The DEC Films story —
to recover and reclaim

by Peter Steven

“Whoever controls distribution controls cinema.”
—Tahar Cheriaa, Tunisian film scholar.


Secret. Canadian Security Services.  September, 1974.

“The Development Education Centre (DEC) is a misleading name for this group. It gives the impression of being respectable and only interested in Education Research. However, closer investigation has revealed that DEC is in reality, a radical collective of ten highly political individuals, who are predominantly Marxist, and seek to promote revolutionary (non-violent) social change.”

Undercover report written for Canadian Security Services,
“Third World organizations and activities.” September, 1974. p. 14
(stamped “Secret” on cover page.)

A child of the New Left

This is a story about a small piece of Canadian film history that’s never been told. Why is that? Partly perhaps because the people involved didn’t think it was worth telling or believed it involved events and activities no longer of value. Partly because the economic context changed or people moved on.

It’s also a story untold because this type of cultural history is undervalued, or it seems we don’t know what to do with it. Partly because we live, supposedly, in constantly changing times, accompanied by the “decline of historical thinking.”[1] [open endnotes in new window] Revolutions in technology and media, we are told, make everything from yesterday superfluous.[2]

For roughly twenty years, starting in 1974, DEC Films was the leading distributor of left-leaning film and video in Canada.[3] Throughout that time DEC’s staff-run collective operated a nation-wide distribution and education service, based on specific goals for political change and leftwing activist education. During the first ten years of the group, from 1974 to 1984, my focus here, the number of films in the collection jumped from 10 to 160, with revenues over that period reaching hundreds of thousands of dollars. By 1980 DEC Films had grown to a staff of four, and in 1981 I was invited to join them.[4]

DEC made a wide range of films available to activists and groups across the country. Without that distribution outlet, these works would have failed to reach a wide audience or have generated such extensive use. Before DEC, importing films was too expensive for community, and even university, groups. Moreover, leftist distributors in the U.S. and U.K. showed no interest in providing for the Canadian market.

In those first ten years DEC put films into the hands of thousands of groups, in every province — from fishing co-ops in Newfoundland to First Nations in B.C; church groups in New Brunswick to the United Steelworkers in Hamilton; women’s networks in Montreal to an El Salvador support group in Victoria; Mennonites in Winnipeg, One Sky in Edmonton, anarchists in Waterloo.

Viewers were surprised and often shocked by the dramatic footage, but groups used the films for all manner of educational and organization-building projects. Even small groups, working for apparently obscure causes, were able through the film showings, to gain public recognition and support. But sobering images and the desire to educate oneself and others were not the only emotions at play – viewers also enjoyed many aspects of the films, including the inspiration at seeing peoples near and far engaged in political struggle and change.[5]

Needless to say, no channels in the dominant media, including the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), were screening films on the British miner’s strike, the underground fight of Uruguay’s Tupamaros, or the complex story of a maternity center strike among African American women in Chicago. No commercial distributor or broadcaster would show such radical and experimental work as JoAnn Elam’s Rape (1977) or Black Star’s Finally Got the News (1970), on Detroit’s League of Revolutionary Black Workers.

DEC emerged from the Toronto New Left, in a period when, in the words of the historian Peter Graham, activists were beginning to see the benefits of combining the spontaneity of 1960s movements with elements drawn from the Old Left and New Leninism. Unlike many previous historians, Graham argues for a broad definition of the New Left, which by no means died in the sixties. As he writes,

“Hitherto-existing accounts of the Canadian left have misjudged the strength, seriousness, scope and durability of the New Left in Toronto down to the mid-1970s.”[6]

Other chronicles of the Left, for instance by Brian Palmer in his compelling book, Canada’s 60s, emphasize the rupture caused by 1968, at least as felt by many who lived through it.[7] In Palmer’s framework, that explosive year revealed something quite different from what came earlier, yet its burst of energy quickly receded at the turn to the 1970s. A debate continues, also in Britain and the United States, over whether to define the New Left within a short 60s decade or as a longer-term set of movements. I mention it to help us focus on the moment of DEC’s birth.

In Graham’s more expansive view of the New Left, activists of the 1970s centered their work around the three principles of national liberation, community, and self-management. By this framework, DEC Films fits solidly within the New Left. Nevertheless, by 1974, DEC Films’ founding year, the New Left had moved to incorporate the first stirrings of anti-racist organizing, the new movements of Indigenous peoples, the return of real working-class power within Quebec, and the fundamental challenge of socialist-feminism.[8]

From the beginning DEC said its mandate was more than straight-forward film distribution. It endeavored to work with a wide range of political, social, ethnic, and racial groups to assess needs, provide resources, and develop film programs suited to their goals. This remained an important difference between DEC and most other distributors then and now. For DEC the impetus for acquisition of film titles came from user groups as much as from filmmakers; at least in part then, it constructed a user-based model. Thus when revolutionary movements emerged in Nicaragua and El Salvador in the late 1970s, solidarity groups in Canada, which included many refugees, encouraged DEC to find suitable films for their educational work.

Of course, DEC was not completely alone in showing leftist films. Even within the National Film Board of Canada (NFB/ONF) the Challenge for Change/Société nouvelle programs (1967-1980), launched by Colin Low and initially coordinated by the U.S. veteran George Stoney, produced a significant number of radical films and videotapes. Many of these found life in political education and organizing. Some of the best included You are on Indian Land (Michael Kanentakeron Mitchell, 1969), The Fogo Island, Newfoundland series (Colin Low, 1967-1968), and the Working Mothers series (Kathleen Shannon et al., 1974).[9]

In Quebec the staunchly independent Vidéographe, a 1971 spin-off from Société nouvelle, and Carrefour International, formed in 1969 as a branch of the international charity Crossroads, had pioneered video and film distribution combined with political education work. And in Vancouver IDERA began working in 1975 in the same manner as DEC with a focus solely on the Third World.

In the late 1970s in Toronto, a commercial theatrical distributor called New Cinema, secured rights to several top films from Cuba and South America. These included Memories of Underdevelopment (Gutiérrez Alea, 1968), Lucia (Solás, 1968),and others that had received enthusiastic runs in New York. The Canadian Filmmakers Distribution Centre (CFMDC, 1967) and Trinity Square Video (1971), also based in Toronto, played pioneering roles in the distribution of avant-garde and experimental work. Like DEC, their focus was on non-theatrical, educational audiences, though with a focus on arts audiences.

Some antecedents

The earlier history of leftist film exhibition in Canada is barely remembered let alone studied, but magazines and papers from the late 1930s contain reports and ads for Spanish Civil War films screened by groups supporting the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion. In this context, Heart of Spain (Klein, Karpathi, Strand, Hurwitz, 1937), drew the most attention, partly because it included a heroic homage to the work of Canadian doctor Norman Bethune.[10] Scattered evidence points to a few other examples. In the 1930s and 40s, unions and Communist Party-affiliated groups screened Paul Robeson Hollywood classics.[11] The film historian Scott Forsyth, in his wide-ranging survey of left culture in the 1930s, notes,

“In 1936, the Clavir brothers, who were close to the [Communist Party of Canada (CPC)], formed Cosmopolitan Films, opened the Little Theatre at College and Spadina in Toronto, and ‘promised the finest of progressive films.’”[12]

In 1945-46 the Vancouver Branch of the National Film Society of Canada collaborated with “the short-lived Labor Arts Guild,” to present “an impressive series that included … key works by Luis Bunuel, Sergei Eisenstein, Fritz Lang and F.W. Murnau.”[13]  One of those organizers, Moira Armour, went on to help set up the the Toronto Film Society, which in 1948 screened Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin and Ivan the Terrible in its first season. Armour also worked in Toronto with Maya Deren in 1951 on an unreleased film,called Ensemble for Somnambulists. During the 1970s Armour served as a film librarian at the Toronto Board of Education, where she purchased many films from the DEC collection.                                                                                                                                                        

During the 1950s and 60s the International Union of Mine Mill and Smelter Workers showed Salt of the Earth (Herbert J. Biberman et al., 1954);  and in the early 1960s peace movement groups, such as Canadian Voice of Women for Peace (founded 1960) and the Fair Play for Cuba Committee (1960-1964) managed to organize several screenings of that film. Significantly, these peace and solidarity groups created a space for a range of leftists (both old and new) to work together—from the Trotskyist-centered League for Socialist Action (1961) to the social-democratic New Democratic Party (NDP), the Communist Party of Canada (CPC) and many independents.

Immediately prior to the birth of DEC, Quebec activists used radical films explicitly for political agitation, in the name of socialism and national liberation. The key films here included Denys Arcand’s On est au coton (Cotton Mill, Treadmill, 1970), Arthur Lamothe’s Le mepris n’aura qu’un temps (Hell no Longer, 1969), and Gilles Groulx’s 24 Heures ou plus (24 Hours or More (1972.)These celebrated works rank among the most radical films, formally and politically, ever made in Canada. In 1976 DEC secured the rights to distribute Le mepris.[14] Also in Quebec, film activists, especially the indefatigable Yvan Patrie of the Comité d’information politique, emphasized the links between Quebec and the Third World in their magazine Champ Libre.

Despite these precedents, in the end no sustained models existed for this type of independent, political distribution work in Canada. Thus, for the staff of DEC it seemed like starting from scratch, clearly a project of the Canadian New Left.

The largest circulation alternative newspaper of the early 70s was “Guerilla,” which attempted to speak to a broad New Left and counter-cultural audience. In the mid-1970s the Trotskyist “Old Mole” delivered the party politics of the faction known as the Revolutionary Marxist Group. Several other “new Leninist” papers jockeyed for attention.

Birth  of DEC

DEC Films was a child of the Development Education Centre, founded in Toronto by Jonathan Forbes, in January, 1972, in rather downbeat offices at 200 Bedford Road. Seed money came from Oxfam Canada, at the time deeply involved in fund-raising for anti-poverty projects in Africa and elsewhere, but for various reasons unable to launch educational work in Canada.[15] Forbes wanted Canadians to know more about the countries where Oxfam was sending money; he also wanted people to understand that Canadian corporations, abetted by the Federal government, hardly qualified as innocent bystanders. There were structural and systemic reasons why millions of people in South Africa, Brazil, Guatemala, and Indonesia remained poor and Canadians should not remain ignorant. This linkage of charitable fundraising and political finger-pointing toward Canadian corporations did not rest easily with the big NGOs and charities.

Forbes, who grew up in Toronto, had recently returned from six years in London, England, where he had been involved in the UK’s long-established but growing anti-Apartheid movements. Prominent at the time was the legendary South African exile, Ruth First, with whom he worked on several occasions. Also important in his education was the Haslemere Group, based in Oxford, with links to Oxfam, which had gained attention in 1968 for its Haslemere Declaration, a radical analysis of world poverty. Its key point emphasized that

“exploitation of the Third World is qualitatively similar to, and caused by, the same politio-economic factors which are the basis of poverty in Britain.”[16]

Forbes recalls that the launch of the Haslemere manifesto was a big event with upwards of 2,000 people attending at London’s Roundhouse. Both Haslemere and the Anti-Apartheid groups had started showing films in their efforts to inform the British public about world issues.[17] In those days, says Forbes, “the Left was bold.”

DEC played a role in film showings even before it set up its distribution service in 1974. The most important events focused on southern Africa, co-sponsored with OXFAM and TCLSAC. This mini festival at the University of Toronto was attacked by the right-wing Western Guard.

On his return to Toronto, Forbes approached Oxfam in an attempt to continue the same kinds of work he had undertaken in Britain. Oxfam was split on the issue. Some Board members were keen; others feared that political education which discussed the causes of poverty was too risky for a Canadian charity. In particular, talk about the role of Canadian corporations would draw the wrath of the Federal government, particularly when the spotlight turned to the mining giants, such as Inco, operating in Guatemala and Indonesia, and Brascan, with its rubber operations in Brazil. This applied particularly to the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) eagerly pushing its own form of “development education.” In the end Oxfam cut Forbes a check for $5,000, presented him with forty boxes of research files, and wished him luck.

During 1973 DEC launched a number of initiatives and Forbes managed to secure some CIDA project money and thus hire several activists, all with contacts in labor or international education. These early staff set themselves up in true New Left fashion as a worker’s collective, which eschewed hierarchy in terms of decision-making and pay. For tax purposes DEC created two corporate entities: one as profit making and the other as a non-profit ‘education society.’ A Board of Directors was also required by provincial law. For DEC’s staff this Board served mostly as a legal necessity — useful as a form of support or guidance, but Board members should know their place. DEC would be a worker-run organization and staff would handle the important decisions.

Within the group a rough division of labor emerged, needed especially as new projects solidified into ongoing areas of work. Thus by the late 70s, in addition to film distribution, DEC included sub-groups that produced film strips, slide-audio tape shows and a regular radio program, ran a book store, and in 1977 launched a book publisher, known as Between the Lines (BTL).[18] By 1980 a complex book distribution system, representing BTL and several other leftist publishers, including Monthly Review, Progress Books, and Pluto, had also been created.

Through most of the 1970s all the DEC staff rotated in their duties and took on the three types of work: creation of programs and educational materials, the day-to-day tasks of the retail book store and distribution, and outside popular education. By the 1980s this multi-tasking was no longer possible due to the specialized skills required in both the creative and the administrative work.

Political education was becoming a movement in itself, especially focused on international issues with some connection to Canada. Up to the mid-1960s the New Left had focused primarily on nuclear disarmament and national liberation movements.[19] For example, the Latin American Working Group (LAWG), was formed in 1966 in response to the U.S. invasion of the Dominican Republic during the previous year. By the early 1970s LAWG had been joined by such groups as the The Toronto Committee for the Liberation of Portugal's African Colonies (TCLPAC) formed in 1972 and renamed in 1974 as the Toronto Committee for the Liberation of Southern Africa (TCLSAC). Toronto’s Black Education Project, created in 1969 by Marlene Green, played a key role around education issues in public schools and included both long-established African Canadians as well as those recently arrived from the Caribbean. Finally, the quiet and then not-so quiet revolutions in Quebec fostered a new, sometimes rather desperate need for the Canadian left to catch up to Quebec.[20]

Ian McKay, another influential historian of the Canadian left, argues that history reveals what he calls “matrix-events,” such as the explosive year 1968. These eventually lead to the birth of new formations of the left and an attempt to systematize and consolidate. In addition, key events and new formations are accompanied by what the religious describe as an epiphany and what Gramsci termed a supersedure. In other words people don’t simply find themselves in a new political reality they also experience a new sense of living differently.[21] This New Left formation, in the process of consolidation in the early 1970s, also goes through what might be characterized as an immanent critique and the matrix-event of socialist feminism.

The moment of birth for DEC thus takes place at a time when dozens of new organizations, consciousness-raising groups, magazines, books, and films are all trying to consolidate, make concrete, and educate. For McKay,

“What each left organization seeks to build is a formation, a way of disseminating its system of concepts through a much wider social network.”[22]

Humberto Rios’s Cry of the People (Bolivia, 1972) provides a Marxist history of Bolivia. The film pays particular attention to the Indigenous miners, many of whom worked for international corporations.

Rios, with camera, in Bolivia, 1972.

The film was one of the orignal ten in the collection. DEC staff had met Rios and other prominent South American filmmakers at the Montreal Rencontres international pour un nouveau cinema.

By February, 1974, DEC was ready to take advantage of its organizational abilities, access to resources, and educational networks to launch a film distribution service. The models of the Tricontinental Film Center in New York and The Other Cinema in London showed that enthusiastic audiences were seeking this work and the venture could be financially healthy. It certainly made sense to secure Canadian distribution rights rather than continually rent from outside the country (with the additional costs of shipping and import duties).

DEC was also eager to embark on film distribution following its participation in Montreal’s Rencontres internationales pour un nouveau cinema, held in 1974. That conference drew participants from Europe, Africa, and the Americas, and helped establish many networks of filmmakers and political distributors. It also reflected the primacy of Quebec’s political cinema and that of its internationally-focused organizers – people such as André Pȃquet. DEC’s delegation returned with ambitious plans and dozens of contacts. They framed their work as part of an international project of solidarity.[23]

In 1973 DEC hired Kae Elgie, an accomplished researcher who had worked in southern Africa and with TCLSAC. Significantly, Elgie had helped organize the successful “Cinema of Solidarity” in Toronto. That series not only raised several thousand dollars for TCLSAC projects but showed the potential for ongoing education through political cinema. Unsurprisingly, the ongoing TCLSAC series also drew the attention of Toronto’s Western Guard, a frequently violent neo-fascist outfit, founded in 1972. This was a small, but dangerous group. In April 1974 Western Guard members, shouting “White Power,” attacked and disrupted a large TCLSAC/Oxfam/DEC screening at the University of Toronto. Forbes and five others landed in hospital and eventually his attacker served a month in jail for the assault.[24] Others, particularly in the African-Canadian communities, faced more alarming attacks. Leonard and Gwendolyn Johnson’s Third World Books and Crafts, a few blocks away from DEC, had its front windows smashed by gunfire by suspected Western Guard members.[25] 

Elgie began her work at DEC with a productive trip to New York to meet with and learn from Tricontinental, a leading U.S. distributor founded in 1970 by two dynamic and well-connected brothers from Argentina, Rudolfo and Carlos Broullón. In particular Elgie benefitted from the experience and generosity of Tricon’s key staff person Gary Crowdus.[26] From Crowdus came the arcane business knowledge of film distribution and legal contracts with producers. Following the Tricontinental model, DEC set up their contracts on a 50/50 split with producers from rentals and sales.

After several weeks Elgie returned to Canada with a carefully chosen collection of ten 16mm prints and a generous agreement with Tricon to strike future prints from their negatives in New York labs. Miguel Littin’s The Jackal of Nahueltoro (Chile, 1969) leapt out as the most significant film in the list but others, especially Raymundo Gleyzer’s Mexico: Frozen Revolution (Argentina, 1971 ) and Humberto Rios’s Cry of the People (Argentina, 1972) on Bolivia, found larger audiences across Canada in the next years. Perhaps the most radical film in the group was Finally Got the News (Stewart Bird et al., 1970), set in Detroit and featuring the straight-to-the-camera politics of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers.[27] Elgie recalls that her high hopes for the film led to some disappointment when others didn’t share her enthusiasm.[28]

DEC had already created a structure for the production and distribution of film strips, slide-tape shows and educational kits. These explored both international and national issues with titles such as Third World: Development of Underdevelopment and James Bay: Development for Whom? Dec’s first forays into production were usually supplemented by tours and workshops led by staff. The group could also cross-promote its productions for free through its radio and book distribution work, although by today’s standards promotion activities were decidedly underdeveloped in DEC’s early years.

Following the success of Elgie’s work between 1973 and 1975, DEC began to add more staff from a variety of backgrounds. The 1976 catalogue reflects that growth and diversity in a collection that tackled issues moving well beyond Third World solidarity, to encompass the North American and Western European working-class, women’s movements, anti-racism, and environmental threats. In addition to Littin and Gleyzer, the range of creators and production groups included Anand Patwardhan, India; Jan Lindquist, Sweden; Cinema Action and the London Women’s Film Group, UK; the Union of Atomic Workers, France; Newsreel and Third World Newsreel, New York.