Candid Eye series: The End of the Line (Terence Macartney Filgate, 1959, 30 min.) From its inception in the 1930s, the National Film Board of Canada sponsored innovative documentary filmmaking, while using documentary film as a tool of nation building.

The Things I Cannot Change (Tanya Ballantine Tree, 1967, 55 min.)The Things I Cannot Change seems to illustrate exactly what a filmmaker should not do if they seek to use film as a means to bring about social justice.

The Things I Cannot Change (Tanya Ballantine Tree, 1967, 55 min.) When the film aired on Canadian television, the family depicted in the film faced ridicule from their neighbors and moved from their home.

The Children of Fogo Island (Colin Low, 1967, 17 min.) The initiative's most acclaimed success story… the Fogo Island Communication Experiment.

La noce est pas finie (Léonard Forest, 1971, 85 min.) In collaboration with filmmaker Léonard Forest, community members in New Brunswick improvised dialogue during psychodrama-like sessions to make La noce est pas finie.

You are on Indian Land (Mort Ransen [Micheal Mitchell], 1969, 36 min.) You are on Indian Land depicts protests by Mohawks living on the border-straddling St. Regis reserve, when Canadian customs agents charge duty on Indian goods crossing into Canada from the U.S. side of the border.

You are on Indian Land (Mort Ransen [Micheal Mitchell], 1969, 36 min.) Heralded as one of the CFC/SN's successes, the film catalyzed dialogue between local police and members of the St. Regis community, leading to the adoption of an agreement stating that the Mohawks could establish their own police force.

VTR St-Jacques (Bonnie Sherr Klein, 1969, 26 min.) Using the portable video equipment that was becoming available in the late 1960s, CFC/SN launched some of the earliest community-based video initiatives.

Cree Hunters of Mistassini (Tony Ianzelo, 1974, 57 min.) While CFC/SN appeared to be providing marginalized communities with a chance to express their views, the NFB and its government partners controlled the kinds of films that could be made.

Cree Hunters of Mistassini (Tony Ianzelo, 1974, 57 min.) To gain NFB approval for Cree Hunters of Mistassinni, the filmmakers had to present the film to the NFB as a film about Indian attitudes to the land, rather than as an activist film.

Our Dear Sisters (Kathleen Shannon, 1975, 14 min.) (featuring Alanis Obomsawin) The films that make up the Working Mother film 'group' examine why women were not better represented in the Canadian labor force, and why women did not return to work after giving birth.

Would I Ever Like to Work (Kathleen Shannon, 1974, 9 min.) The Working Mother films served as a template for other testimony-centered feminist filmmaking of the 1970s.

God Help the Man Who Would Part with His Land (George C. Stoney, 1971, 47 min.) In God Help the Man Who Would Part with His Land, Mohawks from the St. Regis Reserve express their opposition to summer home development on islands within their territory. The film was screened for Canada’s Indian Affairs Department.


Challenge for Change and participatory filmmaking

review by Lyell Davies

Challenge For Change: Activist Documentary at the National Film Board of Canada. Edited by Thomas Waugh, Michael Brendan Baker and Ezra Winton. Foreword by Naomi Klein. Montreal & Kingston, London, Ithaca: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2010.  ISBN 978-0-7735-3662-3, $105.00 (cloth). ISBN 978-0-7735-3663-0, $34.95 (paper)

Although sometimes overlooked and frequently misunderstood, Canada’s Challenge For Change/Societé Nouvelle (CFC/SN) initiative of the 1960s and 1970s played a pivotal role in the launch of participatory filmmaking and grassroots video activism worldwide, as well as contributing to the creation of community access TV in the U.S. and Canada. With editors Thomas Waugh, Michael Brendan Baker and Ezra Winton at the helm, Challenge For Change: Activist Documentary at the National Film Board of Canada provides for the first time a truly robust examination of CFC/SN and its contribution to the history of documentary filmmaking. Comprised of thirty-eight chapters arranged in five thematically organized sections (and featuring a complete list of the films and videos generated by the initiative as well as a comprehensive bibliography), the collection brings together a rich dossier of essays and other materials covering CFC/SN from its launch in 1967 to its decline in the late 1970s. For readers who have previously studied CFC/SN, some of the essays featured in the collection will be familiar, while others have either been long out of print or have been especially commissioned for inclusion here. In tandem with the launch of the collection, Canada’s National Film Board (NFB) has made a selection of CFC/SN films available for online viewing, thereby allowing readers to immediately watch some of the key films discussed (http://nfb.ca/playlist/challenge-for-change).

The NFB launched the Anglophone Challenge For Change and Francophone Societé Nouvelle in February 1967 with the expectation that film could be used to catalyze social change and play a role in the elimination of poverty. Funding for the initiative was provided by eight Canadian government departments (the NFB, Health and Welfare, Indian Affairs and Northern Development, Regional Economic Expansion, Agriculture, Secretary of State, Central Mortgage and Housing, and Manpower and Immigration). The plan was that representatives from each of these agencies would work with NFB staff to identify themes for films, with the NFB serving as the ultimate arbiter as to which films would be made. Since the late 1930s, the state-funded NFB has used film as a tool of nation building and as a means to interpret Canadian life for Canadian as well as non-Canadian audiences. Within this project, the NFB has viewed documentary film as a film form well suited to the construction a Canadian national imaginary, thereby leading in the early years of the NFB to the production of wartime propaganda documentaries, and later to the making of innovative documentary productions such as the Candid Eye series of the late 1950s and the groundbreaking observation style filmmaking undertaken by the NFB’s Unit B in the early 1960s.

In certain ways CFC/SN parted with the NFB’s previous use of documentary filmmaking. Within this new initiative, marginalized constituencies drawn from throughout Canadian society would be allowed to author films from their own perspective and in their own voice. Three types of films were proposed for the program:

  • films designed to make the public aware of a particular government agency’s program or service;
  • films designed to educate or train community workers;
  • films made by members of the public or by disenfranchised communities so that these constituencies would be able to air their views.

Films of this last type became the main area of production for the initiative, and its launch led to a flurry of participatory filmmaking activities on the part of Canada’s disenfranchised.

For readers living in nations around the world where it seems unlikely that a government would ever willingly fund documentaries that criticize the state, the government sponsored activist work of CFC/SN may seem an oxymoron. Nonetheless, in the late 1960s as Canada, under the leadership of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, introduced polices designed to foster national bilingualism and multiculturalism, eight government agencies allocated money from their budgets to support a filmmaking program that allowed ordinary Canadians to talk back to their government, and even to criticize its policies.

A weakness of Waugh, Baker and Winton’s collection is that it does not reveal much about how these government bureaucracies actually participated in or influenced CFC/SN, or how their support for the initiative evolved over its thirteen years of operation. Indeed, an overall weakness of the collection is that it does not provide the reader with a clear self contained description of the initiative’s background and launch, or a clear overview or chronology of how its activities unfolded over the years. For this reason, for readers who are new to CFC/SN, I recommend reading the relevant sections of Gary Evans’ encyclopedic In the National Interest: A Chronicle of the National Film Board of Canada from 1949 to 1989 (1991) in tandem with reading this collection so as to better understand the history of documentary filmmaking at the NFB and the place of CFC/SN within this history.

The road CFC/SN traveled was not always a smooth one, and the NFB’s first attempt at using film to address poverty in Canada did not unfold as planned. As a number of the authors featured here note, the case of The Things I Cannot Change (1966, 55 min.) seems to illustrate exactly what a filmmaker should not do if they seek to use film as a means to bring about social justice. The film was directed Tanya Ballantyne Tree as a part of the NFB’s Poverty Program, a precursor to CFC/SN. As the subject for her film, Ballantyne Tree selected the eleven-member Irish-Canadian Bailey family and spent three weeks filming them as they navigated the social welfare system while awaiting the birth of a tenth child. The finished documentary presents a bleak fly-on-the-wall portrait of the Bailey’s impoverished life and personal failings.

When the film aired on the Canadian Broadcasting Company (CBC) in May 1967, it was seen by the largest television audience assembled to any watch NFB broadcast up to that time—but the airing was immediately marred by controversy. The Baileys had not been given advanced warning of the broadcast, and the film’s stark depiction of the family’s personal failings sparked ridicule from their neighbors, leading the family to move from their home. In “Winds and Things: Towards a Reassessment of the Challenge for Change/Société nouvelle Legacy,” featured here, Marit Kathryn Corneil reports that the film was “hated” by some at the NFB and provided a driving justification for CFC/SN’s adoption of a participatory approach to filmmaking, one where participants would be empowered, not treated as victims (392). Corneil argues, by urgently pressing for a reevaluation of the relationship between film-subjects and filmmakers, CFC/SN contributed to a sea-change movement away from the observational style of filmmaking that dominated the documentary field in the mid 1960s, pushing filmmakers towards

“the more personal, subjective, reflexive, and targeted uses of the documentary film that became increasingly prominent throughout the 1970s and 1980s” (395).

One of the features of the breadth and depth of Waugh, Baker and Winton’s collection is that in addition to restating well-know aspects of CFC/SN’s history, the collection has room for re-evaluations of known events, including a re-evaluation of the controversy surrounding The Things I Cannot Change. In her essay “The Things I Cannot Change: A Revisionary Reading,” Brenda Longfellow provides an intriguing rebuttal to some of the negative interpretations of the film. A part of the problem with the film’s reception, argues Longfellow, was that it was distributed in ways that were not planned when the project was conceived. Ballantyne Tree believed her film would be circulated educationally, but instead it was aired amid a massive publicity campaign on national television as a part of the CBC’s most popular arts series.

Furthermore, reports Longfellow, Ballantyne Tree is unequivocal in saying that the

“persistent representation of the family as injured victims was ‘bullshit,’ propagated by rumor and gossip and by individuals who failed to actually investigate the reality of the situation” (151).

For instance, the claim that the Baileys were forced to move from their home has been blown out of proportion since the family were happy to leave an area that they viewed as a violent section of the city (151). Indeed, while The Things I Cannot Change underscored that voyeurism is a common feature of the documentary film viewing experience, there is evidence that the film achieved its purpose and played a role in pressing the Canadian government to introduce new programs for the poor.

Bubbling up again and again in essays throughout the collection is the case of CFC/SN’s most acclaimed success story, the Fogo Island Communication Experiment. Today, the “Fogo Process” is recognized worldwide as a model for participatory media making in the service of cultural and economic development, and it has been used as a template for similar projects in many regions around the world. In May 1967, filmmakers Colin Low and Don Snowden embarked on a project to capture on film the history and traditional ways of the residents of Newfoundland’s tiny Fogo Island. On their arrival, the two filmmakers discovered that the island’s economy was a shambles and the Canadian government had, without consulting the island’s residents, decided to forcibly resettle the entire population to the mainland. Over five weeks the filmmakers collaborated with island residents to film twenty hours of film footage, which was edited into twenty-seven short films. The completed films address a variety of themes, including a community discussion of the need for a cooperative fish processing plant on the island and a discussion of relations between the island’s merchants and fishermen.

Once the participating communities had approved the content of each, the films were circulated to the dispersed island communities for exhibition. Here, in tandem with group discussions facilitated by community development fieldworker Fred Earle, they were used to foster a discussion of the challenges faced by the island’s residents and, it was hoped, to mobilize the community towards action. Galvanized by the film “process” of which they were a part, the community rose in opposition to the government’s relocation plans and, when ministers saw the films, the government was persuaded to provide development funding for the island. As Peter K. Wiesner argues in “Media for the People: The Canadian Experiments with Film and Video in Community Development (1992),” both island residents and CFC/SN filmmakers credit this process with bringing economic development to the island while purging the island of some of the distrust and hostility that had divided its residents for decades (89).

While the collection devotes an appropriate amount of space to well-known CFC/SN activities such as the Fogo process, it also spotlights less well-known CFC/SN activities. One of the many gems from the first thematic section of the collection—titled “Historical Spaces: In the Heat of the Action”—is “Fiction Film as Social Animator (1971-72),” an interview with filmmaker Léonard Forest by Dorothy Todd Hénaut. Here, Forest provides an exuberant description of his collaborative work with non-actors in the French-speaking coastal areas of New Brunswick, when making the film La noce est pas finie (The wedding ain’t over, 1971, 86 mins). Improvising dialogue during psychodrama-like sessions, Forest recounts how having community members act out their fears during the filmmaking process “was a great experience, because they saw [their fears] in sharper focus” (49). He believes that the self-empowerment that emerged during the filmmaking process enabled the community to press for changes in many aspects of their lives.

Another gem, this time from the collection’s third “Screen Spaces: Spotlight on the Films and Filmakers” section, is Rina Fraticelli’s “’Would I Ever Like to Work’: The ‘Working Mother’ Films and the Construction of Community,” which provides a study of the Working Mother Films made between 1974-75 under the guidance of filmmaker Kathleen Shannon. The eleven short films in this “film group” were sponsored by the Department of Manpower and Immigration, to explore why women were not better represented in the Canadian labor force and specifically why women did not return to work after giving birth.

Each film in the group presents for the viewer a biographical portrait of a single informant: Would I Ever Like to Work (Kathleen Shannon, 1974, 8 mins) focuses on the life of Joan, a welfare mother in her twenties with seven children under the age of twelve; in Our Dear Sisters (Kathleen Shannon, 1975, 14 mins), First Nation songstress and filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin (Abenaki) describes her experiences as a single mother; and so on. By combining an account of the specific day-to-day experiences of each of the women depicted with an analysis of how the lives of women are “defined and delimited by socio-political structures,” these films served, Fraticelli argues, as a template for other testimony-centered feminist films of the 1970s (304). However, Fraticelli adds, despite the making of the Working Mother Films, women were initially not well served by CFC/SN. Inside the NFB, decision-making was in the hands of men and it was only through the direct intervention of the federal government that the NFB later created its women’s filmmaking section, the famed Studio D, as a means to counter the gender imbalance within its staff (312).

Equally intriguing, since it reveals the sheer variety of approaches to filmmaking employed by CFC/SN, is Liz Czach’s “Michel Régnier’s ‘Films-Outil,” also from the collection’s third section.Commonly overlooked in histories of CFC/SN, Régnier was the most prolific CFC/SN filmmaker. He made two massive film projects for the initiative, Urbanose—a series of fifteen half-hour films exploring urban development in Montreal, and Urba 2000—a series of ten hour-long films addressing urban issues in various cities across the globe.In contrast to the initiative’s leaning towards participatory filmmaking, Régnier made no effort to put cameras in the hands of ordinary Canadians. Rather than foregrounding the testimony of grassroots community members, the majority of the individuals interviewed for Régnier’s films were scholars and urban experts (242). Nonetheless, Czach concludes, Régnier “was committed to making films that were socially useful” (243):

“Thirty-five years after their release, the films of Michel Régnier are still strikingly relevant—most of the issues that threatened the viability and livability of urban centers remain the same” (249).

As I read more deeply into the collection, I experienced the satisfying sense of being transported to the inside of CFC/SN’s messy and multi-faceted activities as essays address similar themes but from different points of view. In one of the collection’s most engaging essays, titled “Grierson and Challenge For Change (1984),” Colin Low describes a classroom face-off with John Grierson, the cantankerous father of documentary filmmaking and founder of the NFB. The meeting took place over three weeks in 1971 at Montreal’s McGill University when Grierson asked Low to present a selection of films for students. Low reports, at the first of the three classes, Grierson hated the film Low presented, rejecting it outright for lacking dramatic content while brushing aside Low’s protestations that community empowerment necessitates the making of films that show consensus-building, not incidents of dramatic confrontation (19).

For the second class, Low presented Billy Crane Moves Away (Colin Low, 1967, 17 mins), one of the Fogo films. Grierson liked the storytelling abilities of the islander depicted in the film but didn’t think much of the film. Low recalls that Grierson couldn’t see the utility of films that only have relevance to the people on Fogo. He grilled Low, asking,

“Twenty-seven films for local limited consumption... Did any of these films define the problems, and recommend solutions to the problems of the island?”(20).

By the third class, Low recalls, he knew he’d been tricked. Grierson

“knew all the answers to the questions he had asked me. I thought his hostility was genuine—it was a brand of theater” (22).

Although Grierson is sometimes viewed as an opponent of CFC/SN, Low reveals that Grierson supported the overall goals of the initiative, but he had doubts about its ability to fulfill its mission and, ever opinionated, he was not shy of saying so. Indeed, in Grierson’s fascinating “Memo to Michelle about Decentralizing the Means of Production (1972),” also included in the collection, Grierson expresses optimism that small gauge film formats can be used to democratize film production and support community based filmmaking efforts, although with the proviso that the individuals behind the camera must be properly trained and possess an appropriate level of personal creativity.

One of the limitations of a collection that reprints documents contemporaneous to CFC/SN’s activities is that the authors of this older material may have been, at their time of writing, unwilling to be fully candid about their experiences. For instance, writing in 1968, Noel Starblanket somewhat cryptically observes that the Indian film crew (recruited from across Canada to give a voice to First Nation peoples) was struggling to work collaboratively:

“Because of our strong feelings about social change… because we are all individualistic” (40).

A more candid picture of life within CFC/SN during its early years is offered by Deirdre Boyle’s “O, Canada! George Stoney’s Challenge.” In Boyle’s essay, Stoney, reflecting on the two years he served as CFC/SN’s director, notes that one of the challenges facing the smooth operation of the Indian crew was that the well meaning officials who brought to crew together had not considered that regional differences and inter-tribal rivalries might create division among its members. Indeed, Boyle argues, the appointment of U.S. filmmaker Stoney to CFC/SN was predicated on the hope that as a foreigner he would be able to bring together the various factions that were proving divisive within the initiative.

Illustrating this point, Boyle recounts a dramatic early meeting between Stoney and the Francophone members of Societé Nouvelle. Thinking that the amiable Stoney would be a pushover, the French-speaking unit demanded that the initiative’s total budget should be divided equally between the English-speaking CFC and French-speaking SN. Solidly underestimating Stoney’s resolve, the dissident group were met with the retort,

“B—s--! You have less than one-third of the population all in one province, you should get only one-fourth of the budget because you don’t need to spend money on travel” (315).

SN’s allocation remained the same, one third of the total budget.

Boyle’s article also provides us with a tiny glimpse into how the government agencies paying for CFC/SN viewed the initiative: Boyle reports that Stoney was struck by how open Canadian public officials were, as compared to their U.S. counterparts. When he screened the film Up Against the System (Terence McCartney Filgate, 1969, 20min.) for the Canadian minister of welfare, the minister was polite but responded to the film saying, “I think you could have spent your nineteen minutes of the screen to better advantage” (317). The minister then asked, “When will [the film] be ready?” His criticisms aside, the minister wanted the film to be shown at a forthcoming regional welfare conference, and it was later shown across Canada and “helped in setting of new public policy” (317). As the 1970s progressed, government support for NFB/SN fell away and by its demise in the late 1970s only two departments were still involved. Nonetheless, a remarkable feature of CFC/SN is that major government ministries were prepared to support it—at least for a while.

No description of the activities of CFC/SN would be complete without an exploration of CFC/SN’s groundbreaking use of video and this aspect of the initiative is well serviced in essays by Dorothy Todd Hénaut and Bonnie Sherr Klein, Scott MacKenzie, and Janine Marchessault. In “In the Hands of Citizens: A Video Report (1969),” Hénaut and Klein describe their early use of video cameras with The St. Jacques Citizen’s Committee in downtown Montreal. With video equipment simpler to use than film equipment, the authors argue,

“The videotape recording (VTR) project in St-Jacques is an attempt to extent to its logical conclusion the conviction that people should participate in shaping their own lives, which means among other things directing and manipulating the tools of modern communication necessary to gaining and exercising that participation” (25).

The authors describe their early fumbling use of video equipment; images were overexposed, the reel-to-reel tape was loaded backwards, and crewmembers forgot to connect microphones. Nonetheless, the community members involved in the experiment eventually mastered the equipment and proved that video could be used effectively by almost anyone without the need for lengthy professional training.

A lasting contribution CFC/SN made to the field of participatory film/video making is in the critical responses and evaluations it engendered. A problem many community-based media programs face is that they do not have the resources needed to evaluate their own successes or failures. As a fairly large-scale state-sponsored initiative, CFC/SN mobilized both a mass of self-criticism and a significant body of external criticism from scholars and cultural workers. These critical responses are documented in “Discursive Spaces: Theorizing Challenge For Change/Société Nouvelle,” the fourth of the collection’s five sections, and many of the criticisms made of CFC/SN in this section are relevant to the participatory media field as it operates today.

In a little over ten years, CFC/SN produced over two hundred films and hosted thousands of community or educational film screenings and television broadcasts. Advocates for the initiative argue for its successes, such as pressing for welfare reform and new programs for farmers and the poor. However, critics of the initiative argue that as a government program CFC/SN was designed to serve the maintenance of liberal democratic values and didn’t foster radical political alternatives to the status quo, or seek to catalyze fundamental social change. In her essay “Amateur Video and the Challenge For Change (1995),” Marchessault argues that the use of video by CFC/SN provided community members with access to communication technologies but did not provide them with the agency needed to bring about real change (360).

Others in the collection note that while CFC/SN appeared to be providing marginalized communities a chance to speak, the NFB and its government partners controlled the kinds of films that could be made. For instance, in Michelle Stewart’s “Cree Hunters of Mistassinni: Challenge For Change and Aboriginal Rights,” the author notes that in order to get approval to make a film about opposition to the building of a hydro-electric facility on native land, Colin Low had to present the film to the CFC advisory committee as a film about “Indian attitudes to the land,” rather than as an activist film (183).

Others argue that while the filmmaking activities of the CFC/SN seemed to create alternative public spheres for the airing of grassroots viewpoints, once the cameras and CFC/SN’s “social animators” departed, these public spheres seemed to vanish too. Indeed, even successful activities such as the Fogo process seemed impossible to replicate. As Wiesner argues, activities that worked in isolated rural areas like Fogo weren’t effective in other locations. In cities, he argues,

“In all likelihood, other less-expensive and easier-to-produce media—particularly newsletters—have played a much larger role in community development than either film or video” (99).

A final criticism of CFC/SN, one that is not explored in the collection, is the financial cost of CFC/SN, and the possibility that it took resources away from direct service activities that might have more effectively served the long term needs of the communities involved.

For too long, a comprehensive study of CFC/SN been absent from the scholarship on documentary filmmaking. Filling more than 500 pages, the dossier of documents, profiles, arguments, and critiques that compose Challenge For Change: Activist Documentary at the National Film Board of Canada, go a long way towards countering this absence. As a reader, I would like have liked the collection to provide a more comprehensive ethnography of how the initiative worked at the level of the NFB and the other government ministries involved, as well as how it worked at a grassroots level from the perspective of the ordinary Canadians who were its participants and stakeholders. We must hope that this collection will spark renewed interest in the work of CFC/SN and encourage other scholars to explore those facets of the initiative that are not fully addressed here. A final minor criticism of the collection is the inclusion of a foreword by Naomi Klein. There is utility in bringing the work of CFC/SN to the attention of contemporary activists and present day participatory filmmakers, but the presence of a celebrity activist of Klein’s status at the fore of this collection rubs uncomfortably against its overall focus on activities that sought to empower Canada’s voiceless (Klein’s connection to CFC/SN is tenuous at best—Bonnie Sherr Klein is her mother).

These shortcomings aside, Waugh, Baker and Winton’s collection is a valuable addition to the scholarship on CFC/SN as well as an important contribution the study of documentary film ethics and history. The collection will also be useful to practitioners working within the present-day field of participatory media making. It presents for these readers useful examples of participatory film and video making’s successes, while delivering hard truths about the weaknesses and challenges-to-overcome that are inherent to a participatory media approach to community development and organizing. Colin Low writes, 

“Here… in this Film Board program were a few energetic, naïve enthusiasts who, for a short time, believed again that it was possible to change the world with a camera” (16).

By bringing the work of these few energetic naïve film enthusiasts into focus, Challenge For Change: Activist Documentary at the National Film Board of Canada presses us to again recognize the important role participatory film and video making can play in the advancement of social justice.

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