THE NATIONAL FILM BOARD of Canada is, and always has been, a strange kind of beast. Conceived originally as a propaganda mill by John Grierson, whose views of propaganda were clearly articulated and forcefully put, the NF13 was launched in the post-Second World War years with an unclear mandate and leaders whose main agenda item was the survival of the agency.
The subsequent history of the NFB is a fascinating and maddening interplay between Politics and politics, bureaucracy and art, the desire to reflect what is and the desire to present what should be. The constant shuffling and tugging about who should set the agenda - politicians, bureaucrats, or artists - has resulted in a continual state of chaos, and intermittent bouts of crisis. In spite - or, some might argue, because - of this, some wonderful and very important films have been made. In many ways the schizophrenic nature of the Board is exemplary of our country: bureaucratized, yet with an ethos of individualism; sheltered, yet on the leading edge; unified, yet split along language and regional lines; and, above all, well-intentioned.
Gary Evans set himself the mindboggling task of fitting all this into one book, and the result is not unlike the picture his text paints of the NFB itself. There is an awful lot going on here, but it hasn't been focused. The book announces itself as a "chronicle," and it is on one level a listing of events in order of time. But there is also analysis here. judgements and interpretations are presented with no clearly identified thesis or unifying theme, and it often isn't evident whether the analysis belongs to Evans or to his sources. Connections are made that seem either arbitrary or forced, and the jumps from level to level of activity (aesthetic, bureaucratic, political) are often confusing and unenlightening.
In the National Interest is written as "living history," and reminded me of the genre that for many is the quintessence of Canadian film, the docu-drama. Sometimes the blending of factual content and narrative form works well; more frequently it doesn't. A large part of the reason is the writing itself. It is often tortured, straining to fit the facts into a dramatic flow. To pick -a random example:
The Department of External Affairs had been consulted during its production, and with a French translation of the series completed, it appeared on television simultaneously in the spring and summer of 1957.
Such prose is often exacerbated by the constant overuse of adjectives: "The overnight change was also due to the fact that the unfortunate Kenneth Wilson, who had led the Financial Post crusade, died in a plane crash." This is the only time Mr. Wilson is mentioned, so I'm not sure why he was unfortunate, unless it was because he died in a plane crash, in which case it goes without saying. Things only get worse when Evans rhapsodizes about the films themselves: "Brittain mixed word and image to achieve just the right amount of metaphoric beauty..." Enough said.
At its best, In the National Interest does a good job of tracing the connections from art to geo-politics and beyond; in so doing, it evokes the resonances of an era. A tremendous amount of work and care has gone into this book, as any of us who have spent time squirrelling in the archives or tracking down anecdotal sources will recognize, and there is a lot of good and useful information here. I'm sure In the National Interest will prove to be a valuable first resource for students of film and the NFB. Too bad it is such an annoying read.