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The National Film Board of Canada & Studio D

By: Howard Akler

Howard Akler

Howard Akler

Historical Contributor

Howard Akler a writer and the author of two novels, The City Man and Splitsville, and Men of Action, a memoir.
The opening of the World Conference of the International Women’s Year at the Juan de la Barrera Gymnasium in Mexico City on 19 June 1975. Image credit: B Lane. Image courtesy of UN Photo.

When the United Nations General Assembly declared 1975 International Women’s Year and organized the first World Conference on Women, the National Film Board of Canada was already one step ahead. In 1974, the NFB had established Studio D, the world’s first publicly funded feminist film studio. Feminism had been slowly gaining mainstream awareness in the second half of the 20th century. Whereas women fought for voting and property rights from the early 1900s onward, feminists in the 1960s and 1970s focused on matters such as reproductive rights, sexuality, workplace equality, and domestic violence. Many of these second-wave feminists found their voice in pop culture. In the United States, Ms. magazine was founded in 1971, instantly becoming a political and cultural phenomenon, while in Canada, novels such as Surfacing, by Margaret Atwood, and Marian Engel’s Bear, gained international recognition. 

Studio D would keep that artistic and cultural momentum going over 22 years, producing 134 films and winning 120 awards, including three Academy Awards.

The driving force behind Studio D was Kathleen Shannon. She had been an editor at the NFB since 1956, one of the very few women working in film production at the time. Shannon was a tireless advocate for an all-women studio that would produce films with a feminist perspective on social issues. Up until that time, she said years later, that perspective “felt like the Ladies’ Auxiliary to the human race.”[i]

Kathleen Shannon in the documentary, Kathleen Shannon: On Film, Feminism & Other Dreams (1971), directed by Garry Rogers. Courtesy of the National Film Board of Canada.

The early years were, not surprisingly, a struggle. Shannon, as executive producer, was given a room in the basement of the NFB’s Montreal headquarters, along with two staff and a budget of $100,000 – barely enough money to make a single film. She also had to deal with rampant sexism. One male producer even told Shannon that he would eat the filmstrip of Studio D’s first successful film.[ii]

The first film to be completed at the studio was 1975’s Great Grand Mother. Directed by Anne Wheeler and Lorna Rasmussen, the 28-minute documentary focuses on the women who settled the Prairies. Beginning with early settlers and continuing to 1916 (when Manitoban women were the first in Canada to receive a provincial vote), the film uses quotations from letters and diaries, spoken over archival photos, to tell previously untold stories. Shannon later recalled screening a sample for the NFB’s film committee that featured a midwife who also dressed the dead for burial. The gravitas of a single woman so ensconced in the birth and death of her community was lost on the male viewers. “One man on committee said it was boring,” Shannon said. “I found it riveting.”[iii]

Image courtesy of the National Film Board of Canada.

Jingoistic

Extreme nationalism that is usually characterized by an especially belligerent foreign policy. The belief that ones country is always “the best”.

With films about abortion, drug abuse, and systemic sexism, Studio D pushed boundaries. Sometimes it got pushed back. Terre Nash’s 1983 documentary, If You Love This Planet, drew the ire of the United States. The film included a lecture by renowned antinuclear activist Helen Caldicott, spliced with recently declassified footage of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It also cleverly mixed in clips of Ronald Reagan, then the US president, who had appeared in jingoistic 1945 films about bombing “the Japs.” The US government labelled the film anti-American propaganda and restricted distribution across the States. But, according to film historian Matthew Hays, this had the opposite effect, and people made a special effort to find ways to watch it. If You Love This Planet ended up winning the 1983 Academy Award for best documentary short film. Nash thanked the Reagan administration in her acceptance speech.[iv]

Further notoriety followed in 1981. Not a Love Story: A Film About Pornography (Warning: this film contains sexually explicit material and is recommended for audiences 18 years of age and older), by Bonnie Sherr Klein, courted controversy from several sides. The documentary, relying on interviews with porn actors, sex workers, and high-profile feminists, such as Margaret Atwood, presented a damning case against the trade. Feminist critics were varied and quite vocal; some praised the viewpoint, while others called it out, citing sexual repression and censorship. The film was banned in Ontario and Saskatchewan but screened in Montreal for nine months, becoming the NFB’s highest-grossing film at that time.

The late 1980s saw a time of general government austerity, resulting in significant budget cuts to the studio beginning in 1989, and eventually leading to its closure in 1996. Ironically, one of the last films produced by Studio D was the documentary Kathleen Shannon: On Film, Feminism & Other Dreams. Directed by Gerry Rogers, the film was shot only a few years before Shannon’s death in 1998. She reflected on the hard-won successes in her career and the reasons she had taken up the challenge of starting Studio D in the first place: “The most effective healing I’ve seen is when we come together and listen to each other’s stories.”[v]


[i] Gerry Rogers, Kathleen Shannon: On Film, Feminism & Other Dreams, National Film Board of Canada (1996).

[ii] Matthew Hays, “Filmmaking Has a Gender Problem. Here’s What Happened When Canada Tried to Solve It,” in Time magazine (December 1, 2017). 

[iii] Rogers, 1996.

[iv] Hays, 2017.

[v] Rogers, 1996.