On the road

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National Film Board commissioner looks to engage Canadians

John Cameron
Editor-in-Chief

Here’s an experiment.

Go to the National Film Board (NFB) Screening Room, nfb.ca. The menu at the top has an option to “Explore All Films.” Do so. Sort the results by popularity.

Now look at what comes up: “The Log Driver’s Waltz,” “The Cat Came Back,” Oscar-winning computer-generated short “Ryan,” Roch Carrier’s “The Sweater,” “The Big Snit,” “Neighbours.”

Feel some nostalgia? NFB commissioner Tom Perlmutter hopes you do; if you don’t, he hopes you feel a sense of novelty and excitement in discovering the rich body of work that the NFB has archived online.

Perlmutter is on what he describes as a national tour, taking a week at a time to visit communities across Canada in an attempt to make the NFB contemporary in a way that even a sophisticated online archive can’t. The Montreal-based organization, he said, wants to remind Canadians that it exists, and to itself be reminded and informed about what matters to those Canadians.

And Perlmutter is convinced that the NFB is the institution that can help tell them.

“Our mandate is to reflect Canada to Canadians,” Perlmutter said in an interview on Nov. 25, a day after his tour stop at Regina’s Nouveau Gallery. “And we cannot do that just sitting in an office and reading about it, or even connecting in a virtual way. We need to be out across the country doing that.”

The idea behind the tour, according to Perlmutter, is that the NFB should be accessible to Canadians. In one sense, that means letting people access the works themselves, whether it’s the 1,000-plus streaming videos on the organization’s website or the popular late-2009 NFB iPhone application that Perlmutter said resulted in over a million viewings of NFB films since its release.

But another part of that is reminding Canadians that they are not only the audience of NFB films, they’re the source material as well – Perlmutter said he was interested in the way Canadians think and feel about their country and their place in the world.

“Many of them [have] issues around marginalization, feeling left out, feeling somehow that there isn’t a focus on them,” he explained. “So for someone to come and say, ‘You matter,’ which is really true, it opens doors.”

As a result, Perlmutter characterized the NFB’s mission – not its short-term mission of accessibility that the tour represents, but its long-term aims – as a twofold project. The first is to do what the NFB has historically done, which is represent Canada and Canadian film as places where the boundaries of the form can be pushed, keeping up the organization’s reputation both nationally and internationally as a notable institution. But the organization’s second goal, highlighted by the diverse range of interests, beliefs, and concerns that Perlmutter has encountered over the course of the tour, is to preserve Canadian culture and ensure that the broad, sometimes contradictory views of Canadians are represented in the material that the NFB produces and presents.

Saskatchewanians are not exempt from having those concerns either; Perlmutter said that citizens he spoke with expressed anxieties about Saskatchewan’s role in the national and global communities as its stature as a “have” province has grown. And that’s part of the reason the NFB is planning on opening an office in the province in 2011 – to give filmmakers a place to take films that are “rooted in place, that have the specificity of Saskatchewan.”

While Perlmutter cautions that the NFB can only do so much – they can’t release every film brought to their doorstep, for example, and their mandate is to release films, not solve the social problems addressed by the films they release – he nevertheless maintains that the organization’s mission is important to Canadians, giving them an opportunity to engage with the world that, with luck, will continue to change and meet their needs.

For residents of Saskatchewan wondering how the NFB will approach giving residents of this province that opportunity, however, Perlmutter had just two words.

“Stay tuned.”

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