One of the special Oscars being handed out at Wednesday night’s Academy Awards will go to the National Film Board of Canada, and none of the night’s honors will be more deserved.
The board will celebrate its 50th anniversary in May. It began life in an abandoned sawmill in Ottawa in 1939, the brainchild of John Grierson, a pioneer documentary maker from Scotland.
Then as now the tradition of government support for the arts was frail and, in the case of motion pictures, virtually non-existent. The exception, in those days on the verge of World War II, were countries where movies were a state-controlled arm of propaganda.
Grierson’s original brief said that the film board should be “the eyes of Canada,” showing Canada to Canadians and to the rest of the world. During the war, the board’s work inevitably centered on home-front morale and public service, but it has always been resolutely, if tactfully, independent.
As early as 1941, Grierson persuaded a fellow Scot, a young animator named Norman McLaren, to come to Ottawa from New York (for $40 a week) and head up the board’s thrust into animation. It proved to be a stroke of genius.
By now the film board’s cumulative achievements are amazing in size and scope: 7,600 titles in active distribution in 60 languages and 80 countries; 3,000 awards, including 53 Academy Award nominations and eight Oscars (more than any entity except the Hollywood studios themselves).
But the achievement that probably underlies all the others is the arm’s-length relationship that continues to exist between the Canadian government and the board.
The board, which has long since outgrown those bare quarters in Ottawa and now occupies a sprawling industrial complex near Montreal, has had a remarkably free hand to do everything from scintillating off-the-wall animation to co-ventures in researching and developing new technology.
It was, for example, a partner in the development of a videocassette vending machine in 1986 and, with Canadian and West German firms, in creating state-of-the-art computer animation machinery. Back in 1951, the board had a hand in what was evidently the first equipment for generating and recording synthetic music. One of the current R&D; projects involves a system that has already been trademarked as The Brain and which controls both cameras and objects on more than one axis, for special effects work.
But first and last in film, it’s what’s up front that counts, and over its half-century a remarkable variety of work has carried the National Film Board of Canada logo.
I still remember vividly Pierre Berton’s “City of Gold,” a poetic documentary about Dawson and the Klondike Gold Rush, based on some historic glass-plate negatives that had miraculously survived being used to build a greenhouse.
The camera played slowly over the still images, creating an eerie sense of movement, the smoke seeming to rise from the campfires. It was a new technique, developed by Roman Kroitor and now much copied.
At that, I’m sure the most widely known work from the film board has been the late Norman McLaren’s own profoundly imaginative short films--"Neighbors,” an ingenious piece of stop-motion animation that won an Oscar in 1953, “Pas de Deux” and “Spheres,” among many others--and McLaren’s legacy, the animated and live-action shorts done by his artistic descendants.
The present animation, including delicious pieces like “The Big Snit,” about a Scrabble game growing violent while the world outside blows up, often carries a message, painlessly absorbed.
As early as 1974, the board launched Studio D, a forum for women directors, and one of its central achievements has been “Not a Love Story: A Film About Pornography,” a courageous documentary, tough and sad, that was widely shown.
Features made with board backing have helped to suggest that Canadian film making is--can be--more than Hollywood North, with a national flavor uniquely its own. The late Claude Jutra’s “My Uncle Antoine” found significant American audiences, as did “The Decline of the American Empire,” Oscar-nominated two years ago.
The philosophical model for the National Film Board of Canada was, it is clear, the BBC, with its own arm’s-length relationship to the British government and its mandate simply to be the best.
Administrations have come and gone, the political pendulum swung left and right, the divisive rancor between French Canada and Anglo Canada has swelled and subsided, and the film board has gone on. Not least among its achievements, it seems to an outsider, has been its embrace of both Canadas and their distinct cultures.
Whether, if the board did not exist, a latter-day Canadian government would have the wisdom to invent it in the present day is an intriguing question. I’m not confident of the answer, and the world of film has cause to be grateful for a large historical favor.