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Half the Screen: Women Directors Make their Mark at NFB

Half the Screen: Women Directors Make their Mark at NFB

Half the Screen: Women Directors Make their Mark at NFB

On March 5, 2016 the National Film Board of Canada announced a formal commitment to achieving gender parity in production by 2019.

“The NFB’s commitment to gender equity builds on a long and sustained history,” says Michelle van Beusekom, Executive Director of the NFB’s English Program.

“Starting with the remarkable work of the under-sung first generation of women directors working at the NFB in the 1940s, thorough to the ground breaking achievements of Studio D and up to the present day, the determined collective action on the part of women, both within and outside the organization, has ensured equitable space for women creator’s at Canada’s public producer — and nourished a production culture that centres the experience and voices of women.”

Today over half of all production dollars in English Program are being spent on projects helmed by women — and over 30 projects directed by women are currently in production or release across all English Program studios.

Here are some highlights:


 4 North A: Jordan Canning, whose director credits include the 2017 feature Suck it Up and episodes of Schitts Creek and The Baroness Von Sketch Show, teams up with Howie Shia to create a short animation set in a hospital ward, where two young women confront mortality and the meaning of life. Canning’s short Seconds won the RBC Emerging Filmmaker Competition at the 2012 edition of TIFF, where in 2014 she premiered her debut feature We Were Wolves. Quebec-Atlantic Studio (Annette Clarke, producer; Michael Fukushima and Annette Clarke, executive producers).

Jordan Canning (Photo: Shlomi Amiga)

Affairs of the Art: British director Joanna Quinn consorts with long-time avatar Beryl, who’s appeared in her earlier films, to fulfill a dream of becoming a late-in-life artist. Quinn’s debut film Girls’ Night Out (1987) took home three awards from Annecy and she’s gone on to win over 90 international awards, including two Emmys, four Baftas and Jury prizes from all major animation festivals. Famous Fred, animation based on a children’s book by Posy Simmonds, received an Oscar nomination in 1998. Co-produced by Beryl Productions International (Joanna Quinn and Les Mills, producers) and the Animation Studio (Michael Fukushima, producer).

Arctic Song: Inuk artist and performer Germaine Arnaktauyok partners with Neil Christopher to create a short animation inspired by the oral history of the ancient Arctic. Interwoven with throat singing and original poetry by fellow artist Celina Kalluk. Co-produced by Taqqut Productions and the North West Studio (David Christensen, Alicia Smith, producers).

A Change of Scenery: Manitoban director Anita Lebeau weaves vintage Super 8 parade footage into traditional animation, musing on the incongruous stream of petty worries that parade through our minds. Lebeau began her career working with Richard Condie (The Apprentice), Cordell Barker (Runaway) and Neil McInnes (Love Hound). Her credits include the NFB-produced animated shorts Louise and Big Drive. North West and Animation Studios (Alicia Smith, producer: David Christensen and Michael Fukushima, executive producers).

What Rhymes with Toxic: A sick turtle raises the alarm over toxic waste in this animated short by veteran filmmaker Lynn Smith, whose credits include award-winning work like Pearl’s Dinner and The Sound CollectorCo-produced by Lynn Smith and the Animation Studio (Maral Mohammadian, producer; Michael Fukushima, executive producer).

Creative Feature Docs

Because We Are Girls: Baljit Sangra fashions an extraordinary testament to sibling solidarity whereby three sisters from a conservative South Asian family take action against sexual abuse within their extended family. The founder of Vancouver’s Vivamantra Films, Sangra has directed powerful social-issue films like the NFB/Vivamantra co-production Warrior Boyz. Due for imminent release from BC & Yukon Studio (Selwyn Jacob, producer; Shirley Vercruysse, executive producer).

Because We Are Girls

Becoming Labrador: In a unique collaboration, three directors profile the small but growing Filipino community in the Labrador town Valley-Goose Bay, reflecting on the themes of mobility and displacement. Tamara Segura whose previous work includes Song for Cuba and Before the War, winner of the 4th annual RBC Michelle Jackson Emerging Filmmaker Award at the St. John’s Women’s Film Festival, is part of a directing team that also includes Rohan Fernando and Justin Simms. Written by Michael Crummey and featuring animation by Fred Casia. Quebec-Atlantic Studio (Rohan Fernando and Annette Clarke, producers; Annette Clarke, executive producer).

Conviction: Why are women the fastest growing demographic in Canada’s prisons? The veteran Nova Scotia-based directorial team of Nance Ackerman, Ariella Pahlke and Teresa MacInnes enter the Central Nova Scotia Correctional Facility, engaging with women prisoners as they participate in rehabilitative art therapy, including the collaborative filmmaking process that produced Conviction.  Together they define what they need to avoid incarceration and envision effective and viable alternative to the prison-as-punishment model. Due for imminent release, co-produced by Sea to Sea Productions (Teresa MacInnes, producer) and the Quebec-Atlantic Studio (Annette Clarke, producer and executive producer).

Nance Ackerman, Ariella Pahlke and Teresa McInnes (Photo: Kent Nason)

Hispaniola: Michele Stephenson, a Brooklyn-based director of Haitian/Panamaian descent who grew up in Quebec’s Eastern townships, explores how the racist dynamics of colonialism continue to play out in the lives of the Hispaniola’s inhabitants, analyzing a recent draconian move by the Dominican Republic to strip rights from citizens of Haitian descent. Stephenson’s credits include An Education in Equality, shown on The New York Times’ Op-Docs, its online forum for short documentaries, and the Emmy-nominated American Promise, winner of a Special Jury Prize at Sundance. Coproduced by Hispaniola Productions — a joint venture of the Rada Film Group (Michèle Stephenson, producer) and Hungry Eyes Film & Television (Jennifer Holness, producer) — and the Ontario Studio (producer, Lea Marin). Executive producers are Joe Brewster (Hispaniola Productions) and Anita Lee (NFB).

The Inconvenient Indian: Métis/Algonquin filmmaker Michelle Latimer adapts Thomas King’s award-winning bestseller, an engaging counter-narrative to official history, for the screen.  Latimer’s credits include the documentary series Rise; the short film Nimmikaage (She Dances for People), crafted from NFB archival footage; and Nuuca, which she produced through own company Streel Films in partnership with Field of Vision, with Laura Poitras and Charlotte Cook as fellow executive producers.

Co-produced by 90th Parallel Productions (Stuart Henderson, producer; Gordon Henderson, executive producer) and the NFB (Justine Pimlott, producer). Creative producer is Jesse Wente.

John Ware Reclaimed: Calgary-based filmmaker and writer Cheryl Foggo shines a light on the underwritten history of Canada’s Black pioneers and the remarkable life of John Ware, a Black cowboy who helped forge Alberta’s identity. Foggo, whose own family history intersects with Ware’s, began exploring his legacy in a theatrical context: her play John Ware Reimagined won the 2015 Writers Guild of Alberta’s Gwen Pharis Ringwood Award for Drama. North West Studio (David Christensen/Bonnie Thompson producers; David Christensen, executive producer).

Cheryl Foggo (Photo: Shaun Robinson)

Kiimaapiipitsin: Opiates and alcohol have had a devastating impact in many Indigenous communities across Canada, and with this feature doc Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers examines the issue within the context of colonial history, crafting an unconditional love letter to her people, the Kanai First Nation of Alberta, where her mother Dr. Esther Tailfeathers is pioneering new solutions to an old problem. “Kiimaapiipitsin means ‘to take care of each other’” say Dr Tailfeathers. Recipient of the 2018 Sundance Institute’s Merata Mita Fellowship, Elle-Máijá launched her film career with the 2011 short Bloodland, going on to work as director and actor. Her director credits include A Red Girl’s Reasoning, Bihttoš and c̓əsnaʔəm, the city before the city. Co-produced by the North West Studio and Seen Through Women Productions (David Christensen, producer and executive producer and Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers, producer).

Luben & Elena: Escaping the repression of Cold War Bulgaria, Luben and Elena arrived in Newfoundland with their two-year-old daughter and less than a hundred dollars. Decades later, now established artists, they take another leap into the unknown. Director Ellie Yonova, another Bulgarian who built a new life in Newfoundland, is a graduate of the Moscow Film Institute and has worked as DOP on numerous international productions. Her still photography is part of collections in Europe and North America. Quebec-Atlantic Studio (Annette Clarke, producer and executive producer).

The Magnitude of All Things: Following the death of her sister, Jennifer Abbott has embarked on a philosophical feature doc project, drawing parallels between her personal grief and our collective sense of loss in the face of climate crisis and planetary change. Her many credits include the hit feature doc The Corporation (co-director and editor) and A Cow At My Table. Co-produced by Flying Eye Productions, Off Island Productions and BC & Yukon Studio (Shirley Vercruysse, producer).

Send Us Your Brother: Emmy-nominated director Nisha Pahuja dissects Indian masculinity through the inter-connected narratives of three men: a teenager intent on a military career; an activist challenging traditional male roles; and a father seeking justice for a daughter who was brutally gang raped. Pahuja’s credits include Diamond Road, Bollywood Bound and The World Before Her, and she’s won awards at Hot Docs, Tribecca and other international festivals. Co-produced by Notice Pictures (Cornelia Principe, producer) and the Ontario Studio (David Oppenheim, producer).

Throat: Tanya Tagaq cuts an utterly distinct path through contemporary music, infusing the performance traditions of her people with arresting new urgency: The Guardian calls her “the polar punk who makes Björk sound tame.” With Throat, she’s collaborating with Chelsea McMullan, juxtaposing live performance footage with archival imagery and surreal fantasy sequences. McMullan’s NFB-produced My Prairie Home, a stylish profile of transgender performer Rae Spoon, met with acclaim at Sundance in 2014. Ontario Studio (Lea Marin, producer; Anita Lee, executive producer).

Tanya Tagaq

nîpawistamâsowin: We Will Stand Up: Having earned acclaim for her 2017 feature doc Birth of a Family – which premiered at Hot Docs and won a Special Jury Prize at imagineNative – filmmaker/academic Tasha Hubbard is poised to launch the highly anticipated nîpawistamâsowin: We Will Stand Up, a personal reflection on the shooting death of Colten Boushie, and the subsequent trial and acquittal of Gerald Stanley. “I’m an Indigenous person who was adopted into a farming family and I’m dealing with very personal challenge,” says Hubbard. “How do I raise my son in our own homelands, amongst people who insist that a farmer’s property is worth more than his life?” Co-produced by Downstream Documentary Productions (Tasha Hubbard and George Hupka, producers) and the North West Studio. (Jon Montes and Bonnie Thompson, producers). Executive producers are Janice Dawe and Kathy Avrich-Johnson for Bizable Media and David Christensen for the NFB.

Tasha Hubbard

The Whale and the Raven: Mirjam Leuze profiles a whale research team against the backdrop of contested oil & gas development in the traditional territory of the Gitga’at First Nation. Leuze’s Kyrgyzstan-shot feature doc Flowers of Freedom premiered at the 2014 Berlinale. A Canada/Germany co-production. Co-produced by the NFB (Shirley Vercruysse, producer) with Off Island Films (Andrew Williamson), Red Cedar Films (Henrik Meyer) and the Düsseldorf-based Busse & Halberschmidt.

Short Docs

Stories are in our Bones: Janine Windolph, filmmaker and educator, takes her city-raised sons back to her childhood home in northern Saskatchewan to have them learn about traditional food and life-sustaining skills from their Atikemak-Woodland Cree grandmother. Windolph’s credits include The Land of Rock and Gold, a dramatic feature released in 2016.  North West Studio (Coty Savard, associate producer; Jon Montes, producer).

Janine Windolph

Freedom Road:  When the Winnipeg Aqueduct was completed in 1919, it allowed water to be transported from Shoal Lake to the growing city — but it lead to decades of hardship for the people of Shoal Lake 40 First Nation. A century later, having lobbied long and hard for a road, they are preparing for historic change.  With this short film series, hometown filmmaker/activist Angelina McLeod is documenting the process from within. North West Studio (Alicia Smith, producer; David Christensen, executive producer).

Elephant 67: Aparna Kapur and Colin MacKenzie use animation to revisit the poignant true story of Balakrishna, a bull elephant shipped from India to Halifax in 1967 as a promotional stunt. Kapur’s 2008 short Amma circulated widely, winning honours at the Canadian Worldwide Film Festival, Montreal World Film Festival, San Francisco Frozen Film Festival and elsewhere. Quebec-Atlantic Studio (Kat Baulu, producer: Annette Clarke, executive producer).

Highway to Heaven: An observational short doc directed by emerging talent Sandra Ignagni, Highway documents life along a stretch of suburban highway in Richmond, BC — where a single block is home to over 20 different religious institutions. Ignagni’s short film Ranger won top honours at the 2017 Vancouver International Women in Film Festival. (Teri Snelgrove, associate producer; Shirley Vercruysse, producer and executive producer).

Ice Breakers: Sandi Rankaduwa tells a story of hockey and its African Nova Scotian roots from the perspective of a young black teen dreaming of playing in the NHL. Part of Re-imagining Nova Scotia, a short film initiative in the Quebec-Atlantic Studio. (Rohan Fernando, producer; Annette Clarke, executive producer).

This is Skylar:  Rachel Bower introduces us to a beautiful transgender girl and her family, who together encourage us all to live authentic lives. Part of Re-imagining Nova Scotia, a short film initiative in the Quebec-Atlantic Studio. (Rohan Fernando, producer; Annette Clarke, executive producer).

Mary Two Axe-Earley: The late Mary Two-Axe Earley faced down some of Canada’s most powerful men in a determined battle against the gender discrimination of the Indian Act. Filmmaker and educator Courtney Montour, who was raised in Two-Axe Earley’s hometown, the Kanien’kehá:ka (Mohawk) community of Kahnawake, investigates her life and legacy. Montour’s credits include the short documentary Flat Rocks and the feature Sex, Spirit, Strength.  Quebec-Atlantic Studio (Kat Baulu, producer; Annette Clarke, executive producer).

Courtney Montour

Radical: Deanne Foley profiles fellow Newfoundlander Mary Walsh, the Great Warrior Queen of Canadian comedy. Foley has directed women-centred features like Hopeless Romantic and An Audience of Chairs, and episodes of the TV show Republic of Doyle. One of four titles in Five Feminist Minutes, a short film series inspired by the 1990 Studio D initiative of the same name. Quebec-Atlantic Studio. Annette Clarke, producer and executive producer).

Question Period: A group of Syrian women, refugees recently resettled in Canada, are negotiating life in their new home — and they have some questions. Directed by Anne Marie Fleming whose credits include Window Horses, a feature animation starring Sandra Oh, and You Take Care Now, hailed by TIFF as one of the best shorts in Canadian film history. One of four titles in Five Feminist Minutes, a short film series inspired by the 1990 Studio D initiative of the same name. Fleming was one of the contributing filmmakers on the original series.  BC & Yukon Studio (Shirley Vercruysse, producer).

Camera Test What gets lost when female voices are stymied during the creative process? Joyce Wong — one of CBC’s “17 of 17’ great Canadian filmmakers of the future” — crafts a tartly subversive look at patriarchy and racism in the film industry. Wong’s 2016 debut feature Wexford Plaza screened at Slamdance and Torino, and her short doc The Power Of Love debuted at Hot Docs in 2011. One of four titles in Five Feminist Minutes, a short film series inspired by the 1990 Studio D initiative of the same name. Ontario Studio (Justine Pimlott, producer).

Lake: Cree artist Alexandra Lazarowich riffs off classic verité to craft a contemporary portrait of Métis women net fishing in Northern Alberta. Passionate about telling Indigenous stories, she has premiered her work at festivals around the world, and her 2018 documentary Fast Horse won the Special Jury Prize for Directing at Sundance. One of four titles in Five Feminist Minutes, a short film series inspired by the 1990 Studio D initiative of the same name. North West Studio (Coty Savard and David Christensen, producers).


The Orchid and The Bee: Artist Frances Adair Mckenzie is working with VR and plasticine to craft a seductive and unsettling meditation on evolution, genetic modification and our tenuous position within the natural world. Adair Mckenzie has exhibited in Canada and Europe, and her Augmented Reality book Glossed Over & Tucked Up was published in 2016 by Montreal’s Anteism Press. Her film credits include the surrealist animation A Little Craving, made through NFB’s Hothouse apprenticeship program. Animation Studio (Jelena Popovic, producer; Michael Fukushima, executive producer).

Frances Adair McKenzie with collaborator Brandon Blommaert

Supreme Law: Known for her award-winning digital documentaries Filmmaker-in-Residence and Highrise, Kat Cizek is working with 5 prominent YouTubers to tell the backroom story surrounding the repatriation of Canada’s constitution, exploring the legislation’s far-reaching consequences in the lives of Canadians. North West Studio (Bonnie Thompson and David Christensen, producers).

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