Well, it’s been four weeks and we’re all still inside. (Thanks for nothing, COVID-19.) And just in case you were worried you’d run out of stuff to watch—if you’ve exhausted Gem and Disney+ and Kanopy and Hoopla and Tubi and all the other streaming services—may we interest you in the NFB?
The National Film Board Of Canada maintains an archive of literally thousands of documentaries and shorts, as well as the odd feature film, at its website. (There are also apps for iOS and Android devices, and a number of smart TVs.)
Not everything is available on the free tier, which can be frustrating. You have to get very good at spotting the tiny “campus” designation. That means Rodney Ascher’s Room 237 or Alethea Arnaquq-Baril’s Angry Inuk aren’t actually accessible to those of us without a subscription to the Campus service—which is exclusive to educators.
Still, there are literally thousands of titles streaming for free; we’ve taken the liberty of finding a dozen or so that feel essential. (Most of the content is presented in high-def, so if your only memory of Norman McLaren’s beloved 1952 stop-motion allegory Neighbours or Don Owen’s Nobody Waved Good-Bye comes from a TV broadcast or a scratchy old 16mm print, brace yourself: revisiting them now will be jaw-dropping. They look like movies again.)
The NFB’s focus on documentary production means it’s only made a handful of feature dramas, including the aforementioned Nobody Waved Good-Bye—a Rebel Without A Cause knock-off that now plays like a neorealist drama. You might also check out Owen’s counterculture follow-up The Ernie Game, or Cynthia Scott’s 1990 drama The Company Of Strangers, which an entire generation of Canadians remembers vaguely as “the one with the old ladies on the bus”. It’s a little richer than that.
There are hundreds and hundreds of animated shorts streaming on the NFB’s site, representing every discipline and perspective you can imagine: the old-school silliness of Cordell Barker, the new-school melancholy of Torill Kove, the digital psychedelia of Chris Landreth—whose own Oscar-winning short "Ryan" was a loving tribute to NFB animator Ryan Larkin—and the barbed sensibility of Alexandra Lemay.
It’s a near-endless field of welcome surprises; hell, I’d never even heard of Idris Boudreau and Francis Papillon’s charming bite-sized history series The Great List Of Everything until I wrote this piece.
King Of The Hill (Donald Brittain, William Canning, 1974)
Brittain’s filmography is varied and fascinating, and the NFB has most of it—including 1965’s essential Ladies And Gentlemen… Mr. Leonard Cohen, which he co-directed with Owen, and 1976’s Oscar-nominated Volcano: An Inquiry Into The Life And Death Of Malcolm Lowry, which he made with John Kramer.
But I had no idea he and Canning had made this profile of Ferguson Jenkins, the Chatham-born pitcher regarded as one of Canada’s greatest baseball players. Shot in 1972 and 1973, as Jenkins’s tenure with the Chicago Cubs was coming to an end, it’s an unexpected charmer.
Forbidden Love: The Unashamed Stories Of Lesbian Lives (Lynne Fernie, Aerlyn Weissman, 1992)
One of the last documentaries produced by the NFB’s Studio D—a women’s unit that operated from 1974 to 1996—Fernie and Weissman’s look at the lesbian pulp fiction of the '40s and '50s, and its impact on the lives of women figuring out their own queerness, was the first NFB production to tackle a LGBTQ topic head-on.
It was also the first to incorporate fictionalized material, as Fernie and Weissman include their own version of author Ann Bannon’s seduction stories. Almost 30 years after its release, it represents a key moment in the NFB’s storytelling evolution.
The Art Of The Possible (Peter Raymont, 1978)
Part of a political trilogy that also includes Flora: Scenes From A Leadership Convention and History On The Run: The Media And The ’79 Election, Raymont’s fly-on-the-wall doc follows Ontario premier Bill Davis as he and his Big Blue Machine meet, strategize and make policy. It’s a fascinating look at the way things used to work at Queen’s Park, as well as a reminder of how homogeneous Ontario’s politics used to be.
Younger viewers—and some older ones too, I’ll bet—may be shocked at how civil everyone is.
Earth To Mouth (Yung Chang, 2002)
If you missed the retrospective screening at Reel Asian in Toronto last fall, now’s a fine time to catch up to Chang’s look at the Wing Fong Farm outside Newcastle, Ontario, which grows Asian produce for Chinese supermarkets and restaurants. In just 40 minutes, Chang captures both the process of farming while also giving viewers a sense of the people who do it, profiling owner Lau King-Fai and the Mexican migrant workers she employs.
Project Grizzly (Peter Lynch, 1996)
A festival favourite, Lynch’s ride-along with North Bay inventor Troy Hurtubise—a self-styled outdoorsman obsessed with facing down a grizzly bear, and who has spent a great deal of time and money building a homemade suit that he’s sure will protect him if he ever does—now plays as the polar opposite of Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man.
Where that film, produced a decade later, is suffused with dread and horror, Lynch’s is a deadpan delight, indulging Hurtubise as he refines his personal mythology as often as he rethinks his suit design.
Stories We Tell (Sarah Polley, 2012)
Polley’s first documentary—which feels like it’s evolved out of the themes she dealt with in her previous features Away From Her and Take This Waltz—is a stunning accomplishment, an exploration of her tangled family history that expands into a thoroughly fascinating inquiry into the nature of truth and memory. I called it one of the best movies of the last decade. And if you’ve been meaning to catch up to it, you now have all the time in the world.
Ninth Floor (Mina Shum, 2015)
A rare documentary work from feature director Shum (Double Happiness, Meditation Park) looks at the 1969 student occupation of a computer lab at Montreal’s Sir George Williams University, when a discrimination complaint brought by six West Indian students against their biology professor led to a sit-in. After two weeks, it escalated into a terrifying confrontation between students and riot police. Rather than a straight recounting of the incident, Shum probes the emotional states of the people involved decades after the fact—creating a powerfully intimate examination of a disastrous pressure cooker.
We Can’t Make The Same Mistake Twice (Alanis Obomsawin, 2016)
Obomsawin has worked with the NFB for most of her career, producing and directing dozens of documentaries exploring the ragged divide between Canada’s Indigenous support system and the people it’s meant to serve. Incident At Restigouche and Kanehsatake: 270 Years Of Resistance are essential studies of cultural flashpoints, but this verité doc may be her masterpiece. Using a court case as a lever to explore the structural nightmare that is Canada’s Indigenous support system, Obomsawin simply lets the facts pile up in front of her, painting a picture of decades of sanctioned neglect that is shattering in its detail and scope. Yes, it’s long. But it’s necessary.
Unarmed Verses (Charles Officer, 2017)
Developed as a way of responding to the racial tensions exposed by the shooting death of Trayvon Martin—and George Zimmerman’s subsequent acquittal—Officer’s look at a program aimed at pairing kids from Toronto Community Housing’s Villaways development with musical mentors is an elegant argument that—as Radheyan Simonpillai put it in his 2017 review—Black lives matter. And at a point in time when we’re actively avoiding one another, it’s nice to be reminded of how well Toronto can function as a community… even though this movie ends with the dissolution of this specific one.