The Documentary Tradition in Canada

April 11, 2019

By: Alex Rogalski

For the better part of a century, most Canadian interactions with documentary films were probably much like mine. I’ll make an exception for my experiences at Expo ‘86 as a 9-year-old seeing IMAX and 3-D for the first time. For a farm kid from Saskatchewan that was pretty mind-blowing.

Throughout my elementary school years it was the the films from the National Film Board that made their way into classrooms across the country. Teachers with a rudimentary understanding of projector operation would dim the lights and let voice-of-god narrators take over. It’s not surprising that due to these formative experiences the idea of watching a documentary could be anything other than a forced exercise. It remained the broccoli of cinema, a distant good-for-you relative to its popcorn-blockbuster cousins. Yet something changed, and audiences are now lining up at cinemas and filling their Netflix lists with Canadian documentaries that show us the best of what our cinema can be.


1939 National Film Board of Canada -You can’t begin to talk about Canada’s documentary history without acknowledging the founding of the National Film Board and its first commissioner John Grierson (who’s credited with coining the term ‘documentary’ in his review of Nanook of the North). It was Grierson’s vision along with help from Evelyn Spice Cherry that the foundations for non-fiction film took root and spread across the country. By 1942 the NFB won its first Academy award with Churchill’s Island (1941), a World War 2 propaganda film.


1958 Candid Eye series– The NFB and CBC partnered on this groundbreaking TV series. Thanks to portable film equipment, a new wave of filmmakers were excited about the possibility of bringing unscripted and unrehearsed recordings of life, seeking out a ‘fly on the wall’ perspective. These episodes were vital contributions to the direct cinema/vérité movement pioneered by Wolf Koenig, Roman Kroitor, Colin Low and Michel Brault. Films like The Days Before Christmas and The Back-breaking Leaf would lead to masterworks like Lonely Boy (1962) and Pour la suite du monde (1963).


Warrendale (1967)

1967- Warrendale. Cinéma vérité’s power was so radical that when Allan King documented a mental health treatment center for children, the CBC (who commissioned the film) refused to broadcast it because King would not censor the profanity. King’s decision was vindicated when the film went on to a successful theatrical release winning many awards and screening at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival.


1971 – North of Superior – Perhaps one of the most widely viewed theatrical documentaries Canada has ever produced, Graeme Ferguson’s nature film fully utilized the new cinematic power of 70mm film and projection to showcase Canada’s landscape in a way never seen before. The IMAX format remains a spectacular Canadian innovation and documentary filmmaking was at the forefront of large format cinema.


Forbidden Love: The Unashamed Stories of Lesbian Lives (Amours interdites : au-delà des préjugés, vies et paroles de lesbiennes) (1992)

1974- Studio D – The NFB was innovative in many ways, but its decision to establish the first publicly funded feminist film production unit in the world made it progressive not only in terms of technical innovations, but in its response to social movements. The studio produced some of the most important documentaries of the era including Bonnie Klein’s Not a Love Story: A Film About Pornography (1981) and Lynne Fernie and Aerlyn Weissman’s Forbidden Love: The Unashamed Stories of Lesbian Love (1992).


1993 – Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance  – There are many reasons this seminal documentary lands on every list about film. What else can be said except that it remains vital viewing and a call to action. Alanis Obomsawin has created over 50 films during the last 5 decades, bringing stories of indigenous people to the screen with honesty and authenticity. Approaching her 87th year, she’s completing her most recent feature documentary as a follow up to Our People Will Be Healed (2017).


1993 – Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival – When Hot Docs started, it began as a modest festival in Toronto cafes and a couple of cinemas. Today, it is North America’s largest documentary festival, supports a year-round cinema and attracts over 250,000 documentary lovers to its festival each spring. Across the country, DOXA (Vancouver), Northwestfest (Edmonton), Gimme Some Truth (Winnipeg), RIDM (Montreal) and the Lunenburg Documentary Festival show there’s no shortage of public interest in seeing the best non-fiction films each year.


Anthropocene 2018

2003 – Canadians in the Spotlight – Canadians have been pretty modest about our national cinema, understandably when we’re in the shadow of Hollywood. Yet Canadian documentaries regularly receive high praise and presentation around the world. For the past 15 years some of the biggest Canadian documentaries have consistently broken out at the Sundance Film Festival, collecting awards and accolades. The Corporation (2003) Shake Hands with the Devil (2004), Up the Yangtze (2007), Family Portrait in Black and White (2011), Indie Game: The Movie (2012) and many others showed the world our non-fiction cinema is second to none. Jennifer Baichwal’s monumental trilogy of Manufactured Landscapes (2006), Watermark (2013) and Anthropocene (2017) all launched through TIFF and Sundance, and subsequently enjoyed  strong theatrical runs.


2015- Hurt – Alan Zweig’s winner of the inaugural Platform Prize at TIFF beat out international auteurs in this juried program. Zweig’s personal investment has always been a strength of his storytelling, never more so than in this powerful observational film about Steve Fonyo. Highlighting the highs and lows of a national figure, it tells a uniquely Canadian tale, which Zweig quickly followed up by its companion film Hope (2017).


Angry Inuk (2016)

2016- Angry Inuk – Winner of Audience Choice awards at both Hot Docs and TIFF Canada’s Top Ten, Alethea Arnaquq-Baril (Inuk) proved that the public was keen to hear this passionate response  to the propaganda surrounding the seal hunt, and its negative effect on Inuit communities. Emerging as part of a new wave of Canadian documentary filmmakers that includes Tasha Hubbard, Charles Officer, and Christy Garland to name a few, it’s exciting to know that our screens will continue to be filled with more incredible documentaries that share our most important stories.

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