What role the Film Board?

In its 65th year, the National Film Board of Canada is two years into a revitalization that's meant to reestablish its place at the vanguard of documentary. But is its guiding mandate relevant in today's multimedia market?
September 1, 2004

A conversation with:

Tom Perlmutter

Director general

English program, NFB


Rudy Buttignol

Creative head of network

programming, TVO

TP: The NFB’s success has always been its ability to respond to its basic mandate, which is to represent Canada to Canadians and the world. Interpreting that is really the issue – how does that become something that’s relevant to Canadians today?

RB: The NFB has done a good job within its current mandate, but it hasn’t changed to reflect a multimedia world. It needs to redefine its mandate and become a champion of the documentary in content and form. TV will provide lots of work for people, but giving an artist an opportunity to do their own work, that’s difficult. The NFB has no real volume to fill, unlike television, and therefore can do what it thinks is important with whomever it thinks is deserving. Supporting the individual filmmaker by commissioning more and producing less may be a way for the nfb to go forward.

TP: It’s a preoccupation of mine to deal with the question of talent. We look at supporting talent… and we’re looking for the best of the best. We’re also doing commissioning. For example, we’re about to launch an imbedded filmmaker initiative in which an activist filmmaker becomes part of a community for, say, one year and then we see what grows out of that in terms of a film. It’s a different way of doing the more traditional approach of: here’s a film idea, and supporting that.

RB: All of those things are important. But even though I’m a broadcaster, I understand that working with freedoms that exclude having to do things with the broadcasters can sometimes be a very good thing; to allow people not just creative control over their work, but production control. It’s the idea of harnessing the chaos of creativity just enough to ensure stuff gets done, but not enough to curtail the spark of originality. Sometimes it’s the spark of madness too, but that’s the kind of risk that we in the public sector can take.

TP: The other side of that is, because of the extent that we work with emerging filmmakers [about 40% of the NFB's slate], they need a lot of handholding. If we walked away from a producing responsibility, it would do them a disservice. Also, the creative smarts that come with the right level of producing has often, though not always, made a substantial difference.

RB: We’ve been so busy building an indie and a TV sector that we never stopped to ask ourselves what we want to be when we grow up. The nfb, particularly in the doc genre, could help lead in a new definition. What is the new documentary definition that will emerge from the utter decadence of reality television?

TP: That challenge is central to a lot of our thinking – within the Film Board, with filmmakers and broadcasters, and internationally as well. It’s ongoing and it gets played out in the work itself. How far can we push the norm? What are the kind of risks we can take? What does it mean to take risks?

RB: Rather than explain Canada to Canadians, maybe a broader definition [is needed], one that pushes in the direction of films in the national interest, because that’s food for debate.

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