What, exactly, is Canada? The question sometimes occurs to Americans, living as they do right next door. But it might surprise those Americans to learn that Canadians themselves ask the very same question, living as they do in a country that could be defined by any number of its elements — its vastness, its multiculturalism, The Kids in the Hall — but never seems defined by any one of them in particular. Many individuals and groups throughout Canadian history have participated in the project of explaining Canada, and indeed defining it. Few have done as much as the National Film Board of Canada and the filmmakers it has supported, thanks to whom “three thousand films, from documentaries to narrative features to experimental shorts, are available to stream free of charge, even for Americans.”
Those words come from The Outline’s Chris R. Morgan, who writes that, “for the ‘Canuckophile’ (not my coinage but a term I happily own), the NFB’s Screening Room is one of the supreme pleasures of the internet. Since 1939, the NFB has facilitated the telling of Canada’s story in its people’s own words and images.”
Morgan points up to such NFB-supported productions as 1965’s Ladies and Gentlemen … Mr. Leonard Cohen, which “follows the titular 30-year-old poet giving witty readings, partying, and living around Montreal,” and the 2014 Shameless Propaganda, described at the Screening Room as an examination of “Canada’s national art form.” That art form developed in the years after the NFB’s founding in 1939, a time when its founding commissioner John Grierson called documentaries a “hammer to shape society.”
Not that most of what you’ll find to watch in the NFB’s screening room comes down like a hammer — nor does it feel especially propagandistic, as we’ve come to understand that term in the 21st century. Take, for instance, the documentary portraits of Canadian writers like Margaret Atwood and Jack Kerouac.
The latter lead a life described by filmmaker Herménégilde Chiasson as “a Franco-American odyssey,” which will remind even the most Canada-unaware Americans of one thing that clearly sets Canada apart: its bilingualism. That, too, provides material for a few NFB productions, including 1965’s Instant French, a short about “the adventures of a group of businessmen who are forced into taking French lessons to stay competitive in their field.”
“At first put out by this news,” continues the description at the Screening Room, “one by one they begin to realize that gaining fluency in another language has its benefits.” Hokey though it may sound — “definitely a product of its time,” as the NFB now says — a film like Instant French offers a glimpse into not just Canada’s past but the vision for society that has shaped Canada’s present and will continue to shape its future. You can browse the NFB’s large and growing online archive by subject (with categories including literature and language, music, and history) as well as through playlists like “Expo 67: 50 Years Later,” “Extraordinary Ordinary People,” — and, of course, “Hockey Movies,” which reminds us that, elusive though Canadian culture as a whole may sometimes feel, certain important parts of it aren’t that hard to grasp.
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Note: An earlier version of this post appeared on our site in June 2019.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.