Our intellectual investigation undoubtedly requires a starting point, some kind of proverbial launch pad. So what better place to begin our journey than the very nexus of Canadian film distribution itself? That’s right, we put on our walking shoes and went to the National Film Board headquarters in Montreal. We ventured out to the corner of Sherbrooke and St. Denis to see just how the country’s institutional founder of film presents itself to the Canadian public.
From the outside, the place is pretty sleek and modern, though unassuming. We’d all admitted that we’d walked by the NFB plenty of times without ever realizing what it was. Needless to say, the building is a fascinating composite of architectural styles. The south façade is contemporary -glass and metal and large typographic decals- while the upper floors are all brick and arch windows, characteristic of Montreal’s turn of the century urban housing. And although it sounds kind of ugly, the building styles complement each other nicely – the NFB is like the cool guy at the party who wears his grandpa’s vintage loafers while texting on his iphone; the historical reference is there, but the modern-chic aesthetic completes the “look.”
Lookin’ good, NFB.
We entered at the Cinerobotheque, the public entrance on the East side that is open to visitors seven days a week. We were greeted kindly by a cheerful desk clerk who promptly asked us if we knew anything about the NFB or its objective. We coyly denied – our clever strategy to test the minion’s knowledge. He expertly- delivered a well-rehearsed speech
about the NFB’s mission to produce and distribute Canadian-made films to the Canadian public. He graciously welcomed our party to the building and invited us to take a look at their public space, where we had to opportunity to browse, purchase, and view over 10,000 films.
We ascended a nearby staircase and entered the buying/viewing/browsing room, an open-concept area where everything NFB is at the visitor’s fingertips. Here, we gazed at a wall of NFB DVDs, all for sale.
What struck us first about the wall display were the categories. Contrary to your average Blockbuster or Rogers, whose films are organized roughly according to the basic genres (comedy, drama, etc), the NFB chooses to categorize its films according to cultural topic, or rather “issue discussed.” This was interesting to us because it showed a cultural sensitivity on the part of the NFB; these weren’t movies, they were Canada’s films.
A particularly curious component of the wall display was the inclusion of blank VHS tapes “hidden” behind each DVD. This slightly odd (but nonetheless charming) aesthetic choice was subtle, but we felt it fit rather nicely with the NFB’s observed reputation for referencing its historical roots. The effect is poetic: one cannot pick up a new DVD without a reminder of its technological predecessor. Historical references are quite literally embedded in the walls!
The viewing experience at the Cinerobothque was like nothing we’ve partaken before. Like in a traditional cinema, it was a weird mix of the public and private, but at the NFB it was the inverse to the melange that is the Pepsi Forum. The regular movie-goer sits in amongst an auditorium of other people in the dark, sharing the same screen and speakers. At the NFB however, instead of an auditorium, a cluster of personal viewing stations fills the second floor. Either alone or in pairs, high backed padded seats with a personal screen and a pair of speakers that wrap around your head make for a unique, and might we add thoroughly enjoyable, viewing experience. You are still sharing the space with other viewers, but it is much more personal than the typical form of public cinema.
If we can go out on a limb here and jump to some ridiculous conclusions, do permit us.
The standard mandate of the NFB is to represent Canada to Canadians. The viewing experience at the Cinerobotheque is a manifestation of the ideals of the NFB: rather than exhibiting films in one particular manner to a mass of people all experiencing the same sensations, as Hollywood films in a regular cinema does, the Cinerobotheque instead lets each viewer decide exactly what they want to watch, when they want to watch it, and under what conditions. Each view is a personal choice that does not have to be shared with other viewers (although you are more than welcome to do so, if you indeed choose). At a traditional cinema, the viewer has the ability to choose from a large selection of current films – be they Canadian, Quebecois, American, French, or any other number of nationalities. However, at the Cinerobotheque – whose selection is solely films made by the NFB – you can only select Canadian films. This forces you to think about the who, where, why, how, and what of Canadian cinema, representation, and identity all the way
through the viewing experience at the NFB.
The film that we watched during our trip to the NFB was Sleeping Betty by Claude Cloutier (you can watch it here). The woman working at reception recommended it to us as one of her favourites: it was light and humourous, a familiar tale, and not too long. In short, it was all you would want from an introduction to the NFB and to the Cinerobotheque. As an animated film, she introduced us to the NFB and Canadian film with one of the strong suits of Canadian film production. Sleeping Betty was the story of Sleeping Beauty retold with a bizarre and hilarious melange of British figures and a Montreal landscape: King Henry VIII and Queen Victoria looked on while Prince Charles came to the rescue of Betty who had fallen into a deep sleep in her Montreal walk-up. Our first impression was that this was a charming representation of the two main identities of Canada: British heritage and French Canada (we should add that the characters spoke in gibberish, so as not to ally with one official language or the other). As soon as we reflected on this however, all the problems we have with trying to pinpoint a Canadian identity reared their ugly head again.
Though for us, this mix of heritages applies quite nicely cause we have pretty-far-removed British heritage and have grown up in and around French Canada, but how does how does this film jive for people who have no tie to either of those cultures? To them wouldn’t this remain just a bizarre little reimagining of a familiar tale? If that’s the case, then hasn’t the NFB fallen through on their mandate of representation of Canada to Canadians? Or is that why the NFB exists, to be able to house this sort of film alongside a multitude of other interpretations? Is this better than there actually being a cannon of Canadian films or well-defined identities? Or does it just keep us fragmented, because, as represented by the films available at the NFB, there are literally thousands of choices available with which you can identify?