Tag Archives: Research

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.

This is what I thought I heard…

…on the news (Global) last night, but I thought maybe I’d missed something. Apparently not.

The CBC headline and first paragraph (emphasis mine):

Gifted doctor, fiancée killed in weekend hit-and-run in Vancouver

An 18-year-old man is facing numerous impaired-driving charges after a weekend hit-and-run in Vancouver that killed a gifted cardiologist and his new fiancée as they were crossing a street.

Now, this is a terrible story and I’m not in any way making light of it, but… why is the man “a gifted cardiologist” and the woman just “his fiancee”? He was also her fiance and she was… well, I assume she was something besides his fiancee. It’s 2009, not 1909.

Now, I’m aware that pointing out this kind of stuff is why people hate feminists. They call it nitpicking. I say language matters. Framing matters. The fact is, at least two separate news sources reported the story the same way and apparently no one at either network thought there was anything wrong with identifying the couple this way (and the CBC is supposed to be progressive).  I find that problematic.

Blogging: Motivations & Responsibilities

In class on Tuesday, at one point the discussion turned to blogs and why people blog, the consequences of blogging (is it okay to mention other people in your stories?), and what a blog is (does it have to be personal to be a blog?).

As a writer, I find it hard to separate “why blog?” from “why write?” Telling one’s own stories and writing about issues from one’s personal viewpoint are nothing new to writers. The same material you find in personal blogs is also found in memoirs, autobiographies, columns, editorials, personal essays, etc.

What’s different about personal blogging is not the content, but the fact that anyone can do it, that bloggers don’t generally have editors, and the accessibility of it (anyone can read it).

So I suppose in any discussion of personal blogging, you have to start from the premise that there are two kinds of bloggers: writers and non-writers. For the writers, writing is the essence of blogging—it’s another format to try, a way to hone their craft, etc. They blog because blogging is writing. They wrote before blogs existed and if blogs vanished tomorrow, they’d still write.

But for non-writers blogging (writing) is a means to an end. It might, for example, be a way to keep in touch with family or meet friends or promote a product/service. For non-writers, blogging is just a vehicle that might get them to whatever their goal is. Their motivations are entirely different from those of writers.

A couple other things: I found the comment about thinking a blog had to be personal interesting because it’s such a reversal of traditional thinking (if anything to do with blogs can be “traditional” haha). My research into blogs indicates that a lot of early bloggers think that personal blogs (online diaries) aren’t really blogs at all; to their minds, blogs are only blogs if they have traditional “links plus commentary” posts. Also, most mainstream media attention has focused on issues-oriented, alternative media-type blogs written by male bloggers, not personal blogs (even though the majority of bloggers are teenage girls keeping online diaries).

Of course, even if you’re just posting links, you’re personalizing. The links you choose and what you say about them say something about you, even if you never say anything about your personal life per se. On a related note, sometimes bloggers will make explicit what they will/won’t write about on their blogs. One common off-limits subject is politics. I always thought this was strange because everything is political. (You know: “The personal is political.”) You don’t have to explicitly state who you vote for to involve politics. I don’t know how you’d write about anything substantive without involving what you agree with/believe in—and that’s politics.

One more thing: in The Subject of Semiotics, Kaja Silverman discusses Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” and she says this:

Laura Mulvey argues that the classic film text distinguishes sharply between the male and the female subjects, and that it does so on the basis of vision. The former of these is defined in terms of his capacity to look (i.e. as a voyeur) and the latter in terms of her capacity to attract the male gaze (i.e. as an exhibitionist). This opposition is entirely in keeping with the dominant cultural roles assigned to men and women, since voyeurism is the active or “masculine” form of the scopophilic drive, while exhibitionism is the passive or “feminine” form of the same drive. (222-223)

Okay, so why is this interesting. Well, first, one of the comments made in class with respect to motivations for blogging was that if a blogger wouldn’t write if s/he wasn’t blogging, then s/he was motivated by exhibitionism. Second: this is entirely circumstantial, but it does seem to me that women are far more likely to blog about highly personal subjects than men are. So you could go the direct route and say women are acting in keeping with their culturally-defined role and acting as exhibitionists in keeping personal blogs. But, I think that would be missing an important point. It’s not men who are reading these uber-personal blogs; it’s other women. And the uber-personal information shared is not designed to attract the male gaze; rather, much of the content would probably have the opposite effect. So… it’s more like using the voyeur/exhibitionist dichotomy as a means of resistance against the cultural norm.

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Some posts I had clipped on the motivations and responsibilities of writers/bloggers (emphasis added):

Writers write for their ideal reader, for their loved ones, for themselves or for no one. All this is true. But it is also true that today’s literary writers also write for those who read them.

It is because all writers have a deep desire to be authentic that even after all these years I still love to be asked for whom I write. But while a writer’s authenticity does depend on his ability to open his heart to the world in which he lives, it depends just as much on his ability to understand his own changing position in that world.

There is no such thing as an ideal reader, free of narrow-mindedness and unencumbered by social prohibitions or national myths, just as there is no such thing as an ideal novelist. But a novelist’s search for the ideal reader – be he national or international – begins with the novelist’s imagining him into being, and then by writing books with him in mind. —Orhan Pamuk via MoorishGirl

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I find that I don’t care as much about story or plot or action as I do about getting inside someone’s head. Usually the author’s head. In this case, inside the subject’s head. But that’s what’s interesting to me. The chance to get a glimpse of an inner monologue, to see how someone else’s wheels turn.

In effect, this is what blogs let you do, or at least I’d like to think so. I started blogging almost exactly 4 years ago, right before I started law school. I just wanted a place to store thoughts, and a way to force myself to write every day. But I found that once I started, it’s hard to stop. I got addicted to the instant connection with people out there in the world, the immediate feedback, the feeling like someone out there cares about what you’re thinking. And as I started reading other people’s blogs, I found that sometimes, even if you can’t articulate why you’re reading, you start to get hooked. A blog — a good blog — lets you inside someone’s head, and if you like being there, it can become awfully compelling. —Jeremy Blachman

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I think it’s the first book that uses a blog as a narrative vehicle, and in doing so Jeremy explores a question I find pretty compelling — how do we know who to trust? What makes someone authentic, believeable, truthful? … In the book, there’s an active tension between the blog persona and the “real” persona (as evidenced by emails).


Blogs are private, and public. As a vehicle for an unreliable narrator the blog is very interesting, and I am not sure the cultural conversation about blogs has really started to embrace the complexity of the way people are exploring, sharing, and creating their identities online. I think the book begins that conversation in an interesting way. —Sherry Fowler

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I am interested in the question of what the implied promises are between blogger and blog reader. … I agree that there is a pact of sorts, in almost any writing, between writer and reader. I aspire to be a good blogger, and I have some ideas about what that means. I’ve never put them down explicitly, though. Let’s see if I can unpack them.

The Blog Author promises to:

* write truthfully
* write as un-self-consciously as possible — avoid contrivances
* write about subjects that move her
* write about things about which she has personal knowledge, direct experience, some investment
* tell her own story, not other people’s stories
* avoid complaining
* not use the blog as a prop or a crutch or a shield
* not use the blog to avoid having direct conversations with specific people
* post thoughts, and leave them up. Disclose edits, and if I change my mind, annotate and link rather than delete or modify the original posts. —Sherry Fowler

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Does it really matter whether or not this video was truly created by a teenager or not? And if it does matter, what does it say about our own obligations to remain honest on our personal sites? …

Personally, I’m of the belief that the theory of caveat emptor applies to anything available on the internet — let the reader beware, everything may not be as it seems. That said, I do see an argument which says that for those of us who have loyal readers who visit our sites daily, common decency mandates that we not betray their trust by being dishonest about who we are. But does that mean I have to be forthcoming about everything?

What say you — do we, as authors/artists/citizen journalists/whatever, have an obligation to (a) reveal all and/or (b) reveal honestly? —Karen Walrond

Clearing Out My Bloglines Clippings

I’m not sure it’s possible to get more meta than this series of posts I had clipped at Bloglines from Bloglines News about blog publishing/feeds.

Funny, I was just having a conversation last night in which I mentioned that I didn’t think my thesis topic was very “commercial.” But… obviously Bloglines feels that the number of not-private-but-not-public-either bloggers warrants some consideration. So. Interesting.

Of course, by claiming your blog(s), you link your Bloglines account to it/them. I’m not sure that that’s a serious concern, though, since they may already be connected, e.g. if you have a Bloglines-generated blogroll.

I claimed my blog & TC’s so I can play around with this stuff and see how effective it is.

Have no fear, Publisher Tools are here!

We launched a new set of tools for publishers which allow you to claim your feeds and manage them within Bloglines. We’re offering several nifty tools but we’re especially excited about offering you a way to mark an old feed as a duplicate of a new feed. When we set a feed as a duplicate, all of the subscribers are brought over to the new feed so there’s no need to ask your Bloglines readers to re-subscribe.

Feed Access Control Standard for RSS and ATOM

[W]e are proposing (and have implemented) an RSS and ATOM extension that allows publishers to indicate the distribution restrictions of a feed. Setting the access restriction to ‘deny’ will indicate the feed should not be re-distributed. In Bloglines, we’ll use this to prevent the display of the feed information or posts in search results or any other public venue. If other readers and aggregators use the information in the same way, and publishers of feeds, including services that let users create feeds, implement this standard, we could make significant progress toward making feeds truly safe for non-public information. We think that’s a pretty cool idea.

Bloglines Proposed Feed Access Standard – Part II

Pew’s recent report on bloggers found that “52% of bloggers say they blog mostly for themselves, not for an audience” and that “despite the public nature of creating a blog, most bloggers view it as a personal pursuit.” Maybe their content isn’t completely private, but some may not intend it for the masses. The standard we propose endeavors to enable bloggers and publishers to distinguish between making their content available for limited public consumption by friends, families, colleages or communities versus wanting it to be easily found by the public at large.