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Challenge for Change

Challenge for Change

For decades, the bulk of the controversial NFB classic film series Challenge for Change/Société nouvelle has been difficult to access. With the launch of the book Challenge for Change: Activist Documentary at the National Film Board of Canada, as well as this continually expanding online playlist, we, the editors of the book, are delighted to connect works such as The Ballad of Crowfoot, The Children of Fogo Island and VTR St-Jacques with literature that examines their artistry and politics.

Challenge for Change: Activist Documentary at the National Film Board of Canada is a 600-page collection of historic and contemporary articles and essays about Challenge for Change/Société Nouvelle (CFC/SN), one of the NFB's most famous and controversial initiatives.

book cover1967 to 1980

The activist documentary program, which ran from 1967 to 1980, produced almost 250 films and videos in both French and English. It generated a particularly influential and original part of the National Film Board of Canada's acclaimed body of work, and its filmmakers were among the first to exploit portable video. CFC/SN challenged audiences, subjects and filmmakers to confront a wide spectrum of issues, from poverty to sexism to marginalization, with the intention of developing community and political awareness, as well as empowering Canadians.

Pioneering participatory, social change-oriented media, the program had a national and international impact on documentary filmmaking, yet this book is the first comprehensive history and analysis of the venture. The volume's contributors examine dozens of films produced by the program, delving into their themes, aesthetics and politics, and they evaluate CFC/SN's place in Canadian, Québécois and world cinema.

Stimulating Debate

The program was an articulation of merging and competing spaces: government, community and cinematic. In today's media moment – one marked by abundance, digital proliferation and multi-media convergence – the spaces in which we experience, interpret and enjoy documentary cinema are constantly shifting. Recognizing that the NFB is a public media institution and that the CFC/SN program sought to make public often private spaces of struggle, oppression and hardship, we are excited about this exploration of an important juncture in Canada's media landscape - one that continues to stimulate debate.

So enjoy this newly renovated (public) space for a body of work – the literature and the films and videos – that remains one of the NFB and Canada's most valued treasure troves of documentary cinema.


To watch a trailer for the book, click here.

To view the French version of this playlist, click here.

Thomas Waugh, Ezra Winton, Michael Baker

Thomas Waugh, professeur à l’École de cinéma Mel Hoppenheim de l’Université Concordia, est l'auteur de The Romance of Transgression in Canada: Queering Sexualities, Nations, Cinemas. Michael Brendan Baker est candidat au doctorat au Département d'histoire de l'art et de communication de l'Université McGill. Ezra Winton est candidat au doctorat à l'École de journalisme et de communication de l'Université Carleton et le fondateur du réseau Cinema Politica.

  • Billy Crane Moves Away
    Billy Crane Moves Away
    1967|17 min

    Billy Crane Moves Away features a Fogo resident explaining his decision to leave the cod fishery and the island for a factory job on the outskirts of Toronto.

    Capturing the direct and plainspoken views of an islander for the express purpose of promoting a discussion of these topics within the community, it is perhaps the most representative film from Colin Low's pioneering Fogo series. In the mid-1970s Low was confronted by John Grierson in front of a class of his McGill undergraduates; he wanted to know, "What the value was of this film shot off Fogo Island. Was it good for television? Mass media? What did it say to Canada? What did it say to the world?"

    These questions highlight the concerns of NFB and government ministry officials over the production of films targeting such specific audiences and addressing such local concerns. Yet the film illustrates the program's most innovative and influential dimension, namely the lasting value of the films to filmmakers and community organizers as training tools for similar ventures. This is to say nothing of the importance of the series as a document of the people, culture and language of the remote island community.

  • The Children of Fogo Island
    The Children of Fogo Island
    1967|17 min

    The Children of Fogo Island is a unique entry in Colin Low's Fogo series. Unlike the other films completed as part of island-wide Fogo project, The Children of Fogo Island stands alone as a poetic document of the island's youngest generation. Surprisingly, Colin Low once described it as "the most useful film" in the Fogo process.

    Here's how he explained it in an interview with contributors Michael Baker and Chris Meir in 2002: "Everywhere we went, the kids would gather. They would stand beside the camera and watch, and then they would get bored, and then they would start to play. And so I pulled [cameraman] Bob Humble to the side and said ‘Look, we're doing a lot of boring stuff. None of these kids are boring. Every time you get a chance, turn the camera around and film the kids.' And I said, ‘You can do as much of it as you want. I will arrange for some kids to do things, but mainly you just shoot them.' And so he did. When we began editing the film I had only one condition: any kid that appeared [in the raw footage] had to appear in the film. I didn't want to leave a kid out. I wanted all the kids of Fogo Island in this film, and it was going to be long and maybe boring. I had arranged to get a local group – it was a rock ‘n' roll group called the Philadelphia Cream Cheese – to gather for a recording. They were quite marvellous in putting together half a dozen songs. And then we took that particular film back to Fogo Island and showed it.

    "Every time we'd go to a village, the first thing we showed was The Children of Fogo Island, and there were kids from all over the island appearing in the film. The energy of the kids made people think of their own childhood and what they loved about their own childhood: the freedom about it; the endless play; copying their dads on the boats. The other thing that struck people is the melancholy that you can see on Fogo Island, but we had an enormous demand for [the film.]"

  • The Ballad of Crowfoot
    The Ballad of Crowfoot
    1968|10 min

    The Ballad of Crowfoot is among the most popular and most widely screened films from the CFC/SN program. Filmed entirely by members of the Indian Film Crew, the First Nations unit founded by the NFB's National Indian Training Programme in cooperation with the Company for Young Canadians, The Ballad of Crowfoot asserted Aboriginal rights and placed the media in targeted community's hands. The skilful compilation of archival photographs in combination with the stirring use of director Willie Dunn's original song create a space in which deference and tribute are paid to the legendary Blackfoot leader while the stakes for contemporary First Nations struggles are laid bare. A rousing finale of contemporary newspaper headlines cataloguing a series of injustices against the First Nations people through Canada's history establishes an informative bridge to the actions and issues captured in CFC films You Are on Indian Land (1969), God Help the Man Who Would Part With his Land (1971), Cree Hunters of Mistassini (1974), and Our Land Is Our Life (1974).

  • Cree Hunters of Mistassini
    Cree Hunters of Mistassini

    Like The Ballad of Crowfoot before it, Cree Hunters of Mistassini ranks among the most popular and widely screened films from the CFC/SN program. Unlike the earlier film, however, the Indian Film Crew was not responsible for the production. Directed by Montreal journalist Boyce Richardson and shot by Tony Ianzelo, the film (one in a series on the subject of Aboriginal culture and politics directed or produced by Richardson and Ianzelo) represents a form of advocacy: It presents a Cree point of view and gives voice to Cree concerns, but it is not an exercise in self-representation. Michelle Stewart writes, "The circumstances of the production of Cree Hunters in a period of budget retrenchment and political uncertainty reveal the commitment of certain CFC members to Aboriginal rights and representation in the 1970s, although NFB filmmakers and management had frequent disagreements over which styles and strategies would be most politically effective." Cree Hunters departs from the Fogo process-inspired VTR experiments of the first wave of CFC/SN in terms of the polish and rigorous formal style of its day-in-the-life-of-the-Cree portrait, but is unequivocal in its presentation of a Cree perspective on a proposed Hydro-Québec project in the James Bay region.

  • Encounter at Kwacha House - Halifax
    Encounter at Kwacha House - Halifax
    1967|17 min

    Contributor Kass Banning writes, "Encounter at Kwacha House – Halifax is a cinéma vérité snapshot of predominantly young black people in lively debate with community activists about the pressing issues of the day, concerns that shadowed young black Haligonians in the mid-sixties, namely racist employment, education and housing practices.

    "Viewed today, Encounter is not simply a fascinating, regionally specific social document of its time; rather CFC'S motivation for the project, the participants' equating segregationist Halifax with the deep South, and Encounter's various receptions – past and present – are variously informed by the subliminal weight of our television archive, specifically the iconography and associations of televised civil rights struggles of the 1960s.

    "CFC'S claim that Encounter was a successful catalyst for change cannot be disputed. Following the screenings of Encounter officials were alerted to the potential for unrest in Halifax and short-term opportunities for black youth did emerge forthwith. The fact that these efforts for change could also be attributed to the moral panic that the presence of the Black Panthers engendered in the fall of 1968 is, perhaps unsurprisingly, not on the CFC record."

  • The Things I Cannot Change
    The Things I Cannot Change
    1967|55 min

    Things I Cannot Change is not, strictly speaking, part of the CFC/SN program. While it is often held-up as the first film under the Challenge for Change banner and discussed as key component of the program's legacy, the film was completed as a pilot project and broadcast on CBC prior to the formal launch of CFC. It stirred a great deal of controversy with regards to the treatment of the poverty-stricken family at the centre of the film. According to contributor Marit Kathryn Corneil, "the outrage this caused at the NFB inspired some producers and filmmakers to rethink the ethics of documentary filmmaking in the context of community development, and this became the agenda for the experimental program in ethical documentary at CFC/SN."

  • You Are on Indian Land
    You Are on Indian Land

    You Are on Indian Land is a popular film amongst contemporary activist documentary audiences, but contributors Ezra Winton and Jason Garrison say, "that this film was made at all is accidental. Mike Mitchell, a Mohawk of the Akwesasne Reserve (then called St Regis), called George Stoney, then the executive producer of the CFC/SN program, and told him of an imminent blockade of the road connecting Canada and the United States. As [historian] Rick C. Moore notes, it was the willingness of Stoney to circumvent NFB rules that allowed him to throw together a crew in under 24 hours, just in time for the blockade. In this sense, the film is an exception within CFC/SN, which itself is an exception to the usual NFB operations – a gap within a gap that made a truly confrontational representation and documented moment of oppression possible, with government funding."

  • Encounter with Saul Alinsky - Part 2: Rama Indian Reserve
    Encounter with Saul Alinsky - Part 2: Rama Indian Reserve
    1967|32 min

    Encounter with Saul Alinsky – Part 2: Rama Indian Reserve is one of three CFC films shot with U.S. political organizer Saul Alinsky in advance of the five-part series Organizing for Power: The Alinsky Approach (directed by Bonnie Sherr Klein). In this film, a group of First Nations youth challenge the relevance of Alinsky's ideas within the context of the Indian Act and its disenfranchising effects within reserves and across the national Aboriginal community. The film is noteworthy for the appearance of a young Duke Redbird, a member of the Saugeen First Nation Territory, who would go on to a life of social activism and education as an Ojibwa elder. He is perhaps best known for his poetry and a command performance for Queen Elizabeth for her Silver Jubilee in 1978.

  • VTR St-Jacques
    VTR St-Jacques
    1969|26 min

    VTR St-Jacques is the 16mm film document of CFC/SN's pioneering experiment with community video production. Dorothy Todd Hénaut, the central NFB figure in its VTR initiative with the Comité des citoyens de St-Jacques in downtown Montreal, wrote in the fourth issue of the CFC/SN newsletter (of which she was the founding editor), "the videotape recording project in St-Jacques is an attempt to extend to its logical conclusion the conviction that people should participate in shaping their own lives, which means among other things directing and manipulating the tools of modern communication necessary to gaining and exercising that participation."

  • V.T.R. Rosedale
    V.T.R. Rosedale
    1974|31 min

    Unlike its predecessor VTR St-Jacques , VTR Rosedale is not a film document of a community VTR initiative but a film comprised of the video material itself. Contributor Brian Rusted writes, "The film preserves a record of the VTR process, a sense of the quality of the video image from that period, and the aesthetics of the camera practices characteristic of Portapak use." Citizens in the Drumheller Valley of Alberta, with assistance from CFC technicians and the support of University of Calgary's Division of Continuing Education and School of Social Welfare, use video to organize their efforts to attract the attention of municipal and provincial governments to the lack of basic services in Rosedale.

  • Paper Wheat
    Paper Wheat
    1979|57 min

    Paper Wheat was among the last of the films produced within the Challenge for Change program. It chronicles an agitprop theatre troupe's tour of the Prairies with a show examining the history of the Saskatchewan wheat pool.

    The play, based largely on interviews with members of farming communities across the province, reached out to local audiences and told them their own stories in a way that mainstream theatre at the time did not. Contributor Chris Meir argues "the film itself adapts the formal and political concerns of the play, while also documenting an important moment in Canada's and Saskatchewan's cultural history in its attempt to make a positive intervention in the life of the nation and the province."

    Paper Wheat is perhaps one of the most widely seen CFC films, as it was broadcast on CBC several times after its release in 1979, the same year as the film version of alternative theatre classic Hair – the most internationally famous product of the Vietnam-era alternative theatre movement.