Canadian Diaries Programmer’s Notes

PUBLISHED AUGUST 2010 – Canadian Diaries Program Guide

The premise behind this project was to explore the idea of Canadian identity as it is linked with the documentary format.  Documentary is integral to Canadian film history and current independent film practices, and the National Film Board (NFB) has played a huge role in the development of that history.  The NFB is world renowned for the quality of its films; it has trained independent filmmakers and animators in Canada, Africa and around the world for over 70 years and was even used as the model for the creation of similar organizations in New Zealand.

Our seminal NFB film, Pour la Suite du Monde, was chosen for this project because of its iconic place in the Cinema Direct movement – a documentary movement that originated in Canada.  This film is interesting because as a Cinema Direct film it is an attempt to capture documentary “truth”.  The filmmakers earnestly tried to remove themselves from their subject – they did no traditional interviews, they did no narration, and attempted to let events play as they may.  However, the premise of documentary “truth” is flawed, perhaps no more so than in this film, where the filmmakers create a situation that would not have existed without them.  They convince the residents of an island in Quebec to revive a dead tradition, cast their subjects as actors in a wishful play, then watch as they act out the scenario that has been, ever so gently, suggested to them.  The shots are beautifully planned and exquisitely executed, and the film seems more like a fiction than a document – all a part of the cinema direct’s ambition to make the audience forget about the cameras that have captured it all.

The short programs showcase contemporary Canadian documentaries that push the genre in style and content.  Some are more traditional; utilizing research, interviews, and images to document subjects and themes. Others use home movies, still images, and footage (found or otherwise), stitching them together with voice over, music and soundscapes in an attempt to document emotion and ideas. These films experiment with the very concepts and limits of what a documentary can be. The diary format is a mainstay in many Canadian films, exemplified by Philip Hoffman’s On the Pond.  Diary-style films tell a personal story, rather than documenting outside subjects.  The stories are small in scale, intimate in atmosphere, and value the microcosm of one person’s life.  John Price’s The Sea Series: Landfall in Lilliput is beautiful example of the diary format.  He breaks even further with documentary tradition, showing us silent images of children playing and layering them with a document of clouds. With no verbal narrative or other contextualization, we are left to discover the author’s meaning and truth for ourselves. To do this we must examine our own cultural signifiers and internal constructs to discover the film’s meaning. For this reason, it might be the most Canadian documentary because we take it to mean whatever we’d like to – and as Canadians, we will read into it our own Canadian stories.

When we consider what makes a “Canadian” film, several styles come to mind and the cinema direct or diary formats may be the most obvious. However, there are also several films in this program that do not showcase specifically “Canadian” stories.  They don’t pontificate on the vastness of the prairie, wonder at the deeper meaning of the cold or linger on a tense family dinner. These films tell stories that belong to other cultures – like My Forehead by Domimique Keller. The only piece of Canadiana in her film is that she documented it. So how does this film fit into a showcase of Canadian identity? As Canadians, we are interested in other cultures, other ways of life and it is part of our identity to want to understand and help others. Perhaps this is because we sometimes feel culturally inferior to stronger influences around us, or more likely, it is because we feel that all stories deserve a voice and we, using whatever platform is at our disposal, must help to facilitate those stories, to broadcast them to the world.

Canadians are deeply interested in the world outside our personal stories, and even in the most nostalgic and personal diary films, we can still see this interest.   Even the most inward-looking films stand in contrast with the world around them, because the films are acutely aware that they are telling the story of a single individual that is part of a bigger picture.  Films like The Sea Series, Leftovers, Whitmore Park and Saskatchewan create mythologies around nostalgia and “home” to represent more than just the individual who tells the story. We all relate to these myths because they are about our culture and our environment and we long to reconcile these beautiful stories with our everyday lives. These films are about that balance and how we manage to tell our own stories, and those of the rest of the world at the same time.   It is impossible to document anything without inserting ourselves into it, and we cannot document ourselves without the context of the world around us. That is the real truth that is found in these stories.


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