Bringing Canadian voices to Canadians across the country and to the world is a mandate for the National Film Board (NFB) that goes back to the organization’s founding in 1939. At that time, the means of film production and distribution was beyond the reach of most aspiring filmmakers and the government-funded NFB was instrumental in developing the Canadian film industry.
In addition to funding filmmakers, the NFB sponsored local film organizations by providing projectors, training and access to the NFB library. For many Canadians, particularly in smaller centres and remote areas, it was their only access to screenings of Canadian-produced material.
In the 1960s, the dominance of the NFB in Canadian film production and distribution began to wane with the emergence of the commercial film and television industries. The focus of the Board shifted to supporting experimental and underrepresented voices. Its first program for First Nations auteurs was launched in 1966 to showcase Indigenous peoples’ experiences from an indigenous point of view.
Today, the means of film production exists in pretty much every person’s pocket or purse and distribution is a click away on platforms such as YouTube and Vimeo. Nevertheless, NFB producer Katherine (Kat) Baulu, who recently toured northern Labrador with two Inuit filmmakers, says screening tours are just as relevant as they were in the past.
“These tours provide a communal gathering that Youtube or Netflix videos can’t offer,” Baulu explained. “They also give the audience the chance to meet the filmmakers in person, which we hope can help inspire a new generation of story tellers into making their own films. Meeting filmmakers one-on-one can take away a bit of the mystique behind filmmaking, and it can help the audience realize that they can make their own films, too.”
The tour two weeks ago, dubbed the “Labrador Identity Through Film Tour,” visited Goose Bay, Rigolet, Makkovik, Hopedale and Nain. Postville had also been included in the itinerary, but that stop was cancelled due to weather. The tour was part of the NFB’s Aabiziingwashi (Wide Awake) program of more than 250 Indigenous works screening across Canada this year.
Two films were screened, Shaman, the first animated short by Nain artist Echo Henoche and Three Thousand, a 12-minute animation by Asinnajaq, a director from Inukjuac, Quebec.
Shaman is a five-minute film that tells the story of a fierce polar bear turned to stone by an Inuk shaman in a unique, hand-drawn and painted style. Henoche put her own spin on the legend that has been handed down through the generations and was told to her by her grandfather, the renowned artist Gilbert Hay.
“I am an artist, and I have my own style, my own voice,” Henoche said. “I wanted to tell the story in a way that looks and sounds like me. So it’s modern, and has some humour. Our stories are told and handed down and some may change with time.”
Her family and the community were pleased with the results, which was a huge relief to Henoche.
“It’s easier to show the film in Toronto at imagineNATIVE to 300 people than in my community, to a smaller number of family and friends,” she said. “It matters what they think and how they receive it. I started to cry when I got such positive feedback at home. It means everything.”
The films have also been well-received by audiences everywhere, Baulu said.
“Asinnajaq’s film Three Thousand portrays Inuit in the past, present and future,” she noted. “People said they were curious and moved to see the old images in Inuit nunangat and also inspired by how she depicted the future—richly rooted in the past and thriving. I saw some people cry they were so moved.
“Echo Henoche’s animated film Shaman, a legend from her community of Nain, was accessible to all audiences, including under four-year-olds at the daycare. They asked to watch it three times in a row, and one girl covered her eyes when she thought the polar bear might attack the baby.”
For the next year, the films will be travelling the world before being released to the web on the NFB site next September.
Henoche will be in Winnipeg in January to show Shaman and the next stop for Three Thousand is Finland. Baulu said they would also honour any invitation to come back to Labrador.
Henoche, also a painter, sculptor and jewellery-maker, is excited about pursuing more film projects, particularly for the collaborative aspect of it.
“In my other media I often work alone, even though sometimes I have mentors,” she said. “In my animation it’s a very big team. I had help from other animation compositors, artists, a producer, a composer, sound designer, sound mixer. It takes all these people to contribute to make an animated film at the professional and artistic level of the NFB. I am still the director, the leader, but I need to work with a team to put it all together because they are experts in their fields. I loved that I was able to make the sound track throat singing with my best friend Althaya Solomon and my former high school teacher and master drummer Karrie Obed.”