Even if you’re subscribed to every major streaming service, it can still sometimes feel like there’s nothing good on. Fruitlessly scrolling through Netflix can leave you wanting more selection without having to give up another $10 a month. So, I was happy to learn that the National Film Board of Canada (NFB) let’s you access their archive of over 5000 movies for free on their website. The NFB’s website reminds me of the VHS collection in my high school library. Many of the movies on there are similar to something your teacher would’ve popped into the VCR on days when they didn’t have a lesson plan.
First, a lot of them skew older—there’s a wealth of movies from the ‘80s and earlier—and show their age through their stylistic choices. There are ‘70s cartoons with jazz-rock soundtracks and ‘50s movies voiced-over by narrators whose hair must have been slick with the glossy shine of Brylcreem. Second, like something you’d see in school, it feels like the people showing you these films are doing so because it's good for you.
As a government-run film producer and distributor, the NFB is soaked with the ethos of public art. Established by then prime minister William Lyon Mackenzie King in 1939 to make movies that help Canadians understand the lives of their fellow citizens, it is informed by the belief that art is not just for private enjoyment but a way to enrich the community. Today, the NFB intends to examine and interpret Canadian life, develop our sense of cultural identity, and expand film’s expressive capabilities through technical and stylistic innovation.This can be seen in their documentaries, such as the work of Abenaki filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin, who has made over 50 films, many exploring Indigenous issues. Or, in the adaptations and explorations of our best authors like Mordecai Richler and Malcolm Lowry. Or in their animation, which uses every technique you can think of, from sand animation The Sand Castle to cut out animation The Sound Collector to stop motion using live actors in place of clay figurines Neighbours. With studios across the country, the NFB gives Canadian filmmakers the space and resources needed to tell their stories, stories which might otherwise go unheard.
It’s heavy stuff: Mission-oriented art can strike a different note than that made strictly to entertain. They’ve earned over 5000 awards, including 12 Academy Awards and 74 Oscar nominations. But the NFB’s movies aren’t all overbearingly serious;in my view, they’re often humble, idiosyncratic, and playful. Filmmakers who are government funded aren’t constrained by the demands of the marketplace, and can be, in theory, as eccentric as they like. What keeps me watching the NFB’s films is the same thing that makes me watch MTV’s Liquid Television, a showcase of short films by indie animators, or read underground zines: the creative freedom they display and the intimacy of being part of a small audience.
If you’re intimidated by the size of the NFB’s catalogue, try dipping your toes by watching some of their award winners. Start, maybe, with Ryan, Chris Landreth’s Oscar winning computer-animated short film from 2004. The film depicts a conversation between the film’s director and Ryan Larkin, an acclaimed Canadian animator whose life was torn apart by addiction and homelessness. To capture his and Larkin’s psychological pain, Landreth works in the opposite direction of most 3D animators. Instead of making computer-generated models as smooth as possible to maintain a realistic rendering, he makes his animation rough around the edges, capitalizing on how glitchiness can make characters look strange and ugly in ways traditional animation can’t. It’s an unsettling and counter-intuitive way to use the medium, like a painter letting termites gnaw through their canvas to achieve a certain effect, and it lets the viewer see the full extent of Landreth’s mental deterioration.
Also worth checking out is The Big Snit, another Oscar winner, directed by Richard Condie and released in 1985. The cartoon follows a married couple who are too busy bickering to notice the impending nuclear apocalypse. It’s heartfelt and really funny. The humour is left-field and non-sequitur driven, a brand of zaniness that’s an artifact of its time, like what you’d find in 90s TV shows like Ren and Stimpy. The NFB is a goldmine of goofy, light-hearted cartoons like this one.
There are also, of course, many bad movies in the NFB’s archive. But even the bad movies tend to be interesting. Bad Hollywood-produced movies all tend to be the same: cliche-ridden, uninspired, soulless. But the bad movies in the NFB still feel like labours of love. They take chances, and when they fail, they fail spectacularly (for example, take the bizarre, misguided experimental film Hungerby Peter Foldes). Watching a movie from the NFB is watching a filmmaker who’d otherwise be ignored by the marketplace get a chance to express themselves. It is sometimes frightening, sometimes inspiring, but always captivating.