After ten years of groundbreaking film production for various community and minority groups, Challenge for Change/Société nouvelle was closed in March. This important program combining production and distribution began in 1969 and was jointly financed by the NFB and the relevant federal departments. For ten years, it remained true to its initial mandate of producing films reflecting most of the major issues and movements of a turbulent time, and targeting their distribution so that they reached their intended groups. The results were impressive: 56 films, mainly features, not counting the numerous videos made by the communities themselves. The NFB felt that it was time to redirect the program to explore on film the new social, political and economic environment of the emerging decade. From the ashes of Challenge for Change/Société nouvelle rose the “Perspectives” program.

In March, a change of government in Ottawa saw the Liberal Party take power, and Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau appointed Francis Fox Minister of Communications, the department the NFB had reported to since 1979. The first thing Fox did was continue the work of his predecessor by creating the Federal Cultural Policy Review Committee, chaired by composer Louis Applebaum and publisher Jacques Hébert. One of the mandates of the committee was to study the future relationship between the NFB and the private sector.

In this uncertain climate, Commissioner James de B. Domville feared he might have to cut production and staff because of the federal austerity program, and in June he began redefining NFB goals and priorities. The board of trustees ratified five objectives: public service; public access; international presence, especially in the Third World; technical research and development; and leadership in defining the national film policy.

After two years’ hard work, a research team from French Production, along with a committee composed solely of the hard of hearing, prepared a communication plan that matched the needs of the deaf, of whom there were around a million in Canada. A series of measures was devised to meet Department of Health and Welfare stipulations. The plan called for a subtitling centre, use of a new system of transcribing words in any language into universally understood signs, a universal voice decoder and the establishment of an information bank of audiovisual material.

The high point of the year was the Oscars® in Los Angeles in April, with four NFB nominations: Bravery in the Field, Going the Distance, Nails, an NFB/Mercury Pictures co-production, and Every Child/Chaque enfant, made as part of International Year of the Child. This short animation by Eugene Fedorenko won the Oscar® in that category, giving the NFB its sixth Academy win.

Each year, the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE) honours the most outstanding achievements in their field. The Grierson Medal, named for NFB founder John Grierson, is an international distinction honouring the recipient for exceptional technical work in film. At its annual conference held in New York in November 1980, the SMPTE awarded NFB engineer Chester E. Beachell a medal “for his many innovative techniques, procedures and engineering developments over the years to enhance the technology, quality and economy in cinematography and sound recording for documentary motion pictures and television.”

Filmmakers and their works

For the first time, French Production made a feature with an independent company, Lamy, Spencer et Compagnie. The fiction film Les beaux souvenirs, directed by Francis Mankiewicz with a screenplay by writer Réjean Ducharme, was a spellbinding, unsettling story, knotted with paradox and contradiction, drawing the viewer into a world of intense emotion. It was Mankiewicz’s second film using a Ducharme screenplay, the first being Les bons débarras, which was hugely successful. Les beaux souvenirs played for several weeks in different Quebec towns and was translated into English with the title Happy Memories.

One of Canada’s main preoccupations is the quality of the environment. The NFB joined la Fondation Cousteau to produce a series of television documentaries on the variety of marine life in the Atlantic coast of the St. Lawrence and the Great Lakes. The project was directed by filmmaker and geographer Jacques Gagné, who worked closely with one of the most famous defenders of the environment, Jacques-Yves Cousteau. Pierre Perrault for his part analyzed the effect of modern life on Amerindians in his film Le pays de la terre sans arbre ou le Mouchouânipi.

English Production launched the Program to Assist Films and Filmmakers in the Private Sector (PAFFPS), which became the Filmmaker Assistance Program (FAP) in 1996. It was aimed at helping independent filmmakers make films and videos by providing services or equipment. Over three years, the NFB nourished 74 projects, mainly by providing services.

Hockey is Canada’s national sport, and in Quebec, the idol of the 1940s and ’50s was without a doubt Maurice “Rocket” Richard, the famous number 9 of the Montreal Canadiens. The writer Roch Carrier’s delightful short story inspired by his boyhood playing hockey was the basis for Sheldon Cohen’s animated short The Sweater, which was a roaring success at Odeon Theatres, where it was presented with several first-run features during the Christmas season. It was also shown to sports writers in special screenings held at Toronto’s Maple Leaf Gardens and at the Forum in Montreal, attended by the author and Maurice Richard. It won 15 festival awards and the prize for best animated film from the British Academy of Film and Television.

French Production’s Animation Studio launched “Cinéaste recherché(e),” an annual competition to make a first professional animated film. By 2008, it was in its 19th year.

The NFB produced two films with Nederlandse Omroepprogramma Stichting (Dutch television). The first, Co Hoedeman, Animator by Nico Crama, looked at the life of this Dutch-born filmmaker who came to Canada in 1965. The second, From the Ashes of War, by Michael McKennirey, tells of the German occupation of Holland and the difficult Allied advance. It was broadcast on Dutch television in May 1980 to mark the 35th anniversary of the liberation of Amsterdam by Canadian forces.

Distributing and screening films

New technological outlets now available to broadcasters were made to work for the NFB, whose productions were now broadcast over microwaves, via cables and bounced off satellites to television screens, reaching audiences that had been unreachable.

In 1980, CBC and Radio-Canada telecast 53 films at prime-time and 24 in non-prime-time. Noteworthy were the premieres of Mourir à tue-tête (A Scream from Silence), One Man, The National Scream, Challenger: An Industrial Romance, W.O. Mitchell: Novelist in Hiding, Yes or No, Jean-Guy Moreau and Empty Harbours, Empty Dreams.

Radio-Québec broadcast 24 Film Board productions every Saturday evening from October 4, 1980 to January 4, 1981 as part of a series entitled Cinéma-réalité. This prime-time slot brought viewers such films as Le menteur, La vie commence en janvier (Life Begins in January), Cher Théo (Dear Theo), Raison d’être, Les jardins d’hiver, Famille et variations and La fleur aux dents.

In Noranda, the NFB opened its 30th office to serve Quebecers in the Northwest. This new distribution point was part of the network linked to central office in Montreal by computer, a network that sped up loans, kept stocks up to date and analyzed transactions.

In Brossard, Quebec, a public library for the first time offered NFB videos for consultation. In 12 months, 15,078 people used the service. The experiment was the springboard for a network of partner libraries that today form part of the nucleus of NFB audiovisual centres.

Research and technology

Following is the story of the ARRI processor as told by Len Green, editor-in-chief of Perforations, the NFB’s technical services review published from January 1981 to January 1993.

January 3, 1980

NFB Laboratory... the Manager’s office ... a meeting is in progress. The services of the ARRl processor may no longer be required. Will it be “the pink slip” or retirement? To understand how much this means, we turn the calendar back to:

October 3, 1964

The NFB decides to purchase the first motion picture color negative processor to be installed in Canada. The NFB begins to shoot in color. The ARRl is installed. For EXP0 ’67, the organizing committee asks the NFB to provide 35 mm color printing and processing services for the exhibitions, including all the footage for the Labyrinth Pavillon.[sic]

Later. Kodak announces an improvement in their color negative stock. 5250 changes to 5251. The ARRl processor is adjusted accordingly. A further improvement is announced. 5251 is replaced by 5254. We respond to meet the change. A refinement in color negative film is introduced by Kodak. 5254 is succeeded by 5247. Alas, we cannot accommodate the change: a new color negative processor must be purchased. To keep the ARRl processor productive it is converted to develop the new 5381 color print stock and provide parallel service with the 5247 color negative, to be developed on the new processing machine. To increase capacity, the ARRI is later modified to include the processing of 7381, the 16 mm equivalent of 5381.

Kodak announces an improvement in print film stocks. The 35 mm 5381 print film will soon be replaced by 5383 and the 16 mm gauge 7381 with 7383. The writing is on the wall ... the ARRI cannot be modified again to cope with these changes. The end is in sight. It’s becoming too costly to operate, too expensive to maintain and too slow (due to the length of the machine) to be cost-effective. Replacement parts are difficult to obtain, and the machine is just too tired to meet present-day demands. After 15 years of processing millions of feet of film, which included all the 35 mm feature and documentary films for the NFB (and others) - the machine’s turn has come for a rest.

January 3, 1980

NFB Laboratory ... the Manager's office ... the meeting comes to a close ... the services of the ARRI processor are no longer required. There’s a subdued cough at the end of the table. An unidentified voice whispers: “Early retirement. 1980.”


While the Federal Cultural Policy Review Committee was hard at work and major decisions were in the offing, the NFB publicly unveiled its position on cultural policies and the role of government agencies. In front of the Applebaum-Hébert Committee and the Canadian Radio-television Commission (CRTC), the Film Board tried to explain the special structure of the Canadian market and the need to change some aspects of the broadcasting, cable and satellite system. It also suggested specific ways it could meet the challenges of the future.

In September, Commissioner James de B. Domville announced a major policy change for production contracts awarded by the NFB to private producers. The previous policy had stipulated that the private sector would execute 50% of the first $4 million of commissioned works, and 75% of any volume in excess of $4 million. Under the new policy, with the exception of some special projects that the NFB reserved for itself, private sector companies would undertake the bulk of sponsored films. The Film Board would maintain its role as executive producer of all audiovisual material sponsored by the government. The Association des producteurs de films du Québec (APFQ) and the Canadian Film and Television Association (CFTA) gave their support to this new policy, which they considered essential to the development of a viable Canadian film industry. The APFQ, ACCT and the NFB each designated representatives to sit on a consultative committee to monitor the apportioning of sponsored film projects.

Another way of supporting the Canadian film industry at home and abroad was the establishment of Film Canada, in partnership with the Canadian Film Development Corporation (CFDC). It was designed to assist both companies and individuals, and was particularly useful to new and smaller producers who were inexperienced with international markets. NFB offices in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, London, Paris and Sydney provided information on sales markets and custom clearance, reserving NFB or other screening facilities, and in general responding to requests.

Over the years, NFB films became one of Canada's best known exports, and attracted the acclaim of foreign audiences. The high point of activities in 1981 was the NFB retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, one of the world’s most prestigious institutions for conservation and education about cinema history. The retrospective lasted eight months and showcased over 300 documentary, animation and fiction films. The event was an effective showcase for NFB talent, attracting many filmgoers and receiving extensive international and Canadian press coverage. Film lovers also applauded NFB productions at the American Film Festival in New York and the 16th Chicago International Film Festival.

In 1981, the NFB again enjoyed remarkable success, with Oscar nominations for First Winter by John N. Smith and The Tender Tale of Cinderella Penguin by Janet Perlman.

Filmmakers and their works

NFB documentaries often deal with tricky subjects sparking heated debate, and two films in 1981 certainly got people talking. The impact of Not a Love Story: A Film About Pornography, made at Studio D by Bonnie Sherr Klein, was especially interesting: great theatrical success combined with the best theatrical distribution of any Canadian documentary of recent years contrasted with its theatrical ban in Canada’s biggest English-language market, Ontario. This sociologically important film sensitized thousands of people to the problem of the sexual exploitation of women. After premiering at the Festival of Festivals in Toronto, it was widely discussed in the press and favourably received by the public. It ran for ten weeks in New York and Boston, eight in Los Angeles, eleven in Sydney, five in Melbourne, eight in London and was bought by Sweden, Greece, Austria, New Zealand and the Netherlands.

In Le confort et l’indifférence (Comfort and Indifference) filmmaker Denys Arcand used the yardstick of universal political reality to measure the passions that guided Quebecers when they voted in the sovereignty referendum of May 1980. He used quotations from Machiavelli to suggest that people do not change, that history repeats itself and that material comfort causes ideological indifference. In 1982, the Association québécoise des critiques de cinéma awarded the film the Léo-Ernest Ouimet prize.

Though the situation in Quebec was very different from the rest of Canada, English Production took a lively interest in political life and one of its productions under this rubric was "Dief", a tribute to the 13th prime minister of Canada, John G. Diefenbaker, who died in August 1979.

Other figures who became the subject of NFB documentaries included K. C. Irving, who built a vast industrial empire, and explained his way of working in I Like to See Wheels Turn; and Wilder Penfield, the eminent neurosurgeon famous for his research on the workings of the brain: Something Hidden: A Portrait of Wilder Penfield was inspired by a biography written by his grandson, Jefferson Lewis. A War Story was about a physician, Dr. Ben Wheeler, who was interned in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp during the Second World War. The film was directed by his daughter. The documentary won several awards at the 8th Annual Alberta Film and Television Awards. Finally, the incorrigible obsession of daredevil Ken Carter was at the centre of The Devil at Your Heels, a suspense story about a man who made his living by risking his life. The film won the Genie for best documentary in March 1983.

While handling major political topics and social issues, the NFB never lost its fascination with artists. Several films of 1981 concentrated on the people who have enriched our heritage. « On est rendus devant le monde! » looked at new theatre groups committed to regenerating dramatic art in Quebec. The life of Miller Brittain, one of the most important painters from the Maritimes, was revealed in a film entitled Miller Brittain. Earle Birney: Portrait of a Poet introduced audiences to one of Canada’s most prolific and avant-garde poets, while In Search of Farley Mowat took the viewer into the impassioned and eccentric world of a much-loved writer.

For the Love of Dance, a documentary produced by the NFB and the Canada Council, introduced seven of Canada’s finest dance troupes in rehearsal and touring. Kate and Anna McGarrigle is an easygoing portrait of these Quebec-born singers who enjoy international acclaim, and combines live action with magnificent drawings illustrating their songs. Finally, Off the Wall was a wide-ranging reflection on art as mode of expression, source of business and consumer product. It won the award for best cinematography at Montreal’s International Festival of Films on Art.

A highly inventive animation film by brothers André Leduc and Jean-Jacques Leduc hinged on suspense: Zea considered a well-known phenomenon – popcorn and the moment of explosion. This apparently simple theme presented a serious technical challenge. The filmmakers used micro-waves, lasers and thermocouples and shot with an HY-CAM rotating prism camera running at 5,000 pictures per second. In addition, 100 mm of extension tubes were needed to attain a field of view some 3 mm across. There was also the question of heat… The film won the Genie Award for best short in Toronto in 1982.

Distributing and screening films

The NFB opened an office in the Canada Film Center in Beverly Hills. A few years later, in September 1984, this office was taken over by the Canadian Film Development Corporation (CFDC), soon to be known as Telefilm Canada.

In the late 1970s the NFB had experimented with FORMAT, a new bilingual computerized system for information on Canadian films. It had become invaluable to film librarians, directors, producers, distributors and teachers. During the year, distribution officers gave a series of talks on the system at different universities and for some organizations, including Centrale des bibliothèques du Québec and Radio-Canada. In October, FORMAT became the object of an agreement between the following Canadian cultural agencies, which used it from then on: The National Library and Public Archives, and Cinémathèque québécoise.

The contract with Télécâble Vidéotron Limitée was renewed for another two years. Through this project some 800 National Film Board titles were available on demand to Videotron’s cable subscribers on Montreal’s south shore. A number of NFB archival classics were also offered to expand the available range of films and to test audience interest in them, and a video pilot project was soon to be set up for home viewing. These innovations helped the NFB reach large segments of the population.


In November, the Federal Cultural Policy Review Committee (Applebaum-Hébert) submitted its report, confirming the worst fears of the NFB. The report recommended that the NFB discontinue making and distributing films and become a research and training centre. While the Film Board subscribed to the cultural principles stated in the report, it rejected the recommendations, believing that they were not the best way to serve the Canadian film industry. The NFB believed that the mandate it was given by Parliament in the 1940s still held true in 1982 – perhaps even more so, now that Canadian products were buried in an avalanche of foreign products transmitted through the electronic media.

The NFB believed that if its traditional production and distribution functions were taken away, no private company would produce and distribute films like Not a Love Story: A Film About Pornography and If You Love This Planet. The NFB is one of the few major institutions that give Canadian citizens a national voice. In every region, its filmmakers produce films reflecting the life and identity of their own communities. Among the films completed in 1982, for example were The Pacific Connection: Ties That Bound, The Pedlar, L’âge des pigeons and J’avions 375 ans, on subjects ranging from the political history of British Columbia to an adaptation of a short story by an author from the Prairies, from the daily life of seniors in Metropolitan Toronto to the concerns of the Acadians, capturing local realities and bringing them to the attention of the entire country.

As for the recommendation that the Film Board should become a research and training centre, the NFB had played that role since the very start. The vast majority of Canadian filmmakers were trained between its walls, and many technological innovations were made in the NFB’s Research and Development Department, enabling filmmakers to push back the boundaries of cinematographic art. The NFB’s activities extended beyond Canada’s borders, for example through the training program to be set up in Brazil under the recently signed cooperative agreement with Embrafilme. NFB staff would train filmmakers and technicians, set up an animation department, help build a re-recording studio and hold seminars across the country.

During the summer, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts held a comprehensive international animation exhibition, The Art of Animation. NFB exhibits included a collection of original animation drawings, a pinscreen and the drawing machine invented by Norman McLaren for painting directly on film, among other treasures. Every week, an animation filmmaker gave a public demonstration of his or her filmmaking techniques. The show included works from other major animation centres in the United States and Europe. An adapted form of the exhibition travelled to the Musée du Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean, Chicoutimi and the Centre d’Arts Plastiques Contemporains in Bordeaux, where visitors enjoyed the show for six weeks.

The Quebec government awarded Norman McLaren the Albert-Tessier Prize, the highest distinction in the field of cinema, for his contribution to animation and to enhancing Quebec’s reputation abroad.

Filmmakers and their works

NFB documentary filmmakers were always interested in world events. For the past few years, Jacques Godbout and Florian Sauvageau had been analyzing how international relationships had changed since the advent of modern communications media. Their collaboration resulted in the films Derrière l’image (1978), Feu l’objectivité (Double Vision) (1979) and Distorsions (1981). in 1982, Jacques Godbout completed Un monologue Nord-Sud (A North-South Monologue), with narration by Florian Sauvageau, a film that ponders who really profits from international aid. The premiere was held in April, during International Development Week.

On August 27, an agreement was signed between Sovenfilm and the NFB to send a team of filmmakers from the Board to the U.S.S.R. in October to film footage for a series of seven one-hour films on the history of war. The series, Goodbye War, was written and narrated by Gwynne Dyer, the Canadian journalist and military historian. Sovenfilm undertook to provide technicians, interpreters and archival material.

NFB filmmakers had produced many works on the status of Aboriginal peoples, as well as helping to train many young people from Aboriginal communities to use film as a communications tool. This year, two professionals from the NFB helped raise awareness of these issues. Colin Low and Maurice Bulbulian both directed films on the survival of Aboriginals. Colin Low made Standing Alone, about a Blood Indian from southwest Alberta who sees his people struggle to cope with the rapid pace of industrialized society and is tormented by the idea that his children might have to sacrifice their Indian heritage and ancestral traditions. Maurice Bulbulian directed Debout sur leur terre (Our Land, Our Truth), a documentary on the struggle waged by a dissident Inuit from northern Quebec to tame nature and guard against the presence of the White man.

Director Beverly Shaffer, who won an Oscar® in 1978 for her short documentary I'll Find a Way, continued her series on Canada’s children with three new films: The Way It Is, in which a teenaged girl tells the camera how her parents’ divorce has affected her; It's Just Better, the story of a boy who lives with his mother and nine brothers and sisters in a farmhouse on Cape Breton Island; and I Want to Be an Engineer, which encourages teenaged girls to embark on non-traditional careers and discuss the stereotypes that stifle their professional aspirations.

The French Animation Studio had been experimenting with computer animation for several years. The skills of the experts in this field of research yielded positive results leading to plans for a “centre d’animatique.” This was to serve as a catalyst for the combined energies of experts from Canadian universities and research centres. The first phase of the project was now underway. In 1982, all the animated and graphic sequences – about six minutes – for a 30-minute film shot on location by Guy Dufaux, Au pays des glaces (Charting the Frozen Sea), were created by animator Daniel Langlois using this technique. It was an NFB/ Fisheries and Oceans Canada co-production.

Research on auteur animation still had its place at the Film Board. In Memories of War/Souvenirs de guerre, Pierre Hébert advanced the method initiated by Norman McLaren of working directly on film. Hébert’s method of perforating the film retained the natural movement and spontaneity of the drawings and gave greater stability and continuity. To handle colour separation problems, Hébert used “elimination,” a method of engraving on wood or linoleum, allowing him to work and rework colours to best advantage. His film Memories of War plunges the viewer into issues of war and peace, the organization of society and authority – a troubling vision of the world.

Research and technology

In 3-D filming, Colin Low and Ernest McNabb shot 65 mm images with IMAXTM cameras. Eric Miller used the footage to create a first, experimental edit, with the first projection planned for Toronto.

A wireless clapper was designed and built for shoots using several cameras at once. The device was used for the first time in If You Love This Planet.

In the laboratory, an innovative method of numbering film for editing purposes was developed. The new system converted “edge numbers” by ultraviolet from black to white, making them much easier to read.

In Ottawa, the Photography Centre perfected a technique for adding (photographically) multicoloured texts, logos or other designs to transparencies to create images for the enlarger. The technique was a cost-saving alternative to adding texts by silkscreening.


In the late 1930s, the government had brought John Grierson to Canada for the express purpose of finding out how to improve filmmaking. This led to the foundation of the National Film Board in 1939. Since that time, NFB producers, filmmakers, directors of photography, sound technicians, editors, engineers and technicians – the whole production team – had created so many innovative ways of making films that their expertise and inventive powers were now recognized around the world. The NFB had become the essential reference on filmmaking, and several fresh examples of its fame were added to the list this year.

In the United States, Donald Brittain, Tom Daly, Roman Kroitor and Colin Low attended a symposium jointly organized by the Canadian Embassy and the Library of Congress in Washington on the occasion of a six-week program of Canadian documentaries. Co Hoedeman was invited by the South Carolina Arts Commission to show films from the animation studios in four major cities in the southern U.S.

A retrospective of NFB films organized by the Canadian Consulate in San Francisco with the NFB was held in Denver, Colorado, and later in Honolulu, Hawaii. Gala, a film on dance by John N. Smith and Michael McKennirey, an NFB/Canada Council co-production, enjoyed its American premiere at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and went on to acclaim in Los Angeles and San Diego. The museum also organized a special tribute to Norman McLaren by holding the premiere of Narcissus/Narcisse on December 2. The film also screened at Lincoln Center in New York and in Boston at an event organized by the Boston Film/Video Foundation and the Canadian Consulate General. On this occasion, the Governor of Massachusetts presented McLaren with the Silver Bowl Award in recognition of his half-century contribution to the art of cinema. McLaren’s creative genius was recognized here at home as well, when the Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television awarded him a Genie for his œuvre.

In French-language European countries, the NFB’s ongoing partnership with Canadian cultural centres led to the creation of a very popular vidéothèque in Paris, as well as an exhibition, Portrait d’un studio d’animation. This consisted of 36 elements from 25 animated films made by French Production and was complemented by a lavishly illustrated information booklet. After its three-month run in Paris, some of the artwork was loaned to Arnhem and Antwerp for an international exhibition. The exhibition was later reconstituted and displayed at Palais des Congrès in Brussels and Académie des beaux-arts in Ghent, Belgium. The NFB’s participation in the Dutch exhibition included the loan of models and sets, films and photographs, as well as a short film directed by Grant Munro, McLaren on McLaren, in which Norman McLaren thanked his Dutch friends and colleagues for honouring his work at the festival.

Pierre Hébert, another animator popular in Europe, was invited to present his work in eight cities in Belgium and Holland and give workshops on scratching on film.

In March, the seven films in the War series screened at the Austrian Film Museum in Vienna. The National Film Theatre in London organized a three-night film event on Canadian animation. The first screening was devoted to NFB classics, the second to recent releases, and the third presented private-sector films plus the London premiere of Narcissus/Narcisse.

In October, the Quebec government honoured Maurice Blackburn, one of the great film composers, with the high-profile Albert-Tessier Prize for exceptional achievement in cinema. The Cinémathèque québécoise later paid tribute to Blackburn with a program of films showcasing his extraordinary creative talents.

Producer-director Alanis Obomsawin was awarded the Order of Canada for her work with the Abenaki people through singing, storytelling, writing and cinema.

Leonard A. Green received a Fellowship from the British Kinematograph and Sound Television Society for his technical contributions to sound recording over the past 30 years. At the time, the Society’s 18th biannual conference was taking place in London to discuss the most outstanding technical advances. Green had the honour of being named a Fellow of the Society – only the third Canadian ever to receive the award. He also co-chaired the 18th World Conference of the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE) in Montreal in February 1984, where television was the main focus. Hundreds of participants from Canada, the United States and Europe attended the conference, and in 1983 several NFB technicians were already helping to organize it.

Filmmakers and their works

The women filmmakers of Studio D continued to show their courageous determination to provoke debate on important issues. Director Terre Nash attracted a great deal of attention with If You Love This Planet, a brilliant plea for nuclear disarmament. The film records a lecture given by Dr. Helen Caldicott, the president of Physicians for Social Responsibility in the United States, a group of more than 10,000 physicians opposing nuclear arms. This film and two others on acid rain produced for Environment Canada, Acid Rain: Requiem or Recovery and Acid from Heaven, both made in 1981, were labelled propaganda by the U.S. Department of Justice and distribution was restricted. However, under pressure from the American public, which felt entitled to this information, the Department of Justice agreed to suspend the directive and reconsider the matter. If You Love This Planet won an Oscar® in the Documentary Short Subject category from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Los Angeles.

The NFB was involved in the production of several feature films, including Bonheur d’occasion and The Tin Flute, produced by Ciné St-Henri, Radio-Canada and the NFB. Adapted from the novel of the same name by Gabrielle Roy, the story unfolds in the working-class neighbourhood of Saint-Henri in Montreal in the winter of 1940. The two films were made simultaneously in both languages by Claude Fournier. Another adventure in cinematography by André Forcier, Au clair de la lune, introduced viewers to sandwich man Bert and his albino pal Franck in the tragicomic account of a friendship stranger than fiction. The film was co-produced by les Productions Albinie and the NFB.

The art of dance performance was well served by Narcissus/Narcisse, a film by Norman McLaren inspired by Greek mythology, Un jour j’ai rêvé, a documentary by Claude Grenier about a dance school in Manitoba, and Flamenco at 5:15, starring Susana and Antonio Robledo, guest teachers at the National Ballet School. The film earned producers Cynthia Scott and Adam Symansky the Oscar® for Best Documentary from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Los Angeles in 1984.

Two films drew particular attention to problems in the rural and urban environments. In Une installation à disposer… Saint-Yvon, Gaspésie 1983, François Brault depicted a community resisting an administrative decision that would strip local fishermen of their livelihoods and force them to leave their village for the sake of profitability. More than 1,000 kilometres to the south, the Jane-Finch corridor – six blocks of subsidized housing in Toronto’s North York, conjuring up images of social tension, vandalism, crime and despair – served as the backdrop for the film Home Feeling: Struggle for a Community. The controversial documentary from directors Jennifer Hodge and Roger McTair, produced in partnership with Multiculturalism Canada, showed that contrary to the image propagated by the media, there was in fact a dynamic community there, looking to the future with confidence.

Cultural relations between nations found an echo in Singing: A Joy in Any Language by Malca Gillson and Tony Ianzelo, a co-production with the CBC and External Affairs, and in Comme en Californie, a film by Jacques Godbout and Florian Sauvageau about the New Age in Quebec. While the first film records a trip to China by three Canadian artists to give public concerts and hold master classes in singing, the second, based on the California model, attempts to trace the trends that could mark the next 20 years of human society and the niche Quebec and the rest of Canada would occupy in the global civilization of tomorrow.

In Beyrouth! «À défaut d'être mort» (Beirut! Not Enough Death to Go Round), a moving indictment of the ravages of war, director Tahani Rached portrayed the plight of Lebanese exiled in their own country. Martin Duckworth was thinking along the same lines when he made No More Hibakusha!, focusing on the survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. A co-production with Les Productions du Regard, the film won the Silver Dove for best documentary at the 26th International Short Documentary for Cinema and Television Festival in Leipzig, Germany, as well as the special jury prize at the 27th Competition of Films on Japan 1983 in Tokyo.

During the Christmas season, animation artists created a mural on the theme of peace that was exhibited for a month in one of Montreal’s busiest metro stations. Two other shows were also held: an exhibition of the artwork from Co Hoedeman’s films was organized in conjunction with Neerland Art Québec at Place Ville-Marie in downtown Montreal, and an exhibition of still photographs from Narcissus/Narcisse by Norman McLaren was put together for the premiere of the film at the Montreal World Film Festival and subsequent premieres across the country.

Distributing and screening films

Three Studio D documentaries had enormous success in distribution: I Want to Be an Engineer and Attention: Women at Work! The first title was borrowed 2.46 times more often than the recorded average for NFB films. Released simultaneously in English and French versions at the Second Conference of Women Engineers in the spring of 1983, it was well received by women’s organizations, the young people who were the film’s target audience, and educators, who used it to encourage women to consider a career in engineering. The other two films marked the debut of a series planned by the Federal Women’s Film Program, a coalition of federal ministries and agencies with the shared objective of producing and distributing films about the status of women. Public response was more than favourable, the two films being requested 3.45 times more often than the average for other NFB films.

Until now, NFB videos had not been available for loan. However, as demand grew, the NFB decided to study various ways of serving this expanding market, and opted for two distribution channels based on location: video clubs and certain NFB offices. On the French side, an agreement was signed with Les Productions Vidéo MPA Inc. to offer some 40 titles through its video clubs. These were the first videos with Canadian content offered to the francophone public. On the English side, 50 titles were listed with video clubs through Crawford Video One (Moncton), Video One Canada Ltd. (Vancouver), MPA Video Distributors (Montreal) and International Home Entertainment Canada Ltd.

The second video distribution network made a selected number of titles available on videocassette through NFB offices for private or institutional use by those who used video in their work. French-language videos were available through NFB offices in Montreal, Quebec City and Ottawa, while English-language videos were distributed through NFB offices in Toronto, Halifax, Winnipeg and Vancouver. Videostat, a pilot project in the Ottawa area, offered a free duplicating service for home video users, who could choose VHS or Betamax format as long as they provided a blank cassette.

Film Canadiana, a catalogue published since 1970 by the Canadian Film Institute, would now be published under the aegis of the NFB through the FORMAT database, a computerized bilingual database designed to provide access to information on Canadian audiovisual material.

Research and technology

In collaboration with Aaton of Grenoble, France, the NFB developed a matrix time code. By 1990, all NFB productions would be using the system.

In addition, a prototype robot designed to control certain camera functions was being tested. Devised by John Pley, it would be assembled by an Ontario firm.


Government Film Commissioner James de B. Domville stepped down in January 1984, and Deputy Film Commissioner François N. Macerola served as Acting Commissioner until May, when he was officially named Government Film Commissioner and Chairman of the NFB.

On May 29, Communications Minister Francis Fox unveiled the new National Film and Video Policy, a follow-up to the recommendations of the Applebaum-Hébert report released in November 1982. The policy added two new dimensions to the NFB’s original mandate: In addition to “making and distributing films designed to interpret Canada to Canadians and to other nations,” the NFB was now to become “a world centre of excellence in production of films and videos” and “a national training and research centre in the art and technique of film and video.” The minister asked the commissioner to draw up a Five-Year Operational Plan so that the NFB could fulfil the mandate. In the fall, the Board of Trustees approved the plan submitted by Macerola.

The restructuring that followed had major effects on production and distribution, which were now to be merged. The plan also proposed that the full-time staff be reduced and independent filmmakers hired. Incentives for retirement and early retirement resulted in staff reductions of 30%, and the number of full-time filmmakers fell from 54 to 30 in less than five years. It was estimated that by 1987, 70% of all production would be in the hands of independent filmmakers. The number of regional distribution offices, which were now to be called Canadian audiovisual centres, was cut from 26 to 12. Half of them (Halifax, Moncton, Toronto, Winnipeg, Edmonton and Vancouver) included production and distribution services. Only three NFB offices abroad were kept (Paris, London and New York). All of these measures were designed to save $10 million in five years.

The NFB also proceeded with an administrative realignment of some programs that, despite their importance and significance, were believed to fall outside the scope of the Film Board’s principal mandate. The Sponsored Program Division and the Canadian Government Photo Centre were moved to the federal Department of Supply and Services, and the Still Photography Division was transferred to National Museums of Canada. Some international activities, including the Canada Film Centre in Los Angeles, were now the responsibility of Telefilm Canada, and the Department of Communications was now responsible for the Certification Program.

The implementation of the Operational Plan aroused a great deal of reaction from filmmakers. They believed that the staff cuts would deprive the NFB of its life force, since only the presence of a substantial group of full-time filmmakers could guarantee creative freedom. They protested that marketing would now be part of the Programs and that projects would be adapted to demand, which would mean that the filmmakers would have no more say on production policies. In many letters, pamphlets and studies supported by statistics, they denounced the fact that for a number of years, successive concessions made by the Film Board to counter criticism and adapt to federal policies had only weakened its structure and its core identity.

The NFB played a key role in an important project, Young Canada Television/Télé-Jeunesse Canada, which was designed to create an autonomous television network for young people. The project reflected the NFB’s belief in the right of every citizen, or category of citizens, to free expression of their socio-cultural concerns, whether in English or in French. The NFB was to appear before the Canada Radio and Television Communications Commission (CRTC) to obtain a licence for the new network. Unfortunately, in 1986 the CRTC refused to consider the application, and the project never came to fruition.

Filmmakers and their works

French Production celebrated its 25th anniversary in the fall under the banner “Vingt-cinq ans d’images à notre image,” with various events. A major retrospective of more than 80 films was held at the new NFB theatre at Complexe Guy-Favreau and at the Cinémathèque québécoise. The prestigious exhibition Portrait d’un studio d’animation was shown for the first time in Montreal following a successful tour of Europe. The Cinémathèque québécoise also published a special report, “La production française à l’ONF, 25 ans en perspectives,” with contributions from many filmmakers and journalists.

Another highlight was the eloquent documentary Cinéma, cinéma by Gilles Carle and veteran editor Werner Nold, who was awarded the Order of Canada in 1984. The humorous and emotional production, complete with music soundtrack, recounted the story of 25 years of French-language filmmaking and the impact on the public and on cinema. Cinéma, cinéma was seen by 816,000 viewers on February 17, 1985, on “Les beaux dimanches” on Radio-Canada.

Along with the festivities, French Production released some remarkable films in this anniversary year. The feature film Mario, filmed in the magical setting of the Îles-de-la-Madeleine, told the story of two brothers who share an imaginary world until a third person intrudes and a thunderstorm erupts. Inspired by Claude Jasmin’s novel La sablière, Jean Beaudin’s film screened at the Montreal World Film Festival and appeared at movie theatres in October. It was so popular that it played the Dauphin movie theatre in Montreal for 22 weeks in a row.

French Production co-produced two feature films with the private sector. La dame en couleurs by director Claude Jutra, co-produced with Les Productions Pierre Lamy, was about orphans committed to a psychiatric hospital in Quebec during the 1940s. The feature Le crime d’Ovide Plouffe, directed by Denys Arcand and based on the novel of the same name by Roger Lemelin, was a co-production with International Cinema Corporation. It also constituted the last two episodes of a six-part television series, the first four episodes of which, directed by Gilles Carle, had also been co-produced by the NFB French Program.

An extremely interesting genre explored by Canadian cinema in recent years – especially by NFB filmmakers – was the blend of documentary and fiction, known as docudrama. A successful example was Le dernier glacier (The Last Glacier), co-directed by Roger Frappier and Jacques Leduc. The film depicts the disintegration of a marriage, set against the backdrop of a city in its death throes, Schefferville. Documentary and fiction complement each other, frequently reinforced by the use of the split screen.

A similarly symbiotic relationship between documentary and fiction was found in L’ordinateur en tête (Head Start: Meeting the Computer Challenge), Diane Beaudry’s film about women and computers, produced by Studio D in cooperation with the Federal Women’s Film Program. John N. Smith and Giles Walker also chose the docudrama genre for The Masculine Mystique, which tells the story of four very different men and their relationships with women. So did Paul Cowan, who found it the best approach for his film on the struggle of Dr. Henry Morgentaler, Democracy on Trial: The Morgentaler Affair.

Another film from English Production, Abortion: Stories from North and South by Gail Singer, looked at women’s issues in general, with a historical overview of the patriarchal system that lies at the root of abortion policies. The firm won the public jury award at the 16th International Film Festival in Nyon, Switzerland. One of the major productions from Studio D this year was Behind the Veil: Nuns by Margaret Wescott, a two-hour, two-part film on the contribution made by nuns and their oppression through the turbulent history of the Catholic Church.

Several other documentaries attracted attention over the course of the year. Incident at Restigouche by Alanis Obomsawin was a documentary on the fishing rights conflict between the Quebec government and Indians from the Restigouche Reserve, revealing the circumstances and consequences of two raids on the reserve by the Quebec Provincial Police in 1981. Carnets du Maroc I – Mémoire à rebours was the first film in a trilogy by Moroccan-born director Jacques Bensimon, who returned to his native land to recapture his past and examine Morocco now. The sequels, Carnets du Maroc II – Au sujet du roi and Carnets du Maroc III – La volonté et la foi, came out in 1987.

Feeling Yes, Feeling No, a series of three short films by Moira Simpson, was designed to teach children how to protect themselves from sexual assault. The series soon became the bestselling videocassette in NFB history. This was partly due to a partnership with Health and Welfare Canada under which promotional brochures were mailed out with family allowance cheques.

The animation studios in English and French Production produced several films this year. Masquerade by Co Hoedeman drew upon creative ideas and expressive puppets to provide a stimulus for children’s imagination. Amuse-gueule, a humorous fantasy by Robert Awad, addressed the serious issue of world hunger. Paradise/Paradis by Ishu Patel, a superb fable on the theme of envy that made use of colour and motion, won a Silver Bear Award in the short film category at the 35th International Film Festival in Berlin and a special jury prize at the Annecy Animation Festival in 1985. The Boy and the Snow Goose/Le petit garçon et l'oie des neiges by Gayle Thomas is the moving tale of friendship between a small boy and a snow goose. Songs and Dances of the Inanimate World: The Subway/Chants et Danses du monde inanimé - Le Métro by director Pierre Hébert portrays the oppression and alienation of people in the metro through a variety of expressive images and music. The film was awarded the prize for best short- or medium-length film by the Association québécoise des critiques de cinéma.

French Production showed further proof of innovative thinking by creating the Vidéoclips program, encouraging private industry and both public and para-public institutions to produce Canadian videos – further commitment to Canadianizing our airwaves in an area that was crying out for action. The idea for the program came from an experiment to set up Vidéo-Biblio in Saint-Jean, Quebec: Five groups of young people, with the assistance of NFB professionals, produced videos for Michel Rivard’s song “Rumeurs sur la ville.” The experiment was extended over the next few months with two more songs, “Cochez oui, cochez non” by Paul Piché and “Double vie” by Richard Séguin.

Mention must also be made of the IMAXTM film made for the International Louisiana Exhibition that took place in New Orleans from May 12 to November 11. River Journey/Au fil de l'eau, directed by John N. Smith, was extremely popular, carrying spectators down Canadian waterways, using imposing images 10 times the size of the images projected in conventional theatres, along with the latest Dolby six-track sound system. The project required the expertise of NFB engineering staff, who modified an optical bench with the use of an IMAXTM 65 mm camera – a first in the industry.

The NFB also launched the Canada Map. The rectangular bird’s-eye-view map measuring 480 cm by 80 cm was created by computer and hand-painted at the end of the summer. Unveiled by Governor General Edward Schreyer in Ottawa in February at a ceremony attended by 100 guests, the map would be used as a teaching tool with NFB films and other educational products. It came with a guide prepared in conjunction with teachers from across the country for use at elementary and secondary schools. It also drew attention from the business world, receiving an honourable mention from the International Association of Printing House Craftsmen in the Gallery of Superb Printing competition.

Distributing and screening films

The 450th anniversary of Jacques Cartier’s discovery of Canada provided an excellent opportunity to showcase NFB productions on the St. Lawrence River and the discovery of this country. Jacques Cartier – Les deux premiers voyages aux Terres Neufves, a multimedia kit that included filmstrips, maps for overhead projector and posters, attracted great interest from teachers across the land. Over 200 kits were sold in the first few months, and the production was shown in both languages every day at Québec ’84, all summer long in Saint-Malo and before a large crowd at the Canadian Embassy in Paris on St. Jean-Baptiste Day.


In 1985 the NFB cemented its role as a leading cultural institution in this country in several ways. This coincided with several major federal initiatives in film and video: the Caplan-Sauvageau task force on the future of broadcasting in Canada, the Raymond-Roth task force on feature films, and the Jensen-Macerola working group studying the non-theatrical film industry.

Paul Cowan’s docudrama The Kid Who Couldn't Miss, produced in 1982, proved to be controversial. The film recounted the fascinating story of young Ontario native William Avery (Billy) Bishop who, at the age of 23, became Canada’s most decorated military hero after serving in the First World War. The film was not a straightforward biography but a mix of real and fictional elements. The problem was that some people in the film expressed doubts or reservations about Bishop’s exploits.

Commissioner François Macerola had to appear before a Senate sub-committee to answer veterans’ questions about the image of Bishop portrayed in the film. The veterans demanded that the film be withdrawn from circulation. Despite this unprecedented political interference, Macerola refused to accede to their demands. In 1987, a special description was added to the film to clarify the approach and genre.

The NFB logo, created in 1969 by graphic artist Georges Beaupré, was redesigned by animation filmmaker Ishu Patel. The symbolism remained, however – the logo shows how much importance the Film Board attaches to portraying a vision of humanity.

The NFB and some of our filmmakers were the recipients of various honours in 1985. Anne Claire Poirier and Norman McLaren were named Chevaliers of the Ordre national du Québec. Gilles Groulx received the Albert-Tessier Prize, the highest distinction awarded by the Quebec government for outstanding achievement in film. Kathleen Shannon was named a member of the Order of Canada for her excellent work as head of Studio D. Norman McLaren received a lifetime achievement award at the World Animation Festival in Zagreb. The jury of the International Documentary Film Festival in Nyon, Switzerland, unanimously awarded a special prize to the NFB for its exemplary work in developing documentary film since 1939.

Studio D in English Production, known as the Women’s Studio, and the Federal Women’s Program were proclaimed national treasures by the Canadian Institute for Women’s Culture. The press release from the Institute noted that the honour was being bestowed in recognition of their substantial contribution to the women’s movement and their role as vital centres of creative activities whose work had already achieved international fame. It further cited their original and admirable work and their sizeable contribution to the dissemination of knowledge, stimulating the production of many other treasures in every corner of this vast country, where women had been uniting their efforts to present their version of the future.

Filmmakers and their works

While there was nothing new about the NFB producing long feature films with the private sector, producer Roger Frappier took a highly innovative approach in 1985. He suggested setting up a working group that would mix NFB staff filmmakers and independents to make “auteur” films and broaden the creative and financial base. Director Léa Pool and filmmaker Denys Arcand were invited to join the group. The Montreal production house Les Films Vision 4 Inc. was approached as a co-producer on Pool’s film Anne Trister. In exchange, they offered the NFB a second co-production, Yves Simoneau’s Pouvoir intime (Intimate Power). Denys Arcand’s project Le déclin de l’empire américain (The Decline of the American Empire) went to another Quebec production house, Corporation Image M & M Limitée.

Anne Trister, a tender film about a young woman’s search for meaning in the wake of her father’s death, was the first of the three co-productions to be released. It was immediately chosen for the official competition at the 1986 Berlin Festival, where it received great acclaim. The film went on to win the public prize and a best actress award for Louise Marleau at the Créteil Women’s Festival in France, while at home it continued its successful theatrical release around the province.

Intimate Power could not have been more different in style and content, yet it also struck a chord with critics and audiences alike. A suspenseful thriller about the hijacking of a bank truck, the film opened in Montreal and Quebec City to excellent reviews, particularly for its young director.

Le déclin de l’empire américain (The Decline of the American Empire) takes a satirical, contemporary look at the sexual mores of a group of Quebec intellectuals. It was invited to open the prestigious Directors’ Fortnight at the 1986 Cannes Film Festival, where the International Federation of Film Writers awarded the film the FIPRESCI prize. It also won eight Genies in Toronto and was the first Canadian full-length feature film to be nominated for an Oscar® in Los Angeles.

French Production maintained a busy schedule in Ontario, Acadia and the West, where the feature film Le vieillard et l’enfant (The Old Man and the Child) by Claude Grenier was filmed, with a screenplay by Clément Perron based on a story by Gabrielle Roy. This evocative film about friendship, life and death was screened to a packed house in Winnipeg and later broadcast by Radio-Canada.

NFB co-productions were not limited to feature films. Gilles Carle returned to the Film Board to make Ô Picasso (O Picasso) with the Montreal-based Association coopérative de productions audiovisuelles (ACPAV). Carle combined his artistic roots with his superior mastery of filmmaking for this look at the most famous painter of our time, examining Picasso’s life and work.

As controversial free-trade talks between Canada and the United States got underway, Final Offer provided a behind-the-scenes look at the United Auto Workers of Canada and their charismatic leader, Bob White. The film was broadcast on the CBC, followed by a half-hour program hosted by Peter Mansbridge that took the issue one step further through a series of interviews with Canadian auto workers and their leader on the subject of breaking away from the U.S. parent union. Final Offer aroused great interest from audiences who were eager to take a closer look at the events surrounding major decisions that affected one in seven Canadian workers.

Internationally acclaimed writer-director Donald Brittain used the docudrama form in Canada's Sweetheart: The Saga of Hal C. Banks to portray the man who dominated Canada’s maritime workers through his brutal hold on the Seafarers’ International Union of Canada. The docudrama was based on court transcripts and interviews with some of the key players in the real-life saga.

The question of peace was at the heart of the three-part Defence of Canada series, which defied the odds by becoming the most-watched NFB production of the year, with an average of 1,260,000 viewers per episode. The audience was rather different from the average as well – 62% of viewers were under the age of 50, twice the number in that age group who regularly watched CBC public affairs programs. Hosted by journalist and military historian Gwynne Dyer and directed by Tina Viljoen, the series followed on the heels of War, an earlier NFB series that was broadcast earlier in 1985 on the PBS network in the United States.

Although the English Program branch was renowned for treating serious topics seriously, this year it proved that it could also look at the lighter side. Director Giles Walker did just that in 90 Days, an ironic ode to the “new man” inspired by the recent success of The Masculine Mystique. In a low-budget innovative feature film using non-professional actors, Walker managed to win over critics and audiences alike. At the same time, he created a most pleasant anomaly in the Canadian feature film distribution system – not only was 90 Days widely seen, but it recouped its costs in a very short period of time. After surprising and delighting audiences at summer festivals in Montreal and Toronto, the film was seen across the country. On the festival circuit, it picked up prizes in Chicago, Mannheim and Rio de Janeiro, and bids for U.S. distribution began arriving. The NFB happily chalked up the largest single sale of any of its films ever.

Master humorist Richard Condie made everyone laugh. The musician, composer, writer and animator turned his talents to filmmaking with The Big Snit. This playful, original film took a look at two simultaneous conflicts – a couple’s domestic disputes and global nuclear war. The production won Best Animated Short at the Genie Awards and was also nominated for an Oscar®.

Distributing and screening films

NFB films and videos became much more accessible in 1985 through a series of agreements between the NFB and municipal libraries and cultural institutions in three important areas of Quebec – Québec City, Chicoutimi and Rimouski. In the provincial capital, a five-year agreement that was signed with the Canadian Institute of Québec City resulted in the NFB moving its regional office to the Gabrielle Roy Library. The net effect of the move was immediately apparent, with borrowing of videocassettes from the library’s five branches shooting up from 335 to an astonishing 5,525. Similarly striking changes were registered in the Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean region, where the NFB moved to the Chicoutimi Socio-Cultural Centre. In the Lower St. Laurence region, the NFB moved to Rimouski City Hall, where circulation doubled even before the official opening was organized. Over the next five years, the NFB planned to sign similar agreements with other cities from coast to coast.

In January 1985, French Distribution signed an agreement with First Choice: ECTV Inc. to broadcast 25 short films, including L’affaire Bronswik (The Bronswik Affair), Les tacots (Soap-Box Derby) and Les « troubbes » de Johnny (Les \"Troubbes\" de Johnny). Vidéotron showed hundreds of NFB films on cable TV under a program called Cinéma sur demande. Some interesting figures: over the previous nine years, NFB films were broadcast 94,839 times, and 29 French Program films shown more than 500 times each.

Research and technology

Front-screen projection for special effects was used during the filming of Les terribles vivantes – Louky Bersianik, Jovette Marchessault, Nicole Brossard (Firewords: Louky Bersianik, Jovette Marchessault, Nicole Brossard). A modern-day variation on the old rear-screen projection system, this composite photography required perfect alignment of camera and projector. The result was the merging of live action with projected backgrounds in a much more convincing way than was ever achieved with rear-screen projection. During the shoot, more than 200 technicians and creative staff from the NFB and the private sector gathered on the set for a seminar on the system.

Engineering developed a prototype for Ciné-textTM, a low-cost electronic LED display for subtitles prompted by time codes on the film print. A more elaborate version, based on digital recognition of sound modulation on the soundtrack to ensure synchronized titles, would be presented for the first time at the 1990 meeting of the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE) in New York. It was officially launched in November 1990 at the gala for the Cinémathèque québécoise.

The EditDroid, a new computer-assisted editing facility for film, was also installed in 1985. Designed by Lucasfilm of San Raphael, California, for 35 mm film, EditDroid was adapted for 16 mm by NFB Research and Development Services. With this unique system, which many predicted would replace the traditional editing table, film rushes were transferred to video, edited electronically and transferred back to film. The most advantageous feature of the system was that, with the touch of a button, material could be manipulated quickly and endlessly, eliminating the use of scissors and splicing tape.

An R&D project that involved all aspects of the Services Division was a Canadian design for a video cassette dispensing machine operated by credit or membership cards. The prototype was under development with Continental Research and Development and TERTEC Entreprises Inc., both of Toronto. These veritable vaults of visual material would have a capacity of about 200 cassettes.


The NFB rigorously applied administrative measures and followed the Operational Plan drawn up in 1984. Now two major projects became its primary concerns: implementing the employment equity program and submitting an application to create TV Canada and Télé-Canada.

Increasing the participation of women in all aspects and levels of filmmaking was a priority at the National Film Board. In February, the NFB published Equality and Access: A New Social Contract. The report marked the beginning of a concrete employment-equity program aiming for parity between men and women in all positions and levels at the NFB. However, the Film Board now wanted to extend the program to independent companies with which it would sign agreements in the future. The program would change progressively, aiming for parity by 1996.

Pursuant to recommendations in the Caplan-Sauvageau Report on Broadcasting, and in response to the call for applications for specialized services issued on August 13 by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, the NFB took the initiative, on behalf of a not-for-profit corporation, of submitting an application for licences for two new non-commercial, specialized, public-interest television services: TV Canada and Télé-Canada. Complementing existing public and private networks, the services would primarily aim to provide Canadian productions, high-quality foreign programs and programs devoted to specific topics, such as art and science, as well as children’s programs. The NFB saw these new services as an additional outlet for its films and videos. The possible establishment of TV Canada and Télé-Canada would be entirely in keeping with the spirit and the letter of legislation stipulating the NFB’s role as a public producer and distributor of films. The application was submitted to the CRTC on April 30, 1987, but was turned down in November.

In the wake of the phenomenal success of such films as Anne Trister, Pouvoir intime (Intimate Power) and Le déclin de l’empire américain (The Decline of the American Empire), the NFB and Telefilm Canada signed an agreement to commit $11 million to French-language feature films in Quebec. The fund supported a number of co-productions with the private sector. These included Un zoo la nuit, a huge success at Cannes, Kalamazoo, Tinamer, Tristesse modèle réduit, Trois pommes à côté du sommeil and Les portes tournantes, adapted from a novel by Acadian writer Jacques Savoie, which won an honourable mention from the ecumenical jury at the Cannes Festival.

Filmmakers and their works

Perhaps at no other time was the NFB’s role as an innovator of technology as clear as in 1986, when 1.7 million visitors from around the world passed through the CN Theatre at Vancouver’s World Fair to witness a cinematic event called Transitions. Produced by the NFB for Canada Harbour Place Corporation and sponsored by Canadian National at a cost of $4 million, the film was not just the runaway hit of Expo ’86: Transitions represented a revolutionary landmark and was considered the ultimate 3-D film. At Expo ’67 in Montreal, the NFB had achieved widespread recognition for In the Labyrinth, a multi-screen masterpiece directed by Roman Kroitor, Colin Low and Hugh O'Connor. That success was followed by the completion in 1970 of the IMAXTM system, which produced stunningly vivid images on screens 23 metres high and 30.5 metres wide – an achievement of which Kroitor was the non-NFB originator.

In 1984, Colin Low and Ernest McNabb filmed the opening moments of Transitions – 20 paddlers in canoes re-enacting an early Canadian commercial voyage – by filming simultaneously and stereoscopically, using two IMAXTM cameras positioned in a prototype camera assembly built by Istec Limited of Hamilton, Ontario. Low had dreamed for more than a decade of taking the experience of IMAXTM into the realm of 3-D – a daring idea that worked. Transitions, an impressionistic film, charted the evolution of Canada’s transportation and telecommunication networks. The film included several minutes of state-of-the-art graphics created by the NFB’s new Computer Animation Centre. While the 3-D films of the past had invariably given viewers a headache, Transitions was a painless experience. Just as In the Labyrinth spawned Toronto’s dynamic IMAXTM Systems Corporation (with 50 IMAXTM theatres around the world), so Low’s 3-D breakthrough opened a new frontier of opportunity.

On the other end of the budget scale, John N. Smith managed to produce Sitting in Limbo, an alternative drama that was a huge hit, on a shoestring. The film, which used ordinary people instead of professional actors, focused on the problems of unemployment and teenage pregnancy among young Blacks in Montreal. Sitting in Limbo won awards at the Montreal World Film Festival (best Canadian film out of competition), the Festival of Festivals in Toronto (honourable mention for “its freshness and vitality”) and International Film Week in Mannheim, Germany.

Paule Baillargeon was commissioned to make a film about Alzheimer’s disease. Instead of doing a documentary, the actor and director decided to take a fictional approach. The result, a film called Sonia, was very warmly received by both the public and the critics, and L’Association québécoise des critiques de cinéma awarded it the André Leroux Award for best medium-length production at the Rendez-vous du cinéma québécois.

The NFB’s sterling international reputation in the documentary field was due in no small part to Donald Brittain, ranked by an American critic as one of the world’s top three documentary filmmakers and named to the Order of Canada in 1989. In 1986, Brittain and NFB producer Adam Symansky consolidated that reputation with a number of projects, starting with The Final Battle, the long-awaited concluding chapter of Brittain’s incisive documentary trilogy The Champions, on former prime minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau and former Quebec premier René Lévesque. CBC broadcast all three segments in early September. Brittain also wrote and narrated Tommy Douglas: Keeper of the Flame, a documentary portrait of the politician who led the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation to power in Saskatchewan and led the New Democrats to Ottawa.

Studio D had been around since 1974 as part of English Production, but there had been no equivalent on the French side. To fill that gap, the NFB set up the Regards de femmes program, headed by producer Josée Beaudet. The program’s mandate was to produce documentaries that reflected women’s concerns in terms of their social, cultural, economic and political relationships with men.

With Discussions in Bioethics: A Chronic Problem, a series of nine films, the NFB took square aim at the new moral issues in society. Topics ranged from cancer to the moral quandary of working in a chemical plant, from placement in a seniors’ residence to the sterilization of a single mother of three without her consent – all in all, many weighty issues for discussion.

Initial reaction to Daughters of the Country from English Program was so favourable that the series promised to become one of the NFB’s most successful productions. Showcased at MIP-TV in Cannes, it was instantly sold to 10 countries. The four-part dramatic series documented the evolution of the Métis people through the lives of Métis women, whose indomitable courage and perseverance were disquieting reminders that even today, in the country they helped build, the Métis are still a people caught between two worlds. The passionate and spirited realism of Daughters of the Country resides in the hearts and souls of the characters and in the impressive performances of the actors, themselves descendants of the original Métis. In 1987, the NFB received an award for best producer at the 12th Annual American Indian Film Festival in California for the series and its contribution to the cause of Canadian Aboriginals.

Filmed in 16 countries and produced with the assistance of hundreds of volunteers, The Journey, British director Peter Watkins’ 14-hour documentary on nuclear arms, spurred debate on this important issue for years. Of course, grass-roots impact was exactly what Watkins was striving to achieve with his epic condemnation of militarism.

The human condition was the subject of La casa, a disturbing documentary by Michel Régnier, a filmmaker with great awareness and passion for the Third World. In Guayaquil, Ecuador, 900,000 people are crowded into barrios on the swampy edges of the city, where they live in pile-foundation shacks and dream of… a house. With great sensitivity, Régnier takes us into the lives of a family with 22 members, trying to keep their hopes up and live a semblance of a normal life under the most precarious circumstances.

And yet, there is an earthly paradise, as Bernard Gosselin discovered on the island of Anticosti, a stone’s throw from Newfoundland. In the full-length documentary L’Anticoste, this remote island is revealed as a rare jewel with a fabulous past, virtually untouched wildlife and warm-hearted people who inhabit the sole village, Port Menier. Gosselin had been cameraman and colleague of Pierre Perrault, who took the spirit of discovery in a different direction, completing La grande allure this year. The film was yet another chapter in his on-going love affair with the St. Lawrence River. Reflecting further on the country, its culture and its pioneers, it retraces Jacques Cartier’s voyage from St. Malo up the St. Lawrence, using sailors and scholars to interpret the explorer’s own writings from the 16th century.

Perrault, in turn, became the subject of a film by Jean-Daniel Lafond, who created in Les traces du rêve (Dream Tracks), a larger-than-life portrait of Perrault, the man and his works. This bold first feature film was a moving documentary on a man engaged in a unique quest for his native land, the maker of Pour la suite du monde (Of Whales, the Moon and Men) and an acknowledged master of “cinéma direct.”

Literature and the concept of homeland take on another dimension in Toutes les photos finissent par se ressembler, a docudrama produced by New Brunswick poet and writer Herménégilde Chiasson. The film tells the touching tale of a writer and his teenaged daughter who has come to show him her first manuscript, but the story behind the story is the birth of modern Acadian literature and the parallel political struggle of the Acadians.

The Animation Studio in French Production had been debating for some time how to make animation more accessible to the public. Jacques Giraldeau, the director of Opéra Zéro, decided that the best way was to tell a story about real-life people whose lives were changed by the discovery of animation – L’homme de papier (Moving Picture). About 20 clips from animated productions were integrated into the story, each illustrating a different technique.

The Studio also produced a unique documentary kit to go with the film called “Le manuel de L’homme de papier.” The kit included a brochure with illustrations and guidelines on animation, games and exercises, all made by animation filmmakers. By manipulating the different parts of the kit and following the instructions, viewers could learn the principles of breaking down movements into their components and try out special techniques. In 1987, “Le manuel de L’homme de papier” won the Gutenberg Award from the International Association of Graphic Arts Craftsmen in the International Gallery of Printing Excellence contest.

Like Mindscape/Le paysagiste, Nightangel/L'heure des anges by Jacques Drouin and Bretislav Pojar, was made on a pinscreen, a technique invented by Alexandre Alexeïeff and Claire Parker. The screen used for the film had been commissioned from the inventors by Norman McLaren − a shrewd act as there were only three pinscreens left in the world. Since the death of Alexeïeff in 1981, Drouin was the only one left who knew the secrets of the art. The originality of this innovative work, which depicts the dreams and disappointments of a man who becomes blind after an accident, lay in the combination of two disparate techniques: the pinscreen and puppets. The film was a Canada-Czechoslovakia co-production, with the puppetry performed in Prague by co-director Bretislav Pojar.

Research and technology

One of R&D’s major projects this year was the development of a software program that essentially turned a Macintosh personal computer into a computerized animation stand. Developed in partnership with Softhansa of West Berlin, the program allowed animators to digitize their art, which meant they could indicate the movements of their characters with much greater precision to camera operators. Eddy Zwaneveld, the engineer in charge of the project for the NFB, said that the German scientists were developing a fairly elementary system capable of moving on three axes, but with NFB input, it was expanded to eight axes. This major project was slated for completion by the end of 1987.


The NFB and the Institut québécois du cinéma sponsored a project to set up a film school in Montreal. A recommendation to that effect had been made in 1982 by the Commission d’étude sur le cinéma, but it had come to nothing. Five years later, the Institut and the NFB formed a not-for-profit company that began by conducting a broad-based consultation of professional associations regarding a training program. In 1989, an agreement was signed by representatives of the various groups with an interest in the project, and a board of trustees was put together to coordinate the creation of a professional training centre, the Institut national de l’image et du son (INIS). Not until January 1996 did the INIS welcome the first group of students to a program on documentaries, television fiction and feature films. In the meantime, filmmakers continued to learn their craft on the job, from people who had themselves gained their early experience by applying skills acquired in the fine arts, literature, theatre, sociology and other domains.

Filmmakers and their works

Various French productions at the NFB made international headlines in 1987. It all began in the Dominican Republic with Michel Régnier’s Sucre noir (Black Sugar). Canadian tourists who watched the film were amazed to learn that the luxurious beaches bordered on a world of exploitation, with more than 200,000 sugar-cane workers and their families living in virtual slavery. It was hell, straight from the bygone days of pirates and Caribbean slave traders, and the tourists had been unwitting accomplices. The film, launched in collaboration with OXFAM-Québec, was part of an extensive campaign to expose the situation. In reaction to Sucre noir, a committee was spontaneously formed in Montreal to pressure Canadian authorities to intervene with the government of the Dominican Republic. Screened in Geneva at the request of one of the United Nations agencies, the film opened the Bahia Festival in Brazil in fall 1988, marking the hundredth anniversary of the abolition of slavery in that country.

A month later, Haïti, Nous là! Nou La! by Tahani Rached − who had made Haïti (Québec) in 1985 − was broadcast on Radio Canada’s program Le Point, although filming had been brutally cut short. The crew had been forced to flee under heavy gunfire, temporarily abandoning the documentary on Haitian democracy just before the first presidential elections after the end of the Duvalier regime. The raw footage provided ample evidence of the profound commitment of the Haitian people and the reign of terror they had lived under for so long.

Another film that took us beyond our borders was L’américanité, created by Éric Michel. The series was a return to the great thematic programs, providing an analytical and poetic glance at the values and contemporary realities touching Quebecers, who live in a North American context. The unique formula for the series began with discussion groups, involving five directors who would then set off to make their own films. Two of the films were about territorial exploration – Le voyage au bout de la route ou La ballade du pays qui attend and Voyage en Amérique avec un cheval emprunté – while two others were about American writers with French-Canadian roots, Alias Will James and Le grand Jack/Jack Kerouac's Road - A Franco-American Odyssey. The fifth, L’amour… à quel prix ?, dealt with women’s issues, and the final episode examined our consumer society in La poursuite du bonheur.

It had become a nearly annual tradition for an NFB crew from English Production to release a film uncorking a new wave of public appreciation for the Film Board’s innovative and socially engaged brand of filmmaking. In 1988, that achievement went to Beverly Shaffer and Studio D for To a Safer Place, a heart-wrenching documentary that confronted millions of North Americans with the horrific yet all too real spectre of child sexual abuse. Prior to winning the coveted Emily Award for best film at the American Film and Video Festival in New York, the documentary was televised to a prime-time audience of 10 million on the PBS current affairs program “Front Line.”

Donald Brittain’s docudrama on the life and times of Mackenzie King brilliantly evoked King’s epic career as Canadian prime minister for 22 years. The NFB/CBC co-production The King Chronicle, one of Canada’s most ambitious film projects, covered several separate periods. The production involved huge casts of extras and a $200,000 budget for costumes alone. Most impressive of all was the final product, a six-hour chronicle that opened a rich vault of Canadian history and re-staged King’s manoeuvres through the political mine fields of his time. The King Chronicle, broadcast by the CBC over three nights in March, drew an average audience of 1,185,000 viewers, with virtually no variation between the first and last episodes – strong ratings for a program with content that rated high on the intellectual scale.

The NFB’s commitment to its regional studios was yielding admirable results. Another strong example this year was Foster Child, a documentary directed by Gil Cardinal of the North West Studio. Cardinal’s search for his real parents – an expedition that turns up distant cousins, an uncle and aunt, and the wife of a brother he never knew – reveals as much about Aboriginal social conditions in Canada and bureaucratic intransigence as it does about the unsettled psyche of an orphan.

The animated short George and Rosemary by Alison Snowden and David Fine offered an upbeat, light-hearted answer to the question: Is there romance after the age of 65? The sensitive treatment of the subject cast a rare glow over the issues of aging and loneliness. The film won a Genie and was nominated for an Oscar® in 1988. Problems that affect seniors were approached in a much more serious way in two films made by the Ontario studio, Mr. Nobody and A House Divided: Caregiver Stress and Elder Abuse, which dealt with distinct issues: self-neglect and abuse of the elderly by over-stressed caregivers.

The Multimedia Production Studio was breaking new ground in educational technology with a pilot series of interactive classroom videos called Perspectives in Science. The series grew out of a need for audiovisual materials compatible with new teaching methods being used in high-school science programs across the country. Along with basic scientific concepts, students were now studying modern technological applications of scientific theory and evaluating the socio-environmental impact of these applications. The method, known as the STS connection (Science-Technology-Society), was applied in the People and Science series with three videos: People and Science: A Test of Time, on toxic waste; People and Science: Waiting for the Flies to Die, on biotechnology; and People and Science: Deadlines, on water. Three more episodes, on the forest, the earth and air, were also in production.

Research and technology

In partnership with Softhansa of Germany, Tigertec Electronics of Montreal and Integration Inc., the NFB developed the digitized AniMasterTM animation-stand system, which simulated models and recorded takes electronically. It was designed to facilitate the definition and execution of multiple complex functions.

The NFB also developed the CleopatraTM interactive video work station, used for laying out various source materials and efficient authoring by non computer programmers. It was specially designed for authors or editors of educational and instructional films.


In June, the federal government recognized the NFB’s role as Canada’s public producer as nothing short of essential by awarding it $25 million in funding – $5 million a year – for “auteur” feature films to be co-produced with the independent sector. English Program administered $3 million of that funding and French Program, $2 million. Several co-productions made in 1988 from that fund were some of Canada’s best feature films: The Last Winter (Last Winter Corporation/NFB), Beautiful Dreamers (Starway Films Inc./NFB), George's Island (Salter Street Films Limited/NFB), Le party (Association coopérative de productions audiovisuelles/NFB), Les noces de papier (Paper Wedding) (Les Productions du Verseau inc./NFB), Portion d’éternité (Productions du Regard inc./NFB), Cruising Bar (Les Productions Vidéofilms Ltée/NFB) and Jésus de Montréal (Jesus of Montreal) (Max Films Productions/Gérard Mital Productions/NFB). Directed by Denys Arcand, Jesus of Montreal was chosen for the official competition at the Cannes Festival, where it won the Jury Grand Prize and the Ecumenical Jury Award. It also won 11 Genies, including awards for best motion picture, best actor and best original screenplay.

In his annual report, Commissioner François Macerola noted how exciting it was to sign, on behalf of the NFB, a co-production agreement with Lavalin Communications Inc. to make Emergency/Urgence, a daring project that was highly innovative in terms of technology and represented a major advance in cinematography. It was quite a challenge, especially as the NFB had only six months to produce the film – a time frame many considered impossible. Yet the film opened the new IMAXTM theatre at the Old Port in Montreal on June 15, 1988, and became one of the highlights of Expotec. In Emergency/Urgence, filmmakers Colin Low and Tony Ianzelo focused on advances in medical technology in Canada, notably cardiology. State-of-the-art computer-generated techniques developed by the Computer Animation Centre highlighted with astounding realism the delicate operations performed by Quebec cardiologists. The film was seen by more than 280,000 people.

In December, six months before the end of his term, Commissioner François Macerola left the NFB to take a position with Lavalin Communications. Vice-Film Commissioner Joan Pennefather was appointed Acting Commissioner until September 15, 1989, when she was officially named Government Film Commissioner and Chairperson of the NFB.

Filmmakers and their works

The documentary that triggered the most debate this year was Disparaître, the first part of the series Enjeux d’une nation. In addition to examining the consequences of Quebec’s low birth rate, the film expressed concern over the destiny of the French-Canadian nation in the long and short terms. Nearly 800,000 viewers watched the television premiere on Radio-Canada’s program “Les beaux dimanches.”

Anne Claire Poirier received the Albert-Tessier Award from the government of Quebec for lifetime achievement in cinema. Her most recent project, Salut Victor!, was an intimate fictional film about two endearing old men who meet by chance in a home for senior citizens. Salut Victor! was one of the 10 films made as co-productions with four production houses in the private sector. The participation of the NFB, which produced two of the films and played an important role in the others, was a key factor in the success of this experiment in low-budget feature films for the general public, which were broadcast on Radio-Québec in prime time.

English Program’s DramaLab was designed to hone the skills of Canadian artists working within the format of 15-minute dramas. The Without Work series on the theme of unemployment was written, directed and produced by DramaLab participants and slated for screening at the June 1989 Banff Television Festival.

Documentaries of all kinds are based on in-depth research and a near-obsessive quest for truth. Director Alanis Obomsawin, who grew up with the smell of ash and sweet grass at her Abenaki home, turned to the darker side of Montreal to show what happens to young Native people when they reach the big city in No Address. For Obomsawin, films provide a “bridge” so that Native people can be heard.

The documentary See No Evil..., set against a sinister factory landscape, was a gritty portrayal of some employers’ lack of concern for worker safety. Starting with an industrial accident in November 1979 that maimed and blinded worker Terry Ryan, the film tells the story of Stan Grey, the union safety rep for the plant who took on the Ontario Labour Relations Board and the Department of Labour in his search for justice for Ryan.

L’espoir violent was perhaps one of the most authentic documentaries ever made on mental illness. In this disturbing film, human beings, prisoners of their own minds as well as prisoners of society, express their suffering, complaints and expectations, calling for more attention to their needs and desires as part of an overall respect for human dignity. Similar themes also figure in La peau et les os. Inspired by historical fact and contemporary cases, the docudrama explores two psychological disorders that had become more prevalent among young people, anorexia and bulimia. The film’s intensely human perspective and topical subject matter accounted for its success. It played for several weeks at the Cinéma Parisien in Montreal and at Cinéma Place-Québec in Québec City, exceptionally long runs for a docudrama.

The Regards de femmes program looked into a new social phenomenon – blended families. Singulier pluriel follows the adventures of two couples as they attempt the difficult task of rebuilding a new family unit. In On a pus les parents qu’on avait, children from various age groups speak their minds about living in a situation imposed on them by adults. The documentary was shown on the TVA network in 1989 on the program “Le match de la vie,” followed, exceptionally, by a one-hour round table moderated by Claude Charron with the parents of children who had their say in the film.

At the Ottawa International Animation Festival in October, Pierre Hébert was awarded the Norman McLaren Heritage Prize for lifetime achievement. The prize was created and awarded by ASIFA-Canada and Guy Glover for Norman McLaren’s estate. Hébert’s latest film, La Lettre d'amour, was an improvised performance uniting dance, music, poetic narrative and images drawn directly on film.

The Cat Came Back, directed by Cordell Barker of the Prairie Studio, was a zany reworking of the children’s sing-along song about Old Mr. Johnson’s attempt to get rid of his little yellow cat. It was shown in Canadian theatres with the John Cleese film A Fish Called Wanda, and was included in the CBC’s retrospective of animated short films before going on to win awards at film festivals in Zagreb, Los Angeles, Chicago, Rouyn-Noranda and Shanghai. The film also won a Genie in Toronto for best animated short and was nominated for an Oscar®.

Research and technology

In partnership with Tigertec Electronics of Montreal, the NFB designed and developed The BrainTM, a sophisticated computerized special effects system designed to plan, memorize and execute the movements of cameras, dollies and objects. The camera dolly was made by Engineering.

The Sound GenieTM was a digital management system devised to update and modernize the Sound Effects Library. The NFB maintained a sound library containing 40,000 sound effects stored on reels of tape, but accessing this material was time-consuming, and sound quality deteriorates over time − especially in a system providing inadequate protection. The Sound Genie and R-DAT technology solved these problems, as sound was recorded digitally, cataloguing was done electronically and materials were handled robotically. Devised jointly with Tertec Enterprises Inc. of Markham, Ontario, the system, with its initial recording capacity of 2,000 hours of digital stereo, positioned the NFB Sound Section as one of the world’s largest and most modern sound banks.


In this 50th anniversary year, great numbers of Canadians joined the festivities at NFB studios across Canada. The Open House held at headquarters in Montreal from April 29 to May 2 saw more than 24,000 people pour through the doors, eager to learn more about the artisans, behind the scenes and the secrets of filmmaking.

The French Animation booth was one of the most popular activities organized to mark the milestone. Filmmakers welcomed visitors into their own studios, where they explained and demonstrated how they work – everything from puppet animation and pinscreens to scratching on film, computer animation and 3D images. Two short films and a vignette were specially produced for the occasion. The first short, Bruce Mackay’s amusing Audition, was highly original, taking the Open House audience behind the screen to see the different steps in making a movie. In Anniversary/L'anniversaire, characters take us through the stages of filmmaking, as Marc Aubry and Michel Hébert demonstrate the many possibilities of computer animation.

In English Program, filmmaker George Geersten managed to tell the story of Canada in 60 seconds through NFB productions in Anniversary Vignette – a record! Animation is one of the jewels in the NFB’s crown, and in 1989 the Film Board paid tribute to the art by naming the main building in Montreal the Norman McLaren Building in honour of the genius, who had died in 1987.

Four esteemed filmmakers – Anne Claire Poirier, Jacques Godbout, Kathleen Shannon and Colin Low – agreed to serve as special cultural ambassadors for the NFB this year, as honours were heaped on the Film Board. The whole world saluted its achievements, with tangible tributes including a Genie in Toronto, an Honourable Rockie Award in Banff, a commemorative plaque in Cannes, the Don Quichotte prize in Annecy and an honorary Oscar® in Los Angeles. The Oscar was awarded to the NFB “in recognition of its fiftieth anniversary and its dedicated commitment to originate artistic, creative and technological activity and excellence in every area of filmmaking.”

At the Cannes Festival, 50 ans, a compilation put together by Gilles Carle, received a Golden Palm Award to mark the NFB’s 50th anniversary and its ongoing efforts to promote Canadian cinema. The NFB’s Oscar, Genies and Golden Palms were taken on a cross-Canada tour, and more than 10,000 people were photographed holding one of the coveted trophies. Canada Post also issued a commemorative stamp to mark 50 years of filmmaking at the NFB.

Throughout the history of the NFB, documentary has been the most effective film genre in fulfilling its role as public producer. One of the most far-reaching of the 50th anniversary events, a symposium called A Salute to Documentary/Le documentaire se fête, was held in Montreal in June. The event underscored the NFB’s international leadership role in the development of documentary film and the vitality of the genre worldwide. Three hundred films were screened in several theatres, and 1,200 participants came from 46 countries to attend the symposium. In a welcoming though occasionally turbulent atmosphere, documentary makers from around the world discussed the historical development, current state and future prospects of documentary film. One of the major recommendations made as the event came to a close was for the NFB to play a leadership role in the documentary cinema at the world level and provide continuity for the active stance taken at the symposium.

In September, Joan Pennefather, who had served as Film Commissioner and Chairperson of the NFB on an interim basis since December 1988, became the first woman to officially hold the position.

The International Union of Technical Cinematograph Associations (UNIATEC) held its congress in North America for the first time. The meeting took place in Montreal in October under the auspices of the NFB and was chaired by Marcel Carrière. UNIATEC presented an award of excellence to the NFB at the congress.

In December, another film was released to celebrate the 50th anniversary – this time from the woman’s point of view. Filmmaker Anne Claire Poirier’s Il y a longtemps que je t’aime, premiered at the Cinémathèque québécoise, was a collage presenting the changing image of women in NFB films over the past 50 years – images that had been almost exclusively presented by men for many years.

Filmmakers and their works

One of the most exciting projects this year was the IMAXTM-OMNIMAXRM film The First Emperor of China, filmed on the Terracotta Army archaeological site in China, where the secrets of the Qin dynasty lie buried. Directed by Tony Ianzelo and Liu Hao Xue, the film recounts the story of the warrior king Qin Shihuang, who united the provinces of China, and takes us into the royal palace. Spectacular images of unparalleled clarity and definition show the tomb of the emperor and the earthenware statues of his fallen soldiers. The $7 million co-production involved the Canadian Museum of Civilization, Crawley Films Ltd. and the China Xian Film Studios. Through this type of agreement, the NFB was trying to make the giant screen technology it had helped create accessible to as many production and distribution companies as possible. The NFB went on to give The First Emperor of China worldwide distribution.

Two other anniversaries were marked this year: the 15th anniversary of the Programme hors Québec (regional production in French) and the 15th anniversary of the Women’s Studio, the famous Studio D. The first public production unit in the world devoted exclusively to women’s issues, the Studio had more than 100 films to its credit to date. Goddess Remembered and Half the Kingdom were two highly acclaimed films that came out in 1989. Goddess Remembered examined the history of women’s spirituality, starting around 3,500 BC, when women were respected as the source of life, wisdom and justice. The film was launched nationally during September and October and selected for the Toronto Festival of Festivals, the Vancouver International Film Festival and the Edmonton Insight Festival of Films and Videos by Women. Half the Kingdom focused on seven well-known women from Canada, the United States and Israel struggling to interpret their Jewish heritage with a feminine perspective. This Studio D-Kol Ishah co-production was launched nationally with several national Jewish women’s organizations and local synagogue leaders.

With two production centres in Acadia and Ontario, the Programme de production régionale en français sought to reflect the realities of the country’s diverse francophone cultures through works by freelance filmmakers. A case in point was the Franc-Ouest collection, made for adolescents from the western provinces, which this year produced Jours de plaine. This short animated film was selected for the official competition at the Cannes Film Festival. Inspired by an original song by Daniel Lavoie, Jours de plaine appealed for solidarity among the world’s great family of francophones. Lavoie also created the music for the fifth film in the Franc-Ouest collection, Entre l’effort et l’oubli.

The NFB released two major productions during the 1989 Canadian film festival season that drew international acclaim. Justice Denied and Welcome to Canada were first seen at the Montreal World Film Festival and the Festival of Festivals in Toronto. Justice Denied was the powerful story of Donald Marshall, a 17-year-old Nova Scotia Micmac who was condemned to a maximum-security prison for a murder he did not commit. Paul Cowan’s dramatized account of this travesty of justice covers the 11 years during which Marshall remained a prisoner, until his case was reopened and he was found innocent. In Welcome to Canada, John N. Smith tells the deeply moving story of a group of Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka who are set adrift off the shores of Newfoundland, and the people of a small fishing village who care for the confused arrivals.

Several new films were added to the catalogue for the Regards de femmes program. Qui va chercher Giselle à 3 h 45? comes to the distressing conclusion that for parents, especially mothers, managing a professional career and a family life at the same time can be an extraordinary feat. The film was awarded the André-Leroux Prize for best medium-length film of the year by the Association québécoise des critiques de cinéma. Selected by the 1990 International Festival of Films on Art, Ferron, Marcelle won the prize for best portrait of an artist. The importance of growing old with dignity was shown in Les pouvoirs de l’âge (The Power of Time) while Femmes en campagne (A Time to Reap) told the triumphant story of women farmers in Quebec who had recently achieved an enviable economic and legal status.

A range of innovative animated productions were released this year, including Juke-Bar, directed by Martin Barry, which earned enthusiastic reviews in Canada and abroad. Barry’s short film, combining live-action and puppet animation, won the seventh Cinéaste recherché(e) contest and carried off three major awards, the grand prize for best short film at the Montreal World Film Festival, the Genie for best animated film and the Silver Hugo for its category at the Chicago Film Festival. At a time when few short films were being shown in commercial theatres, Juke-Bar ran for 18 weeks with the film Les matins infidèles in Quebec and at 66 Famous Players theatres across Canada with the feature Crazy People.

Research and technology

DigiSyncTM, an innovative digital film counter and film edge code reader developed by the NFB and built by Research in Motion of Waterloo, Ontario, proved highly successful in the marketplace. Eastman Kodak, which purchased one of the first quantities of the unit, demonstrated its applications at several shows. A number of international companies soon requested distribution licences. The system could read the new bar code edge numbers, a much more efficient way to handle the film.

DigiSoundTM, an analog-compatible cinema digital sound system using optical recording on 35 mm film, had its public launch at the 17th UNIATEC conference in Montreal. Just one month earlier, the system had written the first digital track on 35 mm sound film. The system received considerable international interest from such giants as American Multi-Cinema (AMC) and Famous Players. Agfa-Gevaert, the second largest manufacturer of motion picture film, soon entered into a cooperative research project with the NFB and Berringer Research to design a new digital sound film negative.

Many of the NFB productions that were so highly acclaimed in 1989, both in Canada and abroad, showcased innovative devices from R&D. One such innovation was the new Helicopter Belly Mount, used for the spectacular aerial photography in Ballade urbaine and Aces: A Story of the First Air War, which would be released three years later. In 1990, this versatile piece of engineering was used in filming the IMAXTM film for the 1992 World’s Fair in Seville, Spain.


The Film Board began the new decade under a cloud. The many budget cuts had seriously affected activities, and further threats loomed with the creation in 1980 of the Federal Cultural Policy Review Committee (Applebaum-Hébert), which examined the role of the NFB. The Applebaum-Hébert Committee published its report two years later, recommending that the NFB cease making and distributing films and become a research and training centre, an option the Film Board firmly rejected.

In 1984, Communications Minister Francis Fox unveiled the new National Film and Video Policy, following on from the Applebaum-Hébert report recommendations. The new mandate of the NFB was now to become “a world centre of excellence in production of films and videos” and “a national training and research centre in the art and technique of film and video” to make high-quality works. A new commissioner, François Macerola, wrote a Five-Year Operational Plan including a reorganization of Film Board activities and an internal re-shuffle.

With the constant erosion of its funding, the NFB realized that co-production with the private sector would be the best answer to rising costs and the only way of continuing its fiction film output. French Production undertook a program of co-productions with private sector partners, contributing to a number of outstanding works, including the most famous, Le déclin de l’empire américain (The Decline of the American Empire) by Denys Arcand. English Production opted for the Alternative Drama project, which made low-budget fiction films like John N. Smith’s Sitting in Limbo, in which four Black teenagers from Montreal improvise dialogues on issues that include poverty, racism and their life in the community.

In 1986 at Vancouver’s World Fair, the NFB screened the first 3-D IMAXTM film, Transitions, by Colin Low and Tony Ianzelo, about transportation, and Making Transitions by Tony Ianzelo, on the technologies used in the film. It was the logical adjunct to the processes developed in the 1960s to make In the Labyrinth, screened at Expo 67 in Montreal, and it continued with Emergency/Urgence in 1988 and The First Emperor of China in 1989.

Since it began participating in the federal Women’s Program in 1981, Studio D continued producing films by women, for women. Five years later, French Production created its francophone counterpart, Regards de femmes.

The federal government’s decentralization policy led the English Program to establish the Program to Assist Films and Filmmakers in the Private Sector. French Production followed suit with Aide au cinéma indépendant – Québec, soon after extended to the rest of Canada.

During the ’80s, all eyes were on information technologies. The NFB researched potential applications in production with the “centre d’animatique,” and in distribution with Videotron.