Canada’s changing society captured on film 

By Karen Herland

After a clip of his film, <em>Up Against the System</em>, was shown, Terence Macartney-Filgate, one of the documentary filmmakers invited to the launch, put down his camera long enough to say, “I’m 85 years old and my motto is ‘keep shooting’.” Magnifying glass

After a clip of his film, Up Against the System, was shown, Terence Macartney-Filgate, one of the documentary filmmakers invited to the launch, put down his camera long enough to say, “I’m 85 years old and my motto is ‘keep shooting’.”

For 13 years in the middle of the last century, the National Film Board funded a special program support to documentaries intended to spark social change in Canadian communities as well as reflect our multicultural, multilingual, regional, social and economic diversity.

An impressive volume dedicated to presenting and contextualizing the NFB’s Challenge for Change program has just been published. Cinema professor Tom Waugh, who holds the Concordia Research Chair in Documentary Film and in Sexual Representation, worked over three years with part-time faculty member Michael Brendan Baker and Ezra Winton (MA 08), who started Cinema Politica at Concordia, to prepare the book.

The three editors hosted a book launch and reception for Challenge for Change: Activist Documentary at the National Film Board of Canada on March 6. The event’s guest of honour was 93-year-old George Stoney, who started making docs at the NFB in the 1950s, directed Challenge for Change in its early years, and who eventually moved back to the U.S. Currently a professor at New York University, he is considered one of the fathers of public access television.

The Challenge for Change/ Société nouvelle program united bureaucrats, filmmakers and citizens in a collective project to use “film to faithfully portray issues facing Canadians,” said Deborah Drisdell, the NFB’s director general of accessibility and digital enterprises at the launch.

“That didn’t really happen before.” The 200 films produced by a group of gifted artists and activists between 1967 and 1980 document local conflicts and provided support and tools for others facing similar struggles across the country.

Also on hand were several other participants in the program, many of whom introduced clips of their work to the audience in the De Sève Cinema. “I was pleased that so many filmmakers were there. It was a reunion for many,” said Waugh.

The clips included You are on Indian Land, in which members of the Akwesasne reserve staged a demonstration to protest how the imposition of borders through their territory split families into Quebecois and Ontarians, not to mention Canadians and Americans. Residents were left in the absurd position of being forced to pay duty to bring home groceries. The 1969 film featured protest organizer Mike Mitchell, now Akwesasne Grand Chief, who also attended the screening.

Challenge for Change redefined the practice of documentary film making while chronicling the struggles of working-class, rural and otherwise disenfranchised communities. Dorothy Todd Hénaut recalled efforts to get cameras into the hands of residents of a poor, urban neighbourhood. That project was documented in VTR St. Jacques. Although the technology looks laughably cumbersome today, the project, involving Hénaut and colleague Bonnie Sherr Klein, was an important moment in documentary filmmaking. “We wanted to cut out the middle man and put video in the hands of the people who were organizing,” said Hénault.

The book’s introduction is a conversation between Winton and second-generation documentarist and author, Naomi Klein. Klein’s mother, Bonnie, brought her along to shoots and screenings. As an adult Naomi wrote the 2004 documentary The Take. Also present were pioneering filmmaker Colin Low and part-time faculty member Martin Duckworth whose Challenge for Change films are addressed in one of the book’s chapters.

The lavishly illustrated book, published by McGill-Queen’s University Press, features the filmmakers’ personal reminiscences, opportunities for them to reflect on their own and each others’ work along with chapters contributed by established and emerging culture scholars.

“There are 40 chapters in the book and it could have been twice as long,” remarked Waugh. The volume also contains a full filmography of the titles produced through the program.

Those who want to see some of the films discussed are encouraged to visit the NFB site where many of the films are available for online viewing.


Concordia University