Piers Handling, Part 1: History of the NFB

Interviewed by Fil Fraser at Toronto on July, 2010

Fraser. What do you think about the great consolidation of the broadcasting industry and the subsequent blurring of the lines between the various media, especially with the new technology? What impact does that have on the Canadian feature film industry?

Handling. I'm not sure that it has a huge effect at all because one of the great issues in Canada has been the segmentation, the division between film and television, the mistrust actually between the two that goes back historically to the 1950s when CBC television was created. There was a huge opportunity to bring the National Film Board (NFB) into television and that decision was not made, or it was made to keep the two very separate. So, film and television have moved very much on separate tracks in this country, unlike our European counterparts (in France, the UK with Channel 4 Films, BBC Films, etc, and in Germany), where state funding means that every television broadcaster is heavily invested in feature films. These are films that are designed for theatrical release and then eventually end up playing on their television channels. The whole history of German cinema in the 70s -- Fassbinder, Herzog, Wenders – that was all German television money.

F. Why do you think that never happened here?

H. I don't know why there was mistrust between the two. There was a political mistrust because the Film Board was tainted with the paintbrush of being lefties, or Communists. There was the red scare. The Film Board was seen by some to be a left-wing, Communist organization. In the 1940s, people were fired. Arthur Irwin, the ex-editor of Maclean's magazine, came in to clean up the Film Board. I think also that the physical fact that the Film Board was located in Montréal [from 1956] as opposed to in English Canada meant that it was the “school” or the studio for the Québec film industry. There was nothing parallel to that for the English Canadian industry.

When the CBC was created, it had a home here in Toronto. As a result, English Canadian filmmakers went to Montréal if they wanted to become filmmakers; they came to Toronto, or stayed in Toronto, if they wanted to work in television. So, there is a strange physical split in the country. And there was a deep mistrust on the part of CBC because the Film Board was seen as being non-objective, while the CBC was looking for an objective mandate. The Film Board probably was more politicized than the CBC, which was more in the public eye, and dependent on the favor of government. It needed to be safer in terms of the choices it made.

When the private sector came along, CTV and Global, they were looking for ratings; they were all looking largely to re-broadcast American shows. There was a great failure on the part of the Canadian television networks to develop indigenous Canadian drama and to have those directors move into television. And when you think of the situation in the UK… just look at Stephen Frears and Mike Leigh, those two directors alone started at the BBC; Michael Winterbottom is another example… they started at the BBC as television directors. Now they are some of the most successful feature film directors in the world. They continue to go back and make small films, some of which are made with BBC money, with television money. For them, there is no chasm or barrier between the two. It's a link. And it's a link that somehow, in Canada, we've never been able to manage.   

F. Back in the 1980s,  François Macerola and I applied for a license for TV Canada, which was going to be modeled somewhat on Channel 4.  We were turned down by the CRTC for that very reason: they didn't want the Film Board to be involved in the television business.
H.  When you're a small country (well, now, we have 31 million people),  with limited resources and living next to one of the largest market resources for film and television media in the world, the United States, I think you have to consolidate the resources you have. You have to bring those resources together and utilize them in a smart way. Once you set those resources or institutions at each other's throats, it's a recipe for failure. Turf wars are inevitable. I'm sure there are turf wars in the UK and France. But somehow at the end of the day, there is a higher purpose and the industries are forced to work together. There's no question.

When you look at the European television systems that have worked (the Italian one is another interesting example because Italian television is involved in some re-productions), the Europeans learned that lesson from the beginning: that, if the state was going to be involved, it was going to have to be state-controlled in everything. I think they actually paid attention and they concentrated on those resources. On the other hand, the CBC, at a certain point in time, became an embarrassment to the government; it was certainly something they were very suspicious of.

The BBC is part of British national identity. Every government that comes to power, whether it's Conservative, Liberal or Labour, must recognize that the BBC actually reflects English values. I don't think that the CBC has that same…  I know that it is embraced by some people… When you go outside the urban centres, the CBC is a thread that holds a lot of communities together through radio and television. It's their window into the rest of the country. But I think there's still a deep suspicion on the part of the politicians that this is a subversive institution.

F.  There has always been a significant minority of Canadians who would be happy not to have the CBC.

H.  Yeah.