“The films and tapes were not important in themselves. It was the process and the ideas”. George Stoney Executive Producer, Challenge for Change/ Societe Nouvelle, 1968 – 70.  

In 1967 the National Film Board of Canada (NFB) created an ambitious participatory media programme called Challenge for Change/ Societe Nouvelle (CFC/SN) that sought to give disenfranchised and marginalized communities of Canada a voice by giving them access to the media. Post World War II, the NFB had prided itself on its activist agenda and 1960s technological and cultural developments inspired the development of CFC/SN, with a vision that the process of filmmaking not only document social issues, but play an active role in them as well. Challenge for Change was envisioned in three streams with one stream forming a platform whereby non-media professionals in Canada could make films about their own concerns and problems (1), with NFB support. This was a process that John Grierson observes as the shift from films made about people to films made with people.(2) For directors such as Colin Low and others involved, the Challenge for Change studio represented a return to the Grierson philosophy of government-sponsored documentary, with a new twist – not only would the government inform the people, but the people would also inform the government, a rare example of a government funding public criticisms of itself (as George Stoney recalls when asked, “Does the government know you’re making these films?” he replies – “Know! They’re paying for it” (p. 318)). Low wrote in 1972: “The means of communication – real two-way communication – must be made accessible to ordinary people for dialogue in meaningful local debate. In this way, we could generate a much more vigorous problem-solving capacity based upon local initiative and creativity.” (3)

CFC/SN was a diverse programme subsidized across multiple government departments and by the time it closed in 1980 it had produced 145 English language films or videos and 63 in French. These videos, and the act of making, screening and discussing them, was intended to enable better communication and understanding between (mostly poor) communities and government and to provoke social change. What was actually achieved within Canadian society through the programme is a site of some contention. Waugh, Baker and Winton’s eclectic anthology collection of thirty-eight chapters, including original essays from 26 authors from a range of disciplines attempt to reflect the conflicted and contrary responses to a unique programme, and this book also represents the first substantial chronicle of Challenge for Change.

Whilst the impact of the program at a community and societal level may be debatable, CFC/ SN’s influence on other media can still be observed 30 years after its closure. At the end of the programme there were 18,000 subscribers (from around the world) to the monthly CFC newsletter indicating significant outside interest in the ‘stories behind the story’. The Video Access Centre Videographe, set up through the Societe Nouvelle program, and reviewed in a chapter in this collection, inspired other centres including a network of Australian centres now identified nationally as Screen Development Australia – including FTI (WA) and the MRC (SA).

An early participatory media project of CFC known as the Fogo Process (1967) set an aspirational benchmark in terms of community transformation as well as establishing a process of production, community engagement and feedback that has since been adopted around the world on participatory video and communication for development programs. The Fogo Process and director Colin Low are well represented in the book with Low’s insightful reflection on the development of the program the opening chapter of Part 1 and numerous other chapters referring to this project – often seen as the embodiment of the CFC/SN idealism. CFC/SN laid the groundwork and training for Studio D – the first government funded film studio dedicated to women filmmakers in the world and Studio D founder Kathleen Shannon is featured in an interview from 1975, and other Studio D filmmakers (Henault and Sher Klein) are also well reviewed. CFC/ SN also provided training, structural or programmatic support to alternative media groups such as the Memorial University of Newfoundland’s Extension film unit, Appalshop and the Aboriginal People’s Television Network who produced the acclaimed feature Atanarjurat (The Fast Runner) in 2002 with the NFB. The Indian Film Crew of the NFB and productions such You Are On Indian Land are featured across a number of chapters. Noel Starblanket’s brief plea (1968) for continued support for the Indian Film Crew conveys some of the tensions and frustrations clearly felt within the CFC Studio over conflicted priorities in light of a limited capacity for support.

Children of Fogo Island, from the ‘Newfoundland Project’, now known as the Fogo Island Project. 1967, Colin Low

Filmmakers engaged in the project have also had considerable impact on how we view and make media. Executive Producer George Stoney would go on to found the Alternative Media Centre in New York and is known as the “father of public access television.” Colin Low, who embraced the influential anti-aesthetical and process driven approach to the films on Fogo Island, is identified as a creator of the IMAX format (Labyrinth, 1967), and has been cited as a key influence by Ken Burns (City of Gold, 1957) and Stanley Kubrick (Universe, 1960). Kathleen Shannon, who headed up Studio D, became an Oscar winning producer (for Studio D films: I’ll Find a Way (1978), If You Love This Planet (1983) and Flamenco at 5:15 (1984)). Dorothy Henault and Bonnie Sher Klein who collaborated on VTR-St Jacques and other CFC programs created documentary works including Not A Love Story, and Klein’s daughter Naomi Klein is interviewed by Winton for the preface to this book. More than twenty-five years later the NFB re-imagined CFC/SN as part of the innovative Filmmaker in Residence project (http://filmmakerinresidence.nfb.ca/) – a participatory and online media program directed by Katerina Cizek, also featured in the closing chapters of the book discussing how new developments in media and technology impact on an interventionist media with intent to provoke social engagement and change. In the final chapter Vijaya Mulay looks at the use of participatory video by the Deccan Development Society in India and credits the Fogo Process as a key influence whilst exploring differences between the Community Media Trust and the CFC/SN.

Members of the Fogo Island Development Committee looking out to sea. Colin Low, 1967

Although Stoney declared the CFC/SN films unimportant, documentaries such as You Are On Indian Land, The Things I Cannot Change, Cree Hunters of Mstassini, Working Mothers, Les Filles Du Roy and Up Against the System were well received and widely viewed. Some of the most fascinating chapters in the book however focus on the ‘forgotten’ CFC/SN films and filmmakers. Working on the margins of both the NFB and society, filmmakers were seen to work in service to community needs and ideas, subsuming their own creative ambitions. The resulting works were often considered “long and boring” (Low himself reflecting on the Fogo films in 2002 in an interview with Baker and Meier!) and only of interest to the community. The extensive review of both films and filmmakers challenge an idea of a simple focus on the physical residue of the media left behind. Rather than read the products of documentary as representational texts, a number of the chapters approach the videos as multi-sensory, non-representational practice that makes “space livelier” and is “interested in how events are shaped as they happen” (Rusted, chapter 20). If documentary is approached as non-representational performance, attention moves from the rhetoric of texts to the practices of community organizing, the technologies of portable video and the embodied material relations that produce a collectively enacted sense of place.

A member of the Comite des citoyen de St-Jacques films using the new portapak video tape system. Still from Bonnie Sher Klein’s VTR St-Jacques, 1969

Stand out chapters addressing both practice and product/text include Rusted’s exploration of the early use of Portapak videotape in St-Jacques and Rosedale; Czach’s tribute to the prolific Michel Regnier and Charbonneau’s curious approach to Bonnie Sher Klein’s films on US community organizer Saul Alinsky. Rosenthal’s interview with Stoney exploring the film You Are On Indian Land covers a vast period of Stoney’s participatory media work with a focus on the period around the founding of the Indian Film Crew (IFC) program within CFC, and its unfortunate demise. This chapter provides an excellent foil to the earlier chapter by Starblanket charting the frustrations experienced by both (outside) producer and (inside) participant in trying to manifest marginalized voices. It reinforces Rusted’s extensive list of opposing quotations (pp. 219–220) that observes CFC/SN as empowering/ disempowering, activist/ pacifist, anti-aesthetic and amateur/ aesthetic and professional – and it is clear that this conflicted experiences exist for producers and filmmakers, as well as for the community. The continuous and contrary descriptions of the program (and its process and outcomes) are surely the embodiment of the ‘Challenge’ central to an aspiration of creating a new society, or manifesting change using film and video. Perceptions of the programme (and individual projects and processes within CFC/SN) through the course of the book are challenged and revisioned. In Longfellow’s revisionary reading of the much vilified documentary The Things I Cannot Change (Ballantyne Tree, 1967) we find a detailed exposition that unpacks received opinion (and repeated in previous essays in the text) of a film originally intended as a prototype for CFC films and instead held up as an exemplar of the kind of films and process to avoid (the family featured in the film were allegedly so humiliated by their representation in the film that when it was screened on TV they were ridiculed to such an extent they had to move).

The VTR-St-Jacques Project – the first use of the portapak video in the Challenge for Change program. Bonnie Sher Klein, 1969

With such diversity and volume of material, the editors have a challenge to illuminate a pathway for readers. Breaking material into five parts they have attempted to create a navigable structure, from historical reflections, community issues, a spotlight on films and filmmakers, a theoretical section and finally a brief review of contemporary reincarnations of the programme. The material ranges from essays to journal articles to interviews – some contemporary, some dating back to the 1970s. The history of CFC/SN is somewhat clouded through the oft-conflicted opinions and historical retellings, and some of the more mythological projects such as the Fogo Process maintain an unchallenged purity that authors such as Newhook (2009) and Crocker (2008) have substantially challenged.

The book offers a vast array of views on the CFC/SN programme and projects, communities, filmmakers and others working within it. Anyone interested in documentary process and ethics, participatory, community or activist media will find an exceptional collection of documentation, review and critique that finally provide an insight into the importance of not just the Challenge for Change programme, but the importance of government cultural institutions such as the NFB.

Members of the Comite des citoyens de St-Jacques in Montreal interviewing people from their community on the street. From VTR St-Jacques, Bonnie Sher Klein, 1969

Playlist – Challenge for Change: http://www.nfb.ca/playlists/michael-brendan-thomas-waugh-ezra-winton/challenge-for-change/

Challenge for Change: Activist Documentary at the National Film Board of Canada, edited by Thomas Waugh, Michael Brendan Baker & Ezra Winton, Canada: McGill-Queens University Press, 2010.

Endnotes

  1. Jones, D.B. Movies and Memorandum  (1981) An Interpretative History of the National Film Board of Canada, Toronto: National Film Institute, p.159.
  2. Sussex, E. and Grierson, J. (1972) “Grierson on Documentary: The Last Interview” inFilm Quarterly, 26: 1,  24-30. (downloaded from http://www.jstor.org/stable/1211408, August 2010). P. 24
  3. Quoted in Memorial University of Newfoundland Extension Service (1972), op.cit.