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A Brief History of Our Environment-themed Films | Curator’s Perspective

A Brief History of Our Environment-themed Films | Curator’s Perspective

A Brief History of Our Environment-themed Films | Curator’s Perspective

With the recent Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP27) in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, and the upcoming December 7 launch of the 15th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (COP15) in Montreal, environmental challenges are in the headlines more than ever.

Over the past three or four years, they’ve also been a core concern of NFB filmmakers, who have produced several films on the subject. Notable examples include the series The Lake Winnipeg Project (2021) by Kevin Settee and Ramaillages (Gatherings, 2020) by Moïse Marcoux-Chabot, as well as the films Borealis (2020) by Kevin McMahon, The Magnitude of All Things (2020) by Jennifer Abbott, The Whale and the Raven (2019) by Mirjam Leuze and White Noise (2019) by Simon Beaulieu.

But have such concerns always existed in NFB films? You may be surprised to learn that, going back to the founding of the NFB in 1939, environmental issues have indeed been part and parcel of our collection. Of course, the production contexts for films on that theme have changed time and again, their presentation format has evolved over the decades, and the issues raised and topics covered are specific to the periods in which they were made. This blog entry provides a historical overview of NFB films about the environment from the late 1930s to the present day, spotlighting some key periods.

The Second World War

When war broke out in September 1939, the NFB had only just been born. Under the expert leadership of John Grierson, the fledgling agency committed to supporting the country’s war effort. Films made in these early years sought to portray Canada’s role in the conflict, at home and in Europe, to promote democratic values and to project a certain image of the country and its inhabitants. With all energies marshalled in support of the war effort, there was seemingly little room to examine issues relating to the environment. Natural resources, however, played a paramount role in that national effort. Canadian lumber, for example, was a vital material in war factories that built soldiers’ barracks and aircraft wings. The country’s forests also supplied Great Britain, which no longer had access to wood from the Scandinavian countries. The exploitation of our forest resources, but also their conservation and protection, thus emerged as a major issue during the war years. Timber Front (1940) provides a good illustration of the situation.

Timber Front, Frank Badgley, provided by the National Film Board of Canada

Commissioned films

In the post-war period, more precisely in the late 1950s and into the 1960s, productions with environmental themes tended to be commissioned films. These works produced by the Film Board for various federal government departments examined all manner of environmental topics, from water quality (Let’s Look at Water, 1947) to control of insects and parasites in agriculture (Chemical Conquest, 1956), the threats to bird species posed by human activity (Waterfowl: A Resource in Danger, 1964) and overcutting in forests (Foresters, 1968).

Though these films pointed out a number of problems, they struck a reassuring tone, proposing solutions that claimed to be immediate, effective and long-lasting. It’s as if audiences were being told: “There are problems, but don’t worry, the experts and scientists with the departments of Health, Agriculture, Wildlife or Fisheries and Forestry (as they were known at the time) are on the case.” In short, these films told us that our government had things well in hand! Waterfowl: A Resource in Danger (1964), directed by Don Virgo and made for the Canadian Wildlife Service, is a perfect example.

Waterfowl – A Resource in Danger, Don Virgo, provided by the National Film Board of Canada

Sounding the alarm

The reality, however, was quite different. The 1970s and 1980s saw films that made a number of worrisome observations about various environmental issues and proved that sustainable solutions to problems had yet to be developed, and that we did not—as we believed, or wanted to believe—have the situation under control. The message of these films was clear: the time had come to sound the alarm!

One of the first films to do so was a first-rate documentary entitled Atonement (1971), directed by Michael McKennirey. This was another film produced for the Canadian Wildlife Service, but this time the tone was more serious. McKennirey noted that many mammal species (e.g., grizzlies and polar bears) were threatened with extinction and that some bird species (the carrier pigeon, Labrador duck and great auk among them) already were extinct. He depicted the irreversible damage caused by pesticide use and the devastating impacts of pollution on many bird species, like the great horned owl and peregrine falcon. Lastly, he was not shy about condemning the inertia of our societies and the trivialization of problems by large swaths of the population, warning that our days could well be numbered if we refuse to care more for the wildlife around us. In short, the countdown had already started!

Atonement, Michael McKennirey, provided by the National Film Board of Canada

In that same decade, filmmaker Bill Mason worried about the possible extinction of whales, walruses, seals and polar bears in his film In Search of the Bowhead Whale (1974). Famed oceanographer Jacques Cousteau and his crew depicted the ravages of pollution in the St. Lawrence River and the Great Lakes in a co-production with the NFB, St. Lawrence: Stairway to the Sea (1982). Filmmaker Terre Nash examined the threat to humanity’s survival posed by nuclear arms proliferation in her compelling If You Love This Planet (1982), which won the Academy Award for Best Documentary (Short Subject). Today, it feels more topical than ever. Trouble in the Forest (1988), a documentary by Gary Toole narrated by David Suzuki, examined the phenomenon of acid rain, showing how it kills trees and poisons soil.

Environmental activism

Filmmakers in the 1990s and 2000s continued to depict the environmental challenges we face, but in contrast to the earlier periods, there is a sense that they were more involved in their subjects, and consequently their films were more engagé, more activist. They urged citizen mobilization and concrete actions, gave voice to ordinary people, sparked debates, and depicted grassroots efforts to oppose large industries and monopolies. The messaging in their films is clear: the situation was by now critical and the time had come to act. Jean-François Mercier’s documentary Les quatre cavaliers de l’Apocalypse (1991), introduced and narrated by Lise Payette, viewed threats to the environment as a national emergency. Household garbage, contamination of waterways, toxic waste and the destruction of natural resources (equated to the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse) are the four most serious threats to our environment. We must act; the survival of our nation is at stake. Carmen Garcia’s Beef Inc. (1999) exposed the excesses of the agri-food industry and provided a platform for independent cattle producers struggling to compete with the U.S. corporations controlling production and distribution. Giving voice to citizen groups, director Hugo Latulippe decried the proliferation of massive-scale hog operations in Quebec and revealed their detrimental impacts on society and the environment in his documentary Bacon, the Film (2001). Ève Lamont took on factory farming in Quebec, the Canadian West, the U.S. Northeast and France in The Fight for True Farming (2005). Documentary filmmakers Magnus Isacsson and Martin Duckworth followed citizens’ efforts to halt development of a methane tanker terminal near Quebec City in The Battle of Rabaska: Chronicle of an Environmental Conflict (2008), while Richard Desjardins and Robert Monderie took a hard look at the Canadian mining industry in The Hole Story (2011).

The Fight for True Farming, Eve Lamont, provided by the National Film Board of Canada

Hope on the horizon

The films from the period I’ve just summarized are rather pessimistic. Their observations are frightening. Their protagonists’ struggles sometimes seem doomed to fail. They impart the impression (which we now know to be true) that we’re headed for disaster. In a nutshell, the future isn’t very bright at all. That may explain why more recent films are brighter in tone and seek to restore our hope. In her documentary Earth Keepers (2009), Sylvie Van Brabant follows eco-activist Mikael Rioux as he meets visionary men and women who’ve developed innovative projects that aim to ensure a better future for our societies. The solutions exist but they simply need to be implemented on a larger scale, the film tells us.

Earth Keepers, Sylvie Van Brabant, provided by the National Film Board of Canada

Hope Builders (2010) by Fernand Dansereau is another film that rides a wave of hope. The documentary filmmaker spent a year with a group of Grade 6 students in a school on Montreal’s South Shore as they apply a method known as research-action. This new approach proposed by their teacher involves identifying an environmental problem in their area, seeking and finding solutions to it, and then applying them. The film was made in the same spirit as Dansereau’s previous documentary, An Ecology of Hope (2001), about the life and work of ecologist Pierre Dansereau. Millefiore Clarkes’ Island Green (2013) and John Bolton’s Debris (2015) are definitely antidotes to the pessimism, despair and sense of helplessness that we sometimes experience in the face of environmental challenges.

Island Green, Millefiore Clarkes, provided by the National Film Board of Canada

The environment and grassroots action

And what about today? While the sense of urgency and the need for action remain, as seen in White Noise (2019) by Simon Beaulieu and The Magnitude of All Things (2020) by Jennifer Abbott, other films focus on solutions, maintain a degree of optimism and highlight a community spirit that seems to be emergent in recent years when it comes to how we approach environmental challenges and problems. That spirit is manifested by the residents of Dawson City, Yukon, whose efforts to farm crops year-round in extreme climate conditions are chronicled in David Curtis’s Sovereign Soil (2019).

Sovereign Soil, David Curtis, provided by the National Film Board of Canada

It’s also on display in Moïse Marcoux-Chabot’s series Ramaillages (Gatherings, 2020), in which people in the Gaspé, including newcomers as well as long-time residents, implement a number of alternative livestock and crop-farming methods—community projects that promote food self-sufficiency through mutual assistance, sharing resources and pooling ideas, while emphasizing preservation of the land and food quality. And lastly, it is seen in the Cree community around Lake Winnipeg, featured in the excellent documentary series directed by Kevin Settee, The Lake Winnipeg Project (2021).

The films highlighted in this post are a sample of works produced over a span of 80 years. To explore other films in which the environment is a central theme, visit this page.

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