Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Film Studies

Madawaska Valley: John Ormond's Lost Film at the National Film Board of Canada

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Film Studies

Madawaska Valley: John Ormond's Lost Film at the National Film Board of Canada

Article excerpt

Readers of the Canadian Journal of Film Studies will no doubt be aware of the celebrated "Challenge for Change"/"Société Nouvelle" (CFC/SN) programme of activist filmmaking at the National Film Board of Canada (NFB). Between 1967 and 1980, the initiative produced over two hundred films in both of Canada's languages, and is now lauded around the world as a pioneering example of the possibilities of progressive documentary filmmaking. Indeed, many will be aware of the recent 600-plus-page volume, edited by Thomas Waugh, Michael Brendan Baker and Ezra Winton, Challenge for Change: Activist Documentary at the National Film Board of Canada (2010), a long-needed anthology which provides a commendably wide-ranging and multiperspectival overview of this unique programme. As its title suggests, the book's central aim is to confirm CFC/SN's radical credentials. It celebrates the ways in which the main protagonists of the initiative-filmmakers such as Bonnie Sherr Klein, Colin Low, George Stoney and Raymond Garceau-utilized the resources available to them in a way that broke free of the limitations placed upon them as public servants. In the foreword to the book, for instance, the distinguished left-wing journalist and author Naomi Klein (who is, not incidentally, the daughter of one of the programmes filmmakers) gives the CFC/SN project her endorsement as a key example of the ways in which "radical pockets"1 of action can be opened up within seemingly monolithic public institutions. The achievements of CFC/SN, she suggests, constitute a much-needed lesson for an increasingly streamlined, rationalized, and management-consulted twenty-first century.

Despite the laudatory pronouncements of commentators such as Klein, however, there are ongoing debates surrounding CFC/SN s "radical" legacy. There are some fascinating essays contained in the anthology that dutifully reflect the spectrum of opinion on this score. Janine Marchessault s essay, "Amateur Video and the Challenge for Change" (originally published in 1995) is one example; it performs a bracing critique of the "radical" credentials of a project that, in essence, encouraged impoverished Canadian citizens to find ways to fend for themselves. Such an approach, Marchessault suggests, "paralleled the Liberal interpretation of cultural development" in a way that "instituted a particular form of self-surveillance rather than transform the actual institutional relations of production and knowledge."2 In a similar vein, Zoë Druick, echoing the work in her excellent book Projecting Canada: Government Policy and Documentary Film at the National Film Board of Canada (2007), considers the extent to which CFC/SN can be viewed as part of a deliberate process of acclimatizing citizens to increasing federal centralization in the 1960s and 1970s. Druick suggests that even if we acknowledge the radical political inclinations of many CFC/SN filmmakers, we should not understate "the bigger picture in which the program took on its form."3 The films, ultimately, should be viewed as "acts of interpellation into national citizenship."4 But despite the revisionist intent of such arguments, the broad thrust of Challenge for Change: Activist Documentary at the National Film Board of Canada is decidedly celebratory. Its editors view CFC/SN as a "glittering chunk of the heritage of both Canadian arts and Canadian democracy, with its bold artistic experimentation and its political dreams of transformation,"5 and many of the books contributors justifiably write about the programme in similarly enthusiastic terms.

Though it is important to bear these debates in mind, it is not my intention in this article to intervene too deeply into arguments about the political legacy of CFC/SN. Rather, I am interested here in documenting some of the factors that helped shape the ethos of aesthetic radicalism at the programme from its outset. I aim to do this by examining the work of a filmmaker who, in 1967- the year in which CFC/SN was inaugurated-travelled to Canada in order to produce a film under the auspices of the programme. …

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