For the last three years I’ve been working on a book about a daring documentary initiative that took place four decades ago at the National Film Board of Canada. Challenge for Change: Activist Documentary at the National Film Board of Canada, co-edited by Thomas Waugh, Mike Baker and myself and introduced by Naomi Klein, is a 600-page collection of articles and essays about the Challenge for Change program, which ran from 1967 to 1980 and produced over 200 documentaries in English and French (the French sister project was Société nouvelle).
Challenge for Change (CFC) became famous around the world for not only using documentary to tackle social problems but because it was a government-funded project that produced films highly critical of the government. From First Nations problems to housing, CFC documentaries didn’t hold back in their critical analysis of the things the Canadian government was doing wrong. In an era when Alberta’s Ministry of Culture attempts to censor would-be films critical of the tar sands and anti-Olympics signage in Vancouver were prohibited, it is difficult to imagine a contemporary version of the Challenge for Change project.
The initiative was launched during the heyday of newly mobile video recording and new left politics. The arsenal of films produced were unabashedly political and honest and were the product of a process where filmmakers would make media with communities, not just about them. The utopian ideals of film changing the world fuelled productions that intervened on everything from racism to sexism to poverty to urbanization.
Challenge for Change was social media before media became social, at least as we know it today. The initiative’s artists, activists, and administrators used film as a focal point for all kinds of collaborations between groups and communities, often surreptitiously forcing dialogue through the use of media where before there had been only animosity or ignorance (most notably between state authorities and marginalized groups).
Yet for the most part the films have been hidden from the world, often critized for their didactic impulses and lack of aesthetic sensibility, or as redundant historical relics. Nothing could be further from the truth, and this book project seeks to right such wrongs and revive one of the most important media moments in Canada’s history that holds a treasure trove of fantastic and fascinating films. The NFB has also been optimistic and has collaborated with the book’s editors and publisher (McGill-Queen’s University Press) and is now hosting a new playlist of classic CFC and Société nouvelle works, many available to the public for the first time since the program was shut down.
With the films accessible on line and this excellent collection of close analysis of individual films and filmmakers, criticism and celebration, we hope future generations of political documentarians and critical media makers will now find it difficult to forget whose shoulders they stand on.
For more information on the book (and how to buy it), the initiative, the playlists and the book tour, visit changebook.ca.