When the Sûreté du Québec crossed the barricades at Oka in July 1990, director Alanis Obomsawin knew the even had to be recorded. She was in the area working on a film, but upon hearing the news immediately called her executive producer at the National Film Board and asked to change her production and rush to Oka. “She had no budget, she had no script outline, nothing,” recalls English production head Barbara Janes. “But she knew something was happening, and her executive producer had confidence in her and said, ’Okay, you have it. Go.’”

The result was Kamehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance, a 120-minute journey into the heart of the standoff. The film starts just after the ill-advised police raid that resulted in the death of an officer, moves into the army’s arrival and all the carefully rationed misery that created for both sides, and ends with the “surrender” of the Mohawks 78 days later.

“The support that I got from the film board was just incredible,” says Obomsawin. Toward the end of the crisis, she directed two crews by phone while she filmed and recorded alone inside the last Mohawk holdout, the Kanehsatake Treatment Centre. “I remained until the middle of October, after the people had come out from the treatment centre. It was a very difficult job to do in the circumstances—in every possible way.”

Released in 1993, the finished product received 10 domestic and international film awards, was nominated for a Genie in the best feature documentary category, and has sold close to 3,000 copies on video. Other recent NFB productions and co-productions have also won awards, praise from critics and warm public response. Mark Achbar and Peter Wintonick’s Manufacturing Content: Noam Chomsky and the Media was Most Popular Canadian Film in 1992 at the Vancouver International Film Festival and played to three packed houses at the 1993 Berlin Film Festival. Lynne Fernie and Aerlyn Weissman’s Forbidden Love: The Unashamed Stories of Lesbians Lives won the 1993 Genie for best feature documentary and was aired on CBC last November to positive reviews. It also achieved wide acclaim in international lesbian and gay circles, winning the 1994 Media Award from both the New York and Los Angeles chapters of the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation for its honest portrayal of the lesbian experience.

Despite these recent successes, even supporters of the film board are asking if the NFB is still an integral and viable part of the Canadian filmmaking community. Not surprisingly, many private-sector producers actively back the scrapping of their government-funded competition. Still others believe that the NFB remains a vital institution—the revised National Film Act of 1950 declared that it existed to “interpret Canada to Canadians”—but feel that it must somehow evolve to better serve both the filmmakers who create the films and the public, which for the most part is indifferent toward the NFB. Unless the film board can stop the recessing charges of irrelevance, Canada might very well lose one of its most thoughtful forms of journalism.

As freelance writer and Globe and Mail columnist Bronwyn Drainie says, “The film board takes it as its mandate to allow good filmmakers to make their statements, whatever they may be, as long as they can back them up. I just don’t see any other organism in the country that’s willing to take on the kind of subjects they take on—whether it’s pornography, or wife abuse, or abortion. The popular media are getting safer and safer in the things they will approach, and the film board has a very special kind of mandate that would drop out or disappear or be, at least, diluted.”

The current debate over the NFB’s survival began when a government report, commissioned two years ago by the Mulroney Tories, was leaked last September. The report, prepared by the Montreal consulting company Groupe Secor for the federal heritage department, recommended a variety of options the government could pursue if it wished to cut funding for the 56-year-old institution. The most potentially devastating one was cutting production completely and dividing all the film board’s documentary and animation production facilities between CBC and Telefilm Canada. The NFB would remain, but only as a film school. Around the same time, in response to the Liberal government’s request that all government agencies submit a list of budget cuts they could make over the next few years, the NFB prepared a 40-page report of its own in which it requested that it not be subjected to further cuts, having already been chopped by $7 million over the previous four years. (Of the NFB’s $81.3-million budget for 1994-95, $30.3 million is allocated for roughly 50 English films, and another $19 million for 30 French films.)

Heritage Minister Michel Dupuy has yet to act on Secor’s report, either by dismissing it outright or passing it along to parliamentary committee for review, so in the immediate future the worst that can happen is that the film board will lose some of its funding. While the budget had not been released at press time, the assumption at the NFB was that its money would be cut, like most other programs’ and institutions’.

What makes the NFB an easier target for government cuts than most cultural agencies is the obvious assurance that Canadian film will still be made. The difference, however, is qualitative. The Secor report suggestion that CBC and Telefilm Canada (essentially a bank to which private television and film producers apply to obtain grants to produce the films they propose) take over all the NFB’s documentary production would please private-sector production companies, which often grumble about government-run competition. But the reality is, most documentaries produced by the NFB would never be touched by the private sector. As Barbara Janes says, “It comes down to a question of whether or not it’s still valid to have an organization in the country that sees its role as cultural as opposed to industrial, and says, ’We think it’s important to make a film on this subject because it is an important subject for Canada.’ Or, ’It’s important to make this film thi sway, because we know the filmmaker, we have confidence in the filmmaker, and he or she is trying something off the beaten track, but we’re going to take the risk.’ As opposed to an organization that says, ’Throw me your treatment and your distribution plan, and if it makes sense from a business point of view, we’ll finance it.’ That’s the difference.” In the case of Kanehsatakbe, says Janes, “W have no idea how long that standoff was going to be, or if there was going to be a film. You can’t go to Telefilm with that kind of concept; it would be crazy for it to finance something like that.”

“I’ve done quite a bit of work with the film board,” says Howard Bernstein, a producer at Toronto’s Barna-Alper Productions and a part-time Ryerson broadcast journalism instructor. “They’ve been tremendous in that they are willing to fund, and fund properly, stories that a lot of other people wouldn’t put money into. You go to the film board, they give you $300,000 and you can do a proper job; they don’t rush you and you can do a good job or journalism. The more TV networks are involved,” he notes, “the more mainstream all documentaries will be. And let’s face it, the last thing mainstream people need is to have their point of view sold.” Colin Low, an NFB producer and director who joined the film board in 1945, also dismissed the ability of private-sector production to take over from the NFB. “What Telefilm ends up doing is putting bad Canadian copies of American programs on television. Bad copies. That’s what it does.”

Harold Greenberg, chairman of Astral Communications, which own a large post-production laboratory in Montreal, disagrees. As he told The Toronto Star last fall: “The private industry is capable of mass distribution and of providing high-quality technical services. The NFB must become a school and a research centre exploring the emerging multimedia markets to the benefit of the Canadian cultural industries.” This type of argument perplexes Low. “Back at the end of Applebaum-Hébert I wrote quite a large paper on the subject of the film board and why it had to exist,” he says patiently. (The “Applebert” report of 1982, the product of the Federal Cultural Policy Review Committee, contained criticisms and recommendations remarkably similar to those of the Secor report.) “Things haven’t changed much, we’re still back talking about the same things. The detractors of the film board are the same: the people who think they will make more money if the film board gets out of the way.”

In February 1967, the NFB launched a new program called Challenge for Change/Société nouvelle. Its started purpose was to help people acclimatize themselves to permanent change in their lives. Colin Low had an additional objective: “To redefine the documentary.” Early on, Low directed a series of 26 short films centring on the plight of the residents of Fogo Island, Newfoundland, who were impoverished because their island fishery could no longer provide them with a livelihood. Low’s purpose was to provide the poor and the authorities with what he called a communication loop. Author Gary Evans, in his book In the National Interest: A Chronicle of the National Film Board of Canada from 1949 to 1989, wrote of Low’s work: “Unlike most films, which depend on an adversarial relationship to be effective, these were meant to show that it was in the provincial government’s interest to help solve the economic problem of the citizens of Fogo Island.”

One of the many young filmmakers to join Challenge for Change in 1971 was Peter Raymont. “It was a studio that had been created specifically to provoke and promote social change,” he recalls. “They were making a lot of terrific films; they had a native filmmaking unit, they were making film with poor people’s organizations all over the country. And they were on the cutting edge, I would argue, of the social-change-type documentary. They were really renowned throughout the world and throughout the country as the centre of filmmaking excellence.”

Raymont worked in Challenge for Change first as an editor, then as a director and producer. He left in 1978 to freelance, in part because of a growing frustration all of the filmmakers were having with getting their films actually seen. “They never figured out how to co-exist with television. It seems an insane thing to say almost 45 years after television came to this country, but they never figured it out. Unless you’re on television, regularly, you’re irrelevant. It doesn’t mean you can’t make quality stuff, it doesn’t mean you can’t have films that win things at film festivals all over the world. But you’ve also got to get the best of that stuff, in a regular way, in front of the public. Otherwise, you’ll lose that constituency, you’ll lose your political base and you’ll slip into insignificance, which is what’s happened.”

These days, the film board does actively pursue television exposure for its work, with a modicum of success. Last November, for example, 59 NFB productions or co-productions, including 40 documentaries, were broadcast on Canadian television. Of course, the timeslots weren’t always ratings-grabbers: Vision TV aired The Great Canadian History Series at 5 a.m. However, Vision does have a regular Saturday night show, NFB Cutting Edge, that starts at 8 p.m. Some of the new specialty channels, with their low budgets and vast amounts of time to fill, are turning to the film board for programming. Bravo!, for instance, has acquired over 180 NFB arts-related titles.

Peter Wintonick, who along with Mark Achbar directed and produced Manufacturing Consent, agrees that television is essential to maintain public interest. “With the new licencing, the specialty channels are buying up the backlog of those NFB-produced films. Traditionally there hasn’t been any room on the public broadcasting system in Canada for films, documentaries especially. It took many years of lobbying to get a slot on CBC, a weekly documentary slot.”

Not everyone loves the idea of the NFB serving television. “Television is interesting,” says Worf Koenig, who, like Colin Low, started at the film board as an animator in Norman McLaren’s studio in the forties and has since been everything from soundman to executive producer. “It’s one way of getting things out. But I find it’s a paradox, because apparently television is the medium which is actually fragmenting our community.” Low is equally suspicious of TV: “Television has never matured the way film has, partly because it’s not very reflective, not very thoughtful.” Another NFB filmmaker, Paul Cowan, views television as a necessary evil. “We are always at the mercy of television. Sure, we make some films that aren’t meant for television and never could get on television, but more and more we are making films for television because you have to have those types of audiences to justify the expense of the product that you’re making.”

The National Film Board’s production headquarters in suburban Montreal is a sprawling complex of drab brick buildings built in the postwar style remarkable only for its stunning plainness. The place is huge: walking through it for the first time is bewildering—like the first day of high school, when you wander around unable to find your homeroom. Any similarity to a high school stops here, though. A universal criticism of the film board is its lack of young filmmakers. The NFB imposed a hiring freeze last September in a bid to lower costs. “Imagine a car company that couldn’t redesign its cars, or couldn’t adapt to market forces,” explains Cowan. “Or couldn’t decide to upsize or downsize or any other factor. The NFB can’t do that, and it can’t do that for all sorts of reasons.” In a defence of the film board last November, Bronwyn Drainie wrote in the Globe: “Unfortunately, the NFB is not perfect all the time. Some of the films it has produced over the years have been boring or self-indulgent or both. The board is also saddled with a creaking staff-heavy structure that makes it feel like a doddering elderly uncle; it definitely needs a shot of adrenaline.”

In an attempt to provide that shot, last year the NFB introduced a program called Fast Forward, to which aspiring filmmakers apply in the hundreds. Of these, four are chosen each year to work at the film board for a period of four years, after which they must set out their own. While Fast Forward gets some young blood into the place, it also means the NFB has become what it resists being called: a training centre for new talent.

Whatever the age of the staff, to Colin Low the NFB is still vital: “I don’t think philosophically, at the filmmaker level, this place has changed much,” he says. “I see good years and I see bad years. I see people working on the wrong thing, but you have to tolerate a certain amount of that; otherwise, you won’t get anything that’s unique and new and different. You’ve got to tolerate the people who are taking chances, even if it’s kind of weird.”

Taking chances on questionable ideas and allowing filmmakers to turn them into significant and powerful documentaries is a hallmark of the National Film Board. For five years, Wintonick and Achbar worked to create a film that would chronicle the life and views of Noam Chomsky. The NFB’s producer of Manufacturing Consent was Adam Symansky. “The value of this place is it’s a community of filmmakers,” he says. “You can talk to people here. Filmmakers can get other filmmakers into the cutting room to look at their stuff and talk. In the end the appeal is that you can say, ’Is this film working, is it a good film or not?’ It’s not, ’Sorry, guys, time’s up,’ or ’Money’s up, it’s going out.’

“It’s one of the few places where, first of all, you can sit down and say, ’Is this film worth doing? Never mind if there’s a huge market for it. Is this a subject people should know about? Is this a filmmaker who has such a unique vision that we should take a chance on it?’ Peter Wintonick wants to make a film about Noam Chomsky. Well, I don’t know. But he’s willing to mortgage his house to do it? Well, maybe we should think about that—and we’ll give him money, we’ll give him a home, we’ll give him cutting room, we’ll give the lab, maybe we’ll give him some money.

“Right now in the country it’s the only place that will do that. With all its faults, it’s the only place that will do that.”