Challenge for Change: Activist Documentary at the National Film Board of Canada

Thomas Waugh, Michael Brendan Baker and Ezra Winton (eds),
Challenge for Change: Activist Documentary at the National Film Board of Canada.
McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2010
ISBN 9780773536630
CA$34.95 (pb)
(Review copy supplied by McGill-Queen’s University Press)

One indication of the inordinate influence the National Film Board of Canada has had on documentary film is the number of units or programs within the organization that achieved some notoriety of their own. Unit B, one of several production units at the NFB during the 1950s and early 1960s, was known for its finely wrought, usually cheery, sometimes slyly ironic films about Canadian life. Studio D, established in the 1970s was the first and became the world’s most notorious and influential government-sponsored women’s filmmaking operation. The NFB’s French Production Branch urged Quebec independence and developed an aesthetic distinct from that of English Production.

For many the most intriguing distinct program in the NFB was Challenge for Change (called Challenge for Change/Société nouvelle when a French component was added to it), which was initiated in 1967 and lasted until 1980. Thirty years defunct, CFC is still remembered, celebrated, and puzzled over. Collectively, the thirty-eight pieces anthologized in Challenge for Change: Activist Documentary at the National Film Board of Canada engage in all three responses to CFC.

At the time of its inception, Challenge for Change – horrible, civics-text of a title – was unique in aim and provenance. It was established by the Film Board in collaboration with the NFB’s government masters for the purpose of conveying the needs of Canada’s poor to the wider public and to specific government agencies with the implied aim of alleviating poverty.  Although some of the officials supporting the program may have been naïve about the venture, most of them probably understood or at least vaguely sensed that the program would generate films critical of the government. Imagine: a government deciding to fund public criticisms of itself.

CFC’s quest was idealistic, some might say quixotic. Filmmakers deliberately subordinated their artistic and professional ambitions to the needs of the communities with which they worked. The idea was to use films to express what was on their subjects’ minds, not what the filmmaker thought. The highest-profile filmmaker to renounce his artistic ambitions in order to help a community express itself was Colin Low, of Unit B fame, who, after key roles in making Corral (1954), City of Gold (1957), Universe (1960) and Expo 67’s Labyrinth, produced the multi-film Fogo Island series (1967) in which members of a declining fishing community discuss their problems and try to forge solutions. Low is represented in the anthology by his wonderfully unaffected essay “Grierson and Challenge for Change” and is mentioned frequently in other entries.

Although art was not its aim, CFC yielded a few enduring films. The best were made by or with Canadian Aboriginals: The Ballad of Crowfoot (1968), You Are on Indian Land (1969), and Cree Hunters of Mistassini(1974). The anthology contains good pieces on the latter two. CFC made several films on Saul Alinsky, interesting less for their art, perhaps, but of renewed relevance because of their content.  One of the most refreshing pieces is a revisionist essay by Brenda Longfellow on The Things I Cannot Change (1967). This film, intended as a prototype for CFC films, was immediately vilified as exactly the kind of film CFC should not make. Instead of helping its impoverished subjects, it is alleged, the film led to their ridicule.  Longfellow’s essay treats the film fairly and does a good job of exposing the persistent rap against it as unexamined received opinion. That several other essays in the collection repeat, in passing, the received opinion about the film demonstrates the value of this fresh evaluation.

Although CFC’s fame lives on, a nagging question dogs it: was it effective? It’s a key question, since CFC films were to be justified not by their quality as documentary art but by their contribution to the alleviation of poverty.  Several essays address the problem of evaluation. Although none solves it, taken together they do a good job of covering most of the factors that make evaluation difficult, most of them related to the near-impossibility of finding a causal relationship between a film and some real-world positive change. Perhaps the final word on this topic is uttered in, of all places, the book’s preface, which is an interview with Naomi Klein of No Logo (1999) fame. “You know,” she reflects, “all film can do, all books can do, is start a discussion” (p. xx). By that standard, CFC did well; many discussions were started. But no one has been able to prove, conclusively, that the films had much effect beyond that.

Although grouped in themed sections, the essays are a congeries of independent, sometimes idiosyncratic pieces, some written decades ago, others commissioned for the anthology. The reader will not gain from the anthology an ordered history of CFC or a coherent interpretation of it.  That’s a book that remains to be written. Instead, the reader will encounter a wealth of views on a host of CFC projects, and likely will finish the book with an appreciation of the sheer number of projects CFC undertook and enduring questions these projects raised.

D.B. Jones,
Drexel University, USA.

Created on: Monday, 23 August 2010

About the Author

D.B. Jones

About the Author

D.B. Jones

D.B. Jones is Head of the Media Arts Department at Drexel University in Philadelphia. He taught at La Trobe University in the early 1970s, is the author of two books on the National Film Board of Canada, and has written and/or directed numerous films, among them the Australian experimental feature Yakkety yak (1974).View all posts by D.B. Jones →