In 1939, when Frank Capra’s You Can’t Take it With You was the top Oscar film and Spencer Tracey and Bette Davis the top actors, Canada’s Parliament decided that Canadian filmmakers needed support to tell the stories they wanted to tell.
It now runs on a $66-million annual budget, about 10 per cent of which is earned revenue and the rest is from “appropriations” — i.e., tax money. The amount of revenue the NFB earns via film rentals has dropped in this era of digital access; it now offers an online Screening Room providing 3,000 titles for free that has drawn more than 30 million views since set up in 2009.
Of the thousands of works created under the NFB, here are the 10 that stay top of mind for me. The first six have links to the NFB’s free viewing site.
The Sweater (1980). Roch Carrier’s sweet children’s picture book about a young boy who gets a Maple Leaf hockey sweater, and then has to deal with all the other kids who are Montreal Canadiens fans, comes to life in this short animation. For any non-Canadians reading this: The Montreal vs Toronto hockey rivalry is deep and time-honoured (even if the Leafs haven’t really been a contending team in 50 years).
The Big Snit (1985) and The Cat Came Back (1988). While these animations are by different creators (Richard Condie and Cordell Barker, respectively) they share the same kind of black humour. In The Cat Came Back, our protagonist has a cat that he no longer wants. And, well, it just keeps coming back. Set to the folk song of the same name, the scenarios pile up in hilarious absurdity. In The Big Snit, a couple playing Scrabble get so wacky and intently involved in beating /destroying each other than they don’t realize the world is ending in nuclear destruction.
Vignettes: The Log Drivers’ Waltz (1979). The most requested NFB film, this three-minute charmer (part of the Vignettes series) animates the song by Wade Hemsworth, performed by Canadian singers Kate and Anna McGarrigle, about a girl who prefers to marry a log driver because he can dance, unlike the rich men in the town. The point where the log driver nimbly leaps over an astonished moose mid-stream is about as Canadian as it can get.
The Stratford Adventure (1953). This is archive gold. It’s a documentary of the Stratford Festival’s first year in 1953. It gets stiff when the filmmaker inserts “re-enactments” of events leading up to the Festival’s opening but remains a great historic record of what’s turned out to be a lead player in the country’s cultural industry.
Flamenco at 5:15 (1983). This short film won an Oscar and is “an impressionistic record of a flamenco dance class given to senior students of the National Ballet School of Canada by two great teachers from Spain, Susana and Antonio Robledo. ”
Not a Love Story (1982). I first saw this film as a student and it awakened a feminist spark in me. It’s considered one of the most important films to come out of “Studio D”, the so-called “women’s studio.” Two women, Director Bonnie Klein and Linda Lee Tracey, a stripper, “explore the world of peep shows, strip joints and sex supermarkets. Both are motivated by the desire to know more about pornography — why it exists, the forms it takes, and how it affects relations between men and women.”
Pink Ribbon Inc. (2011). A fascinating documentary that looks at “pinkwashing”: how corporations use breast cancer fundraising for their own gain, and how money raised in Pink Ribbon philanthropy doesn’t go to exploring environmental factors that might cause cancer. It’s based on a 2006 book by the same name by Queen’s University professor Samantha King.
Jesus of Montreal (1989). Filmmaker Denys Arcand movie is ranked by the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) as one of the country’s top 10 films and it earned Canada’s second Foreign Language Oscar nomination. It’s about “an odd-ball group of actors who put on an unorthodox interpretation of the Christian Passion Play, only to find that their personal lives begin to mirror the Passion itself.” Many hands supported the making of this one, including “in association with the NFB.”
Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner (2001). Co-produced by the NFB, this adaptation of an ancient Inuit legend was filmed in Inuktitut (English subtitles are added) and directed by Inuit filmmakers. It’s stunning, visually, and a reminder that Canada’s original stories are rooted in ancient times.
Main image: Courtesy the National Film Board.