A new way to solve some of your town’s old problems: see yourself as others do, on miles of movie film

DON BELL December 1 1968

A new way to solve some of your town’s old problems: see yourself as others do, on miles of movie film

DON BELL December 1 1968

A new way to solve some of your town’s old problems: see yourself as others do, on miles of movie film

BILL NEMTIN is a young Turk at the National Film Board who’s convinced he’s helping discover a new and exciting purpose for the motion-picture camera. To him, the camera is no longer just a means of bringing information or entertainment to a screen, but a tool for reshaping society.

As a co-ordinator of the NFB’s Challenge for Change program, Nemtin is ore of the architects of what could be dubbed the Feedback Revolution, a movement that opens up a whole new world for film-makers. What they do is move into a community and film people just as they are — expressing their hopes, fears and gripes, and going about their regular affairs/ Then the film-makers screen the results to let the residents see themselves and their problems in a way they’ve never seen them before.

For most communities, the experience can be something approaching trauma, but it’s a potentially effective way for a town to find a cure for what ails it. Prejudices, bureaucratic bungling and corruption are brought out in the open and seen for what they are. The next natural step is for the people of the community themselves to start searching out new solutions. That’s the theory.

The NFB is involved in several Feedback projects. The largest of these has been at Fogo Island, a fishing community off the northeast coast of Newfoundland, where 5,000 inhabitants lived in quiet poverty — about 60 percent were on welfare — until an NFB crew moved in and set up cameras in such colorfully named villages as Joe Batts Arm and Little Seldom. In co-operation with Memorial University in St. John’s, the crew, under Colin Low, spent the summer of 1967 on Fogo Island, shooting more than 20 hours of film. This was pared down to six hours, composed of 23 films of varying lengths, under such titles as Jim Decker Builds a Longliner and The McGraths at Home and Fishing. When the editing was completed, the crew returned to the island to show residents the films.

“In some instances they were quite hostile to us,” Nemtin recalls. “One clergyman felt we were competing with him in a power struggle. We seemed to be gaining more attention than his sermon and he went to great lengths to denounce us.”

Even so, the islanders trooped in to see 35 screenings. A typical evening would begin with a light, entertaining film, followed by one or two films on local issues, such as fishing co-operatives, or education; these would be

discussed and sometimes volatile arguments would break out. Then to calm tempers and leave a good aftertaste, the NFB would end the evening with another light film.

Since the screenings, Fogo islanders have formed one new fishing co-operative and a central school committee. “More important,” says Nemtin, “there’s a new cohesive spirit among the islanders, a desire to help themselves.”

The Fogo islanders also found the films a vivid way to present their beefs to the Newfoundland government. Cabinet members who saw the films described them as “honest and constructive” and action was taken on some of the islanders’ complaints.

Feedback is also at work in Alberta. Two Indian film crews, trained by the NFB, have filmed Indians in their customary surroundings, then stormed into government offices with cans of developed film under their arms, to show how dismally treated Indians are.

In one incident, the crew walked into a welfare agency office at High Prairie to interview an official about a serious food problem among Métis at Loon Lake. After heated words, they were thrown out of the office, but the camerawoman, a pretty Haida Indian named Barbara Wilson, remained cool-headed enough to film the heave-ho.

In a controversial Feedback project at Halifax, NFB director Rex Tasker filmed Halifax’s militant blacks airing their views and got the results screened before a mixed audience of blacks and whites. At once, Haligonians were debating their racial problems with new terms of reference.

Mayor Allan O’Brien took a personal interest in the film, arranging screenings for municipal leaders and business groups in Halifax and Dartmouth. As a result, an agency was set up to help Negro students find summer jobs. The film also brought about a dialogue between the militant youth and the conservative older members of the Negro community, who previously had little contact with each other.

And at St. Jerome, P.Q., where a serious unemployment problem exists, NFB director Fernand Dansereau filmed shut-down factories, a strike meeting and daily activities of the people, then brought the reels back to the community. He says he is so pleased with the results that he may never again make any other kind of film.

(Wherever possible, the expense of

Feedback is being written off by whittling the material down into short fiLms suitable for theatrical distribution. But Nemtin points out that this is just a byproduct; the main purpose is still the feedback of films to the community.)

Already Feedback is being noticed outside Canada. Colin Low and Julian Biggs, former director of English production at the NFB, have taken a

year’s leave of absence to help several racially mixed communities for the United States office of economic opportunity.

“Soon this will be an accepted form of expression,” Nemtin believes. “Communities everywhere will be using film and its feedback as a tool to strike at the heart of society’s problems. Film in the community will be like a living newspaper.” DON BELL