A rational film board; The NFB's forays into new media show how a cultural institution can remain relevant at the age of 70
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 7 April 2009)

To understand how the National Film Board of Canada sees itself in the year of its 70th birthday, we must grapple with two newish words, webisode and mobisode.

They describe methods of communication the NFB wants to make available to us. Tom Perlmutter, the film commissioner, speaking recently to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, said that we need to build our national competence in online communications. For the good of our society and our culture, "We need to ensure broad-based digital literacy." As part of that development, "We need to see webisodes, mobisodes, interactive content," all made within a Canadian context.

He didn't explain what those two words mean, presumably because everyone in the media business already knows, but in the interests of broad-based interactive understanding, it may be helpful to define them.

A webisode is an episode of drama or comedy, carried on the web, like a TV episode but usually shorter. It's viewed on a computer. A mobisode is similar, but it's for watching on a mobile telephone. The NFB has been moving vigorously into this new territory. With two partners it's become the first agency in Canada to create original productions for mobile phones.

Prime minister Mackenzie King created the Film Board on May 2, 1939 and soon placed it in the hands of John Grierson, an imaginative and ambitious Scot who had invented the term "documentary" some years earlier. Over the decades, it's been one of the more effective federal agencies, but it has unfortunately spent much of its life under the shadow of obsolescence. A slightly antiquated aura appeared as early as the mid-1940s, when audiences that had loved it in wartime turned against its solemn, bureaucracy-heavy tone.

Ever since, the board has made a habit of reinventing itself through animation, films for TV, feature films and (most spectacularly) innovative forms of documentary. Sometimes, it disappears from public view, then suddenly returns to the headlines, perhaps by winning an Academy Award for a film that few of its owners, the Canadian taxpayers, have ever seen.

In this anniversary year, it has a slogan, "The world is changing -- our stories continue." As a minor form of self-promotion, it's produced NFB 70 Years, a short by Jean-Francois Pouliot intended to remind us all that the board is still here and still lively. Pouliot set out to rejuvenate a "certain backward-looking, old-fashioned image" that clings to its operation; he seems to believe the public thinks the NFB mainly makes nature films.

But NFB 70 Years comes across as an argument rather than a celebration. Pouliot mock-interviews a man in the street who considers the board irrelevant and then throws around some footage suggesting that it's actually pretty cool. There's approving coverage of a graffiti artist, which Pouliot considers a key image because it expresses art's subversive aspect. "Don't forget," says Pouliot, "that the film ends with an arrest. The artist is a delinquent ... who provides an alternative view of the world."

It's hard to imagine that in 2009 audiences will find that notion exhilarating, but a related message comes through more forcefully in RiP! A Remix Manifesto, a feature-length documentary on the rights of artists, co-produced with Brett Gaylor, the Montreal writer-director.

Gaylor has spent six years assembling this brash, one-sided cinematic essay about what he sees as the urgent need to revisit copyright laws. He argues that rigid and outdated legislation endangers the ancient tradition of artists borrowing from the work of earlier artists. Corporations have so organized the laws that even the most innocent forms of borrowing are frustrated when art is held privately for several generations. He's particularly angry at Disney and its jealous attachment to Mickey Mouse.

Gaylor's hero is Gregg Gillis, a 26-year old Pittsburgh musician who treats the art of others as the starting point for his own work. Sampling and over-dubbing records, he produces mash-ups, tries them out on enthusiastic audiences, then issues the results under his professional name, Girl Talk. His fourth CD samples about 300 songs.

Gaylor sounds as if he favours piracy but says he doesn't. He just wants more enlightened copyright laws. He doesn't want to deny artists payments for their work, and he admits that he's not at all sure how the change in laws will unfold. He goes for justification and arguments to Lawrence Lessig, an American law professor, columnist at Wired magazine and author of Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy.

Lessig's proposals include everything from "decriminalizing" music exchange among peers and eliminating copyright fees to amateurs.

Perlmutter says the NFB wants RiP! to foster "discussion for all artists and creators across the digital universe." Already it's become a focus of attention among critics of copyright. Bill Brownstein of The Gazette newspaper in Montreal wrote that RiP! is a huge leap into the future for the board. "This is no longer your granny's NFB." Unfortunately, RiP! is scattered and shrill as well as overstated. It might be twice as persuasive if it were half as hectic.

Still, future histories of the NFB may identify this era's most creative change as the appearance of the board's superb website, NFB.ca. It transforms the public's connection with the board by making 700 films instantly available to anyone with a broadband connection. It has quickly become a superb library of Canadian history, distant and recent. On your computer, you can watch, for instance, Churchill's Island (1941),narrated by Lorne Greene, an account of Britain in the first stages of the war, which won the NFB's first Academy Award and helped make history by arousing anti-Nazi feeling in the U. S. Or you can revive a happy memory of another Oscar-winning NFB short, Cynthia Scott's Flamenco at 5:15 (1983), about senior students of the National Ballet School being taught by two Spanish teachers.

There are at least 698 other films waiting for the curious, more to be added soon. Surveying this treasury, and imagining how well it will be used in future, suggests to me that the minuscule grants made to the NFB over the last 70 years have been well spent.

The NFB makes its greatest impression by acting like itself, as both a celebrant of our contemporary civilization and a repository of history. Some of which, of course, it will deliver to us through webisode and mobisode.

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