Thy Broad Domain: Essential Works of the NFB

The Criterion Collection, a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films presents Thy Broad Domain: Essential Works of the NFB.

criterion logoFor 75 years, the National Film Board of Canada has been a pioneer in film art, producing and distributing more than 13,000 films and winning more than 5,000 awards. The NFB’s collection represents some of film history’s greatest and most influential works of social documentary, auteur animation, experimental film, web series, and interactive productions. Across an endless of variety of filmmaking techniques, these inventive works represent domestic and international concerns from a distinctly Canadian perspective and provide a cinematic influence still felt today. This collector’s set brings together some of the NFB’s most celebrated films since its establishment under the watchful eye of famed British documentarian John Grierson to its present day innovations in digital media.

Disc Features:

  • New digital restorations, with uncompressed monaural soundtracks on the Blu-ray
  • New introductions and audio commentaries to the films by critic Leonard Maltin, documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, director Guy Maddin, scholars Mick Broderick and Rodney Hill, physician and activist Dr. Helen Caldicott, music scholar Paul Sanden, comedians Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara, and others
  • New and archival interview programs featuring filmmakers including Kaj Pindal, Ishu Patel, Cynthia Scott, Terre Nash, Cordell Barker, and Katerina Cizek
  • New and archival documentaries on the making of these films, including Alter Egos, Laurence Green’s hour-long documentary on the making of Chris Landreth’s Ryan
  • PLUS: A booklet featuring a foreword by Government Film Commissioner Claude Joli-Coeur and essays by film scholars Gary Evans, André Loiselle, Gene Walz, and Zoë Druick

Happy Canada Day, dear readers! Today marks the enactment of The Constitution Act of 1867 (The British North America Act for you old-school, hardcore history nerds) that created our fair nation and in honour of this national birthday, MMC! takes this opportunity to suggest a Criterion Collection set devoted to one of the most significant film institutions in cinema’s history – The National Film Board of Canada.

Now for many, the assertion that the NFB is a crucial figure to global cinema and film art may seem like an overreach, but it couldn’t be more true. The Film Board is much more than documentaries about caribou migration and Heritage Moments celebrating the invention of the hockey goalie’s mask (both of which exist and are excellent, I assure you). It is a boundary-pushing, highly influential film body of prodigious output, particularly in the areas of documentary, animation, and experimental cinema and often in the short film format. Fans of the Criterion Collection have only been given the slightest glimpse of the NFB with spine numbered releases like Mon oncle Antoine (Claude Jutra, 1971), special features like A Chairy Tale (Claude Jutra and Norman McLaren, 1957) and Volcano: An Inquiry into the Life and Death of Malcolm Lowry (Donald Brittain, 1976), and Janus Films releases like Paddle to the Sea (William Mason, 1966). Criterion is an ideal forum to celebrate the numerous masterpieces produced by the National Film Board and the Collection is long overdue in exploring Canadian cinema beyond the work of David Cronenberg and Guy Maddin, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Our pitch should be as Canadian as the NFB’s films, and so we’ll approach this in an orderly and level-headed manner.

First, what is the National Film Board of Canada? Established in 1939 by The National Film Act, the NFB is a public agency of the Government of Canada currently tasked “to create, distribute and engage audiences with innovative and distinctive audiovisual works and immersive experiences that could find their place in classrooms, communities, and cinemas, and on all platforms where audiences watch, exchange and network around creative content.” Its origin came by a report commissioned by the Canadian Government from British documentarian John Grierson about the nation’s film industry and its existing Motion Picture Bureau. Canada never established the same measure of protections aimed at encouraging a domestic film market as other nations did, and the establishment of the NFB was initially designed to produce mainly documentaries in the national interest (read: wartime propoganda). Hollywood prevented the enactment of a Canadian quota system following World War II by committing to reference Canada as often as possible in their movies (hence all those 1940s and ’50s characters who run north of the border for their vacations, hunting trips and trysts) and making a small number of films in Canada (most notably Alfred Hitchcock’s I Confess (1953)). As a result, a competitive market for Canadian feature-length fiction films has never developed to any notable degree (except in Quebec where the French language has protected its domestic market), and the NFB’s focus has remained primarily connected to different modes of filmmaking, focusing on documentary, animation, and experimental cinema typically presented in short film and shorter feature-length (around an hour) formats. Since the early days of Grierson acting as the first Commissioner of the Board, the NFB has always struggled with the competing goals of being commercially viable and profitable on the one hand, and of being artistically credible and culturally responsible on the other; yet powerful, inspiring, and celebrated film art has always been produced by NFB filmmakers.

Still, one might ask, why should I be interested in the NFB or what makes the NFB Criterion-worthy? What if I told you that there was a film body or institution that had 73 Oscar-nominations (the most outside of Hollywood) and that had 12 Oscar-wins including an honorary one “in recognition of its 50th anniversary and its dedicated commitment to originate artistic, creative and technological activity and excellence in every area of film making”? What if that same film institution won 20 awards at Cannes, including multiple Palmes d’Or and a special Gold Medal honouring its contribution to film culture? What if that institution had won over 5,000 awards including prizes at the Berlin, Venice, and Annency Film Festivals and multiple Peabody, Webby, and Annie award honours? What if that body developed 16mm, sound-synced, handheld cameras; was at the forefront of computer animation technology in the late 1960s; refined and preserved pinscreen animation; and helped create the IMAX format and its continued development with explorations into 3D animation and HD presentation, to name just a few examples?  Would that interest anyone?  Of course it would, and that film institution is, unsurprisingly, the National Film Board of Canada.

A more pertinent question might be what benefits would there be to a Criterion Collection set devoted to the NFB? After all, the NFB already has an impressive streaming site of its own offering thousands of films for free viewing, as well as a YouTube channel and a Vimeo page. Yet it is the sheer volume of the NFB’s library and the lack of familiarity most cinephiles have with NFB filmmakers that makes a properly curated Criterion set necessary, providing a manageable introduction to the Film Board with a coterie of special features aimed at unpacking the significances and influences of its work. And by providing this primer to film fans, a Criterion Collection set would likely drive more cinephiles to the NFB’s streaming platforms, encourage digital restorations of its existing work, and perhaps spur further hard media releases by the Criterion Collection and the NFB itself. The NFB has made great strides in the last decade with its interactive documentaries and its digital platforms and has done so with less and less funding.  A Criterion Collection set would be important advertising for the NFB, using its impressive history to bring attention to its contemporary efforts and its new partnerships.

For the Criterion Collection, an NFB set would significantly bolster its catalogue of documentaries, animated films, and avant-garde cinema, and with the vast majority of the NFB’s films running below 60 minutes (often below 30 minutes), an NFB retrospective released by Criterion could be packed with a vast and eclectic array of films. Criterion’s mission statement of “gathering the greatest films from around the world” makes further exploration of the National Film Board a near requirement and an Essential Works of the NFB set approaching the film institution as a kind of auteur has precedent in collections like America Lost and Found: The BBS Story, Three Wicked Melodramas from Gainsborough Pictures, Nikkatsu Noir, and When Horror Came to Shochiku.

NFBNo need to overthink a cover treatment here. The NFB’s iconic “Man Seeing” logo has represented it since 1969 and should figure prominently on a Criterion release devoted to the Board and its films. This post has been conspicuously silent on the NFB’s films, providing no insight on what should be included in this proposed collection. We’ll remedy that over the next 30 days as MMC! devotes itself to a kind of retrospective primer on the National Film Board. Each day this month, MMC! will provide a post celebrating one or more NFB’s films that should find inclusion in our imagined box set, either because of the reputation and status of the film within the Film Board’s library or simply because it’s an MMC! favourite. We will highlight existing DVD sets by the NFB waiting for Criterion blugrades and even propose a separate Criterion spine number to a notable filmmaker still lacking a hard media retrospective by the NFB. With only 30 days to work with and over 13,000 films to choose from, there will be omissions, but who knows? If readers like this little project, maybe MMC! will come back next July with a second volume!

Credits: Sharp-eyed patriots will recognize the title of this proposed set as taken from one of the later, usually unsung stanzas of “O Canada.” A lot of sources contributed to this post and the retrospective to follow, but the NFB website and blog were both significant contributors and Jim Leach’s Film in Canada was also of assistance to some details of this post. Our selections for introductions, interviews, and commentaries will make sense as our selected films are featured. Guy Maddin, Eugene Levy, and Catherine O’Hara were chosen to contribute for Canadian content, for their public profiles, for their connections to the NFB, and for their genuine entertainment value. With regard to essay contributors, we chose Gary Evans for his overall appreciation of the NFB’s history, André Loiselle for his knowledge of Quebec cinema, Gene Walz for his expertise in animation, and Zoë Druick for her work on documentary and the impact of government policy on the Film Board.

As an appetizer to the buffet films featured this month, we offer Jacob Medjuck’s 2011 short featuring William Shatner singing the national anthem, a very funny film that should be included in this proposed set for its great novelty value.

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