11: Projecting Canada

Projecting Canada: Government Policy and Documentary Film at the National Film Board by Zoë Druick

Projecting Canada

Zoë Druick’s Projecting Canada: Government Policy and Documentary Film at the National Film Board of Canada is part of the Arts Insights: Challenging Ideas for the Future series from McGill-Queen’s University Press. Projecting Canada developed out of Druick’s doctoral thesis in the School of Social and Political Thought at York University. She is currently associate professor in the School of Communication at Simon Fraser University where she teaches media and cultural studies.

Projecting Canada is an analysis of National Film Board of Canada (NFB) documentary film from the NFB’s inception in 1939 to the present. While there is no shortage of commentary on the NFB, it is Druick’s novel approach that makes her book a welcome addition to the subject. The tendency has been to view the NFB positively due to its non-commercial nature, focus on everyday subjects and ordinary Canadians, and, more recently, support of filmmakers from historically disadvantaged groups. However, in Projecting Canada, Druick chooses to set aside preconceptions and instead take a critical look at what the NFB has done over the past seventy years and why. Drawing on Michel Foucault’s concept of governmentality (the relation between the citizen and the state) as well as Mikhail Bakhtin’s theory of dialogism (dialogic texts ‘ask and answer’—they both build on previous texts and invite a response from future ones), Druick argues that NFB documentary films are not neutral records of Canadian lives, but rather, intentional constructions designed to support the NFB’s mandate.

Druick notes that her study is one of ‘visual culture’ rather than film. Because of this approach, Projecting Canada should appeal to those interested in cultural studies and government policy, as well as film scholars. The genesis for her approach is her insight that NFB documentaries are neither cultural (high art) nor popular (commercial) films. Instead, she chooses to think of documentary film in terms of statistics about the population of Canada. Using timelines, she illustrates how, throughout the NFB’s history, shifts in dominant documentary film forms have paralleled key periods of social scientific study. This becomes the framework of the book.

Projecting Canada is organized roughly in chronological order. In each chapter, Druick adds a new layer to her framework. Throughout the book, she supports her argument with reference to numerous NFB documentary films, as well as government publications and archival materials (production notes, letters). By providing solid evidence of the NFB’s intent, the archival materials in particular add to the persuasiveness of Druick’s argument.

The first four chapters focus mainly on the early years of the NFB. In chapter 1, Druick outlines the origins of the NFB, as well as how governmentality links social science to the NFB’s documentary films. Druick calls this style of filmmaking ‘government realism’ (23), a term that succinctly encapsulates both the state-sponsored and documentary aspects of these films. She notes that realism is often tied to radicalism, but that this is not the case with government realism. Instead, the NFB’s mandate is to use documentary film to support existing Canadian policies, processes, and programs (explicitly or implicitly). Druick posits that documenting the population may actually produce it, that is, project Canada.

In chapter 2, she explains how the NFB is “rooted in an empire communications strategy” (44) imported from its British counterpart. Thus, the early goal of the NFB was nation building, as well as resisting the threat of Americanization posed by radio. Documentary film gave Canadians of all backgrounds and from all regions of the country a unified view of Canada. In chapter 3, she contends that the NFB films are a form of “welfare state technology” (72). That is, the NFB uses documentary film to educate people and mold them into the type of citizens the state wants them to be. Many early films used difference to promote unity, for example the idea that all Canadians are immigrants or that Canadians from different regions each contribute something essential to the country as a whole. In chapter 4, she discusses how, as World War II ended and the Cold War began, the NFB’s vision changed from educating immigrants about Canada to positioning Canada with respect to the rest of the world.

In chapters five through seven, Druick illustrates how, even though the output of the NFB has changed over the years, its underlying mandate—to support and promote state policy—has remained the same. In chapter 5, she looks at how NFB documentaries were used to model citizenship to the population during the 1950s. NFB films were designed to consciously manipulate the public into being good citizens. In chapter 6, she discusses how NFB documentary discourse shifted from nation building to identity politics in the 1960s. The new program Challenge for Change / Société nouvelle was developed with the idea of empowering disenfranchised groups by encouraging their participation in filmmaking. While the shift in tone was significant, Druick argues that it was consistent with the shift in policy at the federal level, that is, from a discourse of assimilation in the 1950s to one of multiculturalism as Canada moved into the 1980s.

In chapter 7, she links the shift in filmmaking in the 1980s to the simultaneous shift in the social sciences toward autobiographical methods. The NFB’s mandate became giving filmmakers from disadvantaged groups a place to work without having to worry about commercial pressure. Druick argues that giving voice to different groups of Canadians served a dual purpose from the state’s perspective: it suited the tolerant, non-discriminatory image of Canada that the government wished to project to the world and it neutralized potential radicalism because marginalized groups could use film to comment on their situations instead of physical protest.

The idea that governmentality pervades all the NFB films, even ones that appear radical, is perhaps the most controversial aspect of Druick’s argument. While it would be relatively easy for today’s viewer to pick up on the manipulation of the population embedded in the early films, this is because the 2009 perspective of Canada is quite a different view of the country than that of 1949 or 1959. As Druick ably demonstrates in Projecting Canada, government policies change. By 2039, Canadians may be able to see the presence of governmentality in 2009 films as easily as in films from the 1940s and 1950s.

While it may be questionable whether today’s NFB mandate is as effective at manipulating the population as the mandates of the mid-twentieth century, nevertheless Druick opens up a space for dialogue on Canadian culture and film policy by positioning the NFB as an agent of governmentality, rather than a neutral agency. Just as important is that, like her theoretical muses Foucault and Bakhtin, Druick has developed an interpretive framework that can be adapted to other state-sponsored cultural projects and other countries.

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