Screen shadows

At 50, the NFB’s birthday glow is tarnished

Brian D. Johnson July 17 1989

Screen shadows

At 50, the NFB’s birthday glow is tarnished

Brian D. Johnson July 17 1989

Canada’s National Film Board, which is marking its 50th anniversary this year, has a precious legacy to celebrate. For Canadians, it has provided a moving picture of an elusive nation. For the world, it pioneered the documentary, redefined the art of animation and introduced dozens of technical innovations. In the past few months, the NFB has basked in a well-deserved birthday glow. It received an Oscar for special achievement at last March’s Academy Awards. It has been honored at film festivals around the world. And last month in Montreal, it hosted its own party: North America’s first major documentary film festival. But the NFB’s golden anniversary is tarnished by some sobering reflections. Withered by inadequate funding, the board is a skeleton of its former self. Its documentary tradition is foundering. Morale is low. And many of its film-makers allege that the NFB’s public mandate has been compromised by commercial interests. One of the main targets of criticism is the man who ran the board for the past five years: former NFB commissioner François Macerola.

Macerola, a lawyer who first joined the NFB in the mid-1960s, has left a trail of bitterness at the board. Some film-makers say that, although he posed as a defender of the institution, he succumbed to federal government pressure to weaken it and divert its resources to the private sector. And controversy still rages within the board’s ranks over Macerola’s leap to a corporation with which he had significant dealings while at the NFB. Last December, he left the film board to take a job at Lavalin Inc., a Montreal-based engineering conglomerate that is moving into the communications industry. In February, 1988—seven months before he was offered the position—Macerola signed a major film coproduction deal with the company on behalf of the board. By what NFB producers say is a highly unusual arrangement, Macerola’s administration allowed Lavalin to postpone half of its $ 1.5-million contribution to the deal until 15 months after the film was completed. And just 12 days before first telling his Ottawa superiors that he was interested in working at Lavalin, Macerola was discussing a co-venture to make the film board’s technical facilities available to a $50-million audiovisual project proposed by the corporation. Employed by Lavalin since May, Macerola is now in charge of that project, to be called La Cité du cinéma.

Under normal circumstances, Macerola’s conduct could have constituted a breach of the federal government’s conflict-of-interest code, which requires senior civil servants to wait one year before working for a company with which they had significant dealings in their last year of public office. But in October, Macerola wrote to the Privy Council Office, Ottawa’s central administrative body, and obtained a special waiver that shortened the waiting period in his case.

In the coproduction deal signed by Macerola on Feb. 9, 1988, the NFB agreed to make two movies for Lavalin in the superscreen IMAX format, with an option to make a third. The first film, a documentary about health care titled Emergency, was specially commissioned to inaugurate Expo Tech, Lavalin’s new IMAX theatre in Montreal. The NFB and Lavalin agreed to pay an equal share of the proposed $3-million budget. The board, which usually is entitled to about half of the box-office receipts for coproductions, gave Lavalin rights to all of Expo Tech’s box-office revenues from the film. In the end, the NFB contributed $800,000 in services and $100,000 cash to make another film that Lavalin coproduced with a French company. Although the NFB completed Emergency in June, 1988, $750,000 of Lavalin’s contribution is not due until this September.

Lavalin’s name surfaced again at the board in the discussions over NFB facilities. During his term, Macerola made various attempts to find a private partner to share in the board’s technical services, in order to make them more cost-efficient. Shortly before he accepted the Lavalin job, he was discussing a co-venture between the NFB and Lavalin’s proposed audiovisual complex. The minutes of a film board executive meeting held on Sept. 1, 1988, state, “The NFB will... be able to make certain equipment, such as the studio and the laboratory, available to the complex.” A cry of alarm went up when film-makers heard about the proposal, which they said could lead to the dismantling of the board’s facilities. Joan Pennefather, the interim commissioner, denies that the NFB is considering the sale of its technical facilities. But, in an interview with Maclean’s last week, Macerola said that, although Lavalin has never responded to the board’s co-venture offer, the NFB has yet to withdraw it. Meanwhile, Lavalin—which failed in an earlier bid to get federal financing for the audiovisual project—has reapplied under new terms. Macerola said that he is seeking up to $4 million from the department of communications to create a film school within the complex.

Months after Macerola’s departure, many NFB staff members still express concerns about his past relationship with Lavalin. Recalled film-maker Anne Claire Poirier, a 29-year veteran at the board: “It was certainly not for nothing that François Macerola had been creating links with Lavalin.” And staff producer Adam Symansky said, “Certainly there’s an appearance of conflict, which I find distressing.” Aware that he has made enemies within the NFB, Macerola dismisses them as "pisse-vinaigres” (whiners). Interviewed by Maclean’s last week, he said, “I can’t believe that people are so f—ing bitchy that they don’t have anything else to do than dig into these dossiers.” Macerola maintained that he obeyed “both the letter and the spirit” of the conflict-of-interest guidelines—“Everything was totally organized with the Privy Council.” Because of the NFB’S pervasive role in the film industry, he said, all his job offers came from companies that he had dealt with as a public servant. “I didn’t have a lot of choice,” he added. “I’ve coproduced with almost everybody around. I had to stay in the film world—otherwise, I’d be selling used cars.”

By choosing Lavalin, Macerola has joined a team with unique political connections. Communications Minister Marcel Masse, whose portfolio includes responsibility for the NFB, spent 10 years on Lavalin’s board of directors, from 1974 to 1984. In 1986, Lavalin pleaded guilty to paying $3,500 of Masse’s 1984 campaign expenses in contravention of the Canada Elections Act. Lavalin also has acquired a reputation for recruiting former politicians. Clément Richard, who was the Parti Québécois government’s culture minister from 1981 to 1985, is now the president of Lavalin Communications Inc.

At the film board, many staff members are less concerned about the Lavalin controversy than they are about the trends in cultural policy that it underscores. As Symansky pointed out, the Lavalin issue “is a minor problem for the film board as a whole—the major problem is that the government can’t see any reason why it should support a government film-making organization any more.” In fact, since the federal Conservatives came to power in 1984, they have tried to stimulate film and TV production in the private sector while squeezing the budgets of both the CBC and the NFB. In 1984, Ottawa’s Film and Video Policy called for a cost-cutting overhaul of the NFB. And Macerola became the man to implement it.

He prepared a five-year plan for the board. It involved increasing the use of freelancers, reducing staff, closing film libraries, expanding video distribution, selling technical services and channelling resources into high-tech research for private industry. The NFB’S budget—which now stands at $72 million—has failed to keep pace with inflation, so that in real terms the board has lost $10 million in spending power since 1985. The staff has fallen by attrition, and nine of the 29 distribution offices have been closed. About 70 per cent of its films are contracted out to freelancers. And it has not hired any new staff film directors for a decade. Staff veterans such as Poirier say that they despair that there is no younger generation to replace them. “I would prefer that they close the place rather than just let it go,” she said.

Despite the cutbacks during Macerola’s term, some positive results—and revenues—emerged from the board’s new availability to the private sector. It allowed for the making of such acclaimed dramatic features as 1986’s Oscar-nominated The Decline of the American Empire and this year’s Cannes hit Jesus of Montreal—both by Montreal director Denys Arcand, a former NFB employee. Under Macerola, the board also fostered the Alternative Drama program, which produced director Giles Walker’s 1986 comedy hit 90 Days. Another director in the program, John N. Smith, used documentary techniques and nonprofessional actors to create the compelling 1987 dramas Sitting in Limbo and Train of Dreams. He is now completing Welcome to Canada, a feature drama about Tamil refugees landing in a Newfoundland outport.

Unlike many of his colleagues, Smith praises his ex-boss. “Macerola was the guy who pushed against very strong opposition for the film board to be associated with Decline and Jesus,” he said. “That seems like public money well spent.” But Smith agrees that the board is in jeopardy. “It’s a great shame that the next generation is not being hired here,” he said. “What we’re going through is what Hollywood went through in the 1950s—the dismantling of the studio system.”

Smith, 45, recalls that when he first arrived at the board in 1973, it was full of vitality. But since then, he says, the NFB has undermined its Montreal operation by devoting an increasing share of its resources to regional film-making centres. “The NFB doubled its task while receiving less and less money,” he said. “It gets wonderful brownie points in Ottawa because it’s more regionalized than Telefilm,” he added, referring to the federal funding agency that supports the movie industry. “But it has been absolutely devastating for this place.”

During his interview with Maclean’s, Smith was eating a tuna sandwich at the NFB’s headquarters, a featureless building overlooking the Metropolitan Autoroute in a north Montreal suburb. To order the sandwich, he filled out a complex form and handed it to a cafeteria worker. Bureaucracy is what seems to rile filmmakers most at the NFB. Too often, critics say, the institution’s precious funds evaporate in paper-pushing exercises that have little to do with making films. From 1987 to 1988, the board spent more than $1 million on proposals to create two specialty TV channels that the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) rejected as unsound. The expenditure contributed to the NFB’S $800,000 deficit at the end of the last fiscal year, which drew a dishonorable mention from the auditor general.

The NFB has long maintained that its natural outlet should be the CBC. Recently, the network has been involved in several coproductions with the board—Justice Denied, NFB director Paul Cowan’s drama based on the Donald Marshall case, is scheduled to air on the CBC next fall. But fears of controversy have often led CBC executives to turn down film board documentaries.

Potential coproducers both at the CBC and in the private sector tend to resent the insularity of film-makers at the board, who in turn resent the pressure to tailor their products to TV deals. Said Rena Fraticelli, executive producer of Studio D, which has won three of the NFB’s nine Oscars: “That whole marketing structure is pre-emptive of creation. The government is trying to wean us away from from our role as a producer—doing troublesome films at an arm’s-length capacity—and turn us into another funding conduit for the private sector.”

The NFB’s most consistent involvement with the private sector has been in the production of IMAX movies. Offering images 10 times larger than the conventional 35-mm frame, IMAX technology has its roots in the NFB’s multiscreen experiments at Montreal’s Expo 67. Pioneering producer Roman Kroitor soon left the film board to cofound the Toronto-based Imax Systems Corp. But his former NFB colleague, Colin Low, continued to explore the frontiers of superscreen technology while remaining at the board. IMAX has since expanded into a profitable enterprise, leasing its projection systems to 62 superscreen theatres in 14 countries. And the NFB has worked closely with the company, producing an IMAX movie in each year of the past five years.

The latest one, The First Emperor of China—a $6.7-million coproduction shared with China and the new Canadian Museum of Civilization—is a departure from the usual space and nature spectacles filmed in IMAX. Controversy around the movie, which premiered last week, may jeopardize the NFB’s $2.5-million cash investment in it. New York City’s Museum of Natural History cancelled a scheduled showing. Despite the high costs involved, Pennefather added that the NFB is discussing increasing its activity in IMAX production. She said that the film board also may adapt its laboratories to handle 70-mm film processing—suitable for IMAX film.

As interim commissioner, Pennefather is in a weak position to champion the beleaguered film board. Indeed, at the Academy Awards last March, she agreed to stand aside while Masse accepted the NFB’s special Oscar. For stealing the spotlight, Masse was severely criticized in the media. But the minister’s quick hit of fame may have been worth millions to the NFB. After the Oscars, said Pennefather, “it would be difficult for the government to turn around and cut the NFB—and we didn’t get cut.”

Film-makers attacking the NFB bureaucracy often do so out of what appears to be a profound affection for the institution. Donald Brittain is the most eminent director to emerge from the NFB’s documentary tradition—his award-winning films have offered intimate portraits of subjects ranging from writer Malcolm Lowry to Prime Minister Mackenzie King. Now a freelance director, Brittain said that because he owes so much of his career to the NFB, he feels awkward criticizing it. Brittain calls the board “an irreplaceable institution that should be saved—whether or not it has fools and charlatans in its management.”

At the end of a maze of corridors in NFB headquarters, one of the board’s youngest protégés, 29-year-old freelancer Wendy Tilby, recently sat hunched over an animation table. Painting directly onto glass with brushes and Q-Tips, she had spent two years working on a 10-minute animated film titled Strings. It should be finished by the end of December. “There have always been lots of gripes about the bureaucracy,” she said, “but there is nowhere else I could be doing this.” She may win an Oscar; she may not. The worlds of politics and commerce may or may not appreciate her effort. But at the National Film Board, art still clings to a treasured legacy.