John Grierson, the passionate propagandist who founded the National Film Board (NFB) and coined the term “documentary,” died in 1972—before the dawn of home video. But the spread of video cassette recorders in North American homes has given new meaning to the advice Grierson offered film-makers in 1940: “You must forever go where the people are.” Since then, the NFB has often had trouble heeding its founder’s counsel. Despite the film board’s glowing reputation, too many of its films have failed to find their potential audience, languishing instead in the relative obscurity of lending libraries. But a new video rental program could revolutionize the board’s role. More than 400 NFB documentaries, dramas and animated films are now available on cassette through 26 NFB offices across the country for a modest rental fee of $2 a day; viewers in remote areas may order by mail. As well, 50 NFB titles will be commercially available for rental in normal video outlets. And the catalogue is expected to grow by 200 titles each year.
To emphasize its traditional role as a responsible educator, the board has highlighted the launch of its video program with a new release, Eugene Levy Discovers Home Safety. It features SCTV alumnus Levy as a self-confessed “walking disaster” who likes to overload sockets and rinse his electric shaver in the sink. In turn, Levy pre-
sents three award-winning NFB cartoons—each offering safety tips in the form of an entertaining morality tale. Especially amusing is Hot Stuff, originally made in 1971 by Yugoslavian director Zlatko Grgic, which portrays a caveman discovering fire as God’s voice proclaims: “Although it will serve you faithfully, it will devour half of mankind if given the chance. Now
go and have a hot time.”
The catalogue also includes classic NFB releases, ranging from Claude Jutra’s 1971 drama Mon oncle Antoine to more recent and controversial fare. Final Offer, first aired on CBC in 1985, provides a ringside view of Canadian Auto Workers leader Robert White battling his American adversaries and
talking a blue streak. Also available is War, Gwynne Dyer’s provocative seven-part series about military futility—a fitting sequel to the wartime propaganda that launched the NFB in 1940. And viewers curious to know why the U.S. justice department branded the antinuclear discourse If You Love This Planet as illegal propaganda can now ponder the evidence on a mail-order cassette. But the NFB’S graphic indictment of the pornography trade, 1981’s Not A Love Story, has been omitted from the catalogue. Explained NFB spokesman Gerry Flahive: “Because it contains hard-core footage, it opens the gates to people copying it and doing all sorts of weird things with it.”
Taking a more wholesome approach to sexual issues, the NFB’S Feeling Yes, Feeling No is suitable for the whole family. An educational video about the sexual abuse of children, the tape is a frank guide to street-proofing. Clearly divided into sections for parents and children, it features adults acting out awkward dilemmas before a classroom audience of
youngsters. It even includes a catchy theme song with the refrain, “My body's nobody's body but mine/ You run your own body, let me run mine.” Although it seems sad that such instruction is necessary, the tape at least spells it out with sensitivity.
The NFB’S strength is not limited to educational film-making: many of its most imaginative works are cartoons and cinematic shorts of playful genius. This year the board plans to release more than 20 compilations of short subjects on video cassette—the most ambitious being a nine-tape series covering the animated films of Norman McLaren, who died last January.
It is unlikely that the film board will replace Hollywood productions among home video’s Top 10. But at least one NFB video has scored impressive sales: Feeling Yes, Feeling No has sold 7,500 copies to individuals and institutions. But then, it benefited from an unusual publicity ploy: last year 3.9 million copies of a promotional brochure were mailed out with family allowance cheques. Combining the influence of video technology and the reach of state bureaucracy, the NFB has begun to fulfil the Grierson dream in ways he would scarcely have imagined.
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