John Grierson and the NFB
Trevor S. Raymond is a teacher and librarian with the Peel Board of Education and editor of Canadian Holmes.
The National Film Board was created in 1939, largely for propaganda purposes. “Art is not a mirror; it is a hammer,” wrote its first commissioner, John Grierson, who was recruited from Britain by Prime Minister King. When Grierson returned to England in 1945, he left behind, in an old lumber mill in Ottawa, an extraordinarily talented pool of filmmakers. Sparked by Grierson’s creative genius and inspired by his personality, they were soon winning international acclaim, and the NFB became the largest government film unit in the world. (Grierson is credited with coining, in 1926, the word “documentary,” and, as McGill lecturer Peter Ohlin observes in this book, “it may not be inappropriate to suggest that the documentary is the essential Canadian form.”)
In 1981, a number of film scholars and former colleagues of Grierson’s met at McGill to reminisce about Grierson (who died in 1972) and the early years of the NFB, and to ponder the future of filmmaking in the NFB tradition. This book presents transcripts of panel discussions and lectures from that conference. They appear not to have been edited for publication, with their sometimes chatty style and references to coffee breaks. Some discussions followed film screenings; the paper on film music, for instance, is not of great interest to one who does not know the films shown before the paper was read. Many early NFB hands recall colleagues who are named but not identified, since those in the audience would have known them. Much of the book, then, is of interest primarily to the knowledgeable, to the Canadian cinéaste.
Some of the papers, however, will appeal to anyone interested in Canadian cultural history. Rodrigue Chiasson’s paper on Grierson and the social ethic of communication is thought-provoking, and papers by Jack Ellis and H.F. Hardy are particularly interesting. A panel discussion on the NFB and the private sector seems all the more relevant, given the Mulroney government’s attitudes toward publicly funded creative arts.