that provides the filmmaker the opportunity to use creativity even while recording real events.

Documentaries can range from the mundane and pedantic to the most inspiring and moving works. Unlike feature films, most documentary filmmakers struggle to find the finance for their films. Rarely are there private sources available. Countries best known for documentaries are also those with publicly funded organisations that extend help to such filmmakers.

Exploring difficult subjects

Canada is one country that has been known for the quality of its documentaries. And the institution that has underwritten this excellence is its National Film Board (NFB). It acts as producer, director and distributor and has afforded an opportunity for thousands of documentary filmmakers from around the world to explore subjects that would otherwise be hard to fund.

The NFB has agreed to fund Mira Nair of "Monsoon Wedding" fame for her documentary on the Beatles in India, said Tom Perlmutter, Director General of the NFB's English Language programme. We were discussing the role of documentaries on the sidelines of the World Urban Forum that was held in Vancouver, Canada in June.

Founded in 1939 through an Act of Parliament, the NFB is a federal cultural agency that is part of the Canadian Heritage Department. It describes itself on its website ( as "a unique production centre that promotes citizen involvement and expression. With production focusing on documentary and auteur animation, it promotes the exploration of major contemporary social issues with an emphasis on diverse, hard-hitting, point-of-view films."

The NFB has been instrumental in the production of thousands of documentaries, many of them outstanding ones that have collected international awards. Perlmutter says that today they have a film archive of 11,000 documentaries and 4,500 of these films have received prestigious awards. One of the latest was the animated short film, "Ryan" which won the Academy award in the category in 2004.

Two recent NFB documentaries stand out for the subjects they have attempted to tackle. The most recent is "ScaredSacred" directed by award-winning filmmaker Velcrow Ripper. It is a film that travels around the world to "ground zeros" in Cambodia, Afghanistan, Bhopal, New York, Bosnia, Hiroshima, Israel and Palestine. Another film that has drawn a great deal of appreciation is "No More Tears, Sister: Anatomy of Hope and Betrayal" by Helene Klodawsky. It is based on the life of Sri Lankan human rights activist Dr. Rajani Thirangama who was assassinated at age 35. The film travels with Nirmala, Rajani's sister, to Sri Lanka where she returns after 15 years. Through rare archival footage the film "explores the price of truth in times of war." Perlmutter says that the film has had a great impact and that the filmmaker managed to get Rajani's family to speak on film for the very first time.

What motivated the NFB to support the making of such films, which touched on relevant and controversial subjects? Perlmutter explained that the first commissioner of the NFB was John Grierson, considered the "father of documentaries". Grierson was the founder of the British Documentary Movement in the 1930s and is credited with having coined the term "documentary". He was convinced that the documentary could be used as a tool for social change. In the 1960s and 1970s, the NFB initiated a programme called "Challenge for Change" which, explains Perlmutter, was "about using media for social transformation". This coincided with the evolution of video technology that made it easier to work with different communities in training them to use film and "giving voice to the voiceless".

Engage with communities

Hard-hitting and relevant: Stills from "No More Tears, Sister: Anatomy of Hope and Betrayal"

Not everyone was convinced about this concept of the documentary, Perlmutter acknowledges. There was often a tussle, he said, between filmmakers who wanted to make a film themselves on a community and community activists who felt that the control of the content of the film should remain with the community.

Also, he emphasised, "socially relevant" films did not mean that they were not beautiful or technically of a high standard. But, he says, "there's a danger of objectifying people in the sense of being issues as opposed to being human beings". Issues emerge out of engagement with communities, he says. This is what the NFB has found in its work with Canada's indigenous communities. As a result, indigenous people are now creating their own programmes and making their own films.

One of the more creative of these initiatives was showcased at the World Urban Forum. Based in eastern Canada, it is called Wapikoni Mobile. It is an initiative of the well-known Canadian filmmaker Manon Barbeau and is supported by the NFB. It consists of a mobile film and music production studio that has been making the rounds of Quebec's aboriginal communities. It trains potential filmmakers and gives them a chance to make their own films which are then uploaded onto their website ( .

One of the films is called " Night Runners" ("Coureurs de Nuit"), a stylish short film made by an indigenous group from the Wemotaci Nation. They narrate how as young people, because they had nothing to do, they would run for fun and to exhaust themselves. They did not run to hunt, like their forefathers did. Yet, the say, "we were the hunted", by the police, who could not accept such behaviour. The young people never stole, never vandalised anything, and disturbed only their own parents. Still, the police chased them. In a five-minute film, they are able to convey the relationship between the indigenous communities and the State.

The latest and quite unique endeavour of the NFB is what Perlmutter, calls its "citizen engagement project". This is an online project where the NFB supports Homeless Nation ( to run a site where the homeless and marginalised speak through video about their lives and views. Instead of someone else telling their story, they tell their own. The objective, they state, is "to reverse stereotyping, to empower the street community to undertake their own representation, and to foster a national dialogue around the most serious social problem facing us today: homelessness".

Has any of this had an impact on the way mainstream media depicts the indigenous people and other marginalized communities? Perlmutter believes there has been an impact. The films made by the NFB are shown on the Canadian Broadcasting Service (CBC) and other networks. In addition the NFB organises community screenings of the films.

At the end of the day, what matters is that a public institution is creating the space for filmmakers to present views, issues, ideas that might not otherwise see the light of day. Despite being a part of the Federal Government of Canada, what is unique about the NFB is that it has escaped government interference. As a result, it is able to back the making of documentary films that are the most effective archive of contemporary history and thought. Such a contribution is invaluable not just for Canada but also for the rest of the world.

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