The National Film Board – as Canada’s publicly funded film producer and distributor – is often a stepping stone for emerging filmmakers as well as a champion of established talent. With over 80 years of history, some of the country’s finest filmmakers have passed through its doors.
However, according to a recent report by the Racial Equity Screen Office, a Vancouver-based film equity organization, the organization has failed to provide adequate opportunities for black and racist filmmakers in five of the last 10 years.
Five researchers searched the board’s online database, which lists hundreds of its produced and developing projects, to determine how many were directed by Black, Asian or racist filmmakers over the past decade.
The breakdown showed that there was no upward trend in this category, with the exception of Indigenous filmmakers in 2021, who directed 37 percent of films produced by NFB that year.
“They don’t really need a study to tell you they didn’t do anything,” said Joan Jenkinson, the co-founder and executive director of the Black Screen Office, a separate organization that advocates for Black Canadian stories in film.
The RESO report reflects an ongoing call for race-based data collection in Canada’s film industry. Without those numbers, it’s extraordinarily difficult for organizations to see how systemic racism is affecting the opportunities of filmmakers from underrepresented communities, advocates say.
“Gloomy” numbers, says the filmmaker
Outputting primarily documentaries, animated works and interactive projects, the National Film Board’s productions have won major industry awards, from Oscars to Emmys to the Canadian Screen Awards and the Peabody Awards.
But out of 676 films produced between 2012 and 2021, only 23 films were directed by black directors, according to the report. In contrast, 485 of these films were made by white directors.
“The NFB has promised in 2021, in a report that they published … that they committed to collecting data,” Jenkinson said.
“And to this day we haven’t seen anything. They haven’t started, let alone report anything. So there’s just no accountability.”
They don’t really need a study to tell you they didn’t do anything.– Joan Jenkinson, Black Screen Office
Magalie Boutin, NFB director of media relations, confirmed in a statement to CBC News that the organization recently met with RESO in Vancouver.
“Great conversations took place and the conversation continues,” she said.
The report identified some limitations in its own methodology. The researchers identified the filmmakers’ race based on their visual appearance in online photos; As such, it is possible that some may have been misidentified or others may identify themselves differently than they were categorized.
While the institution has made some strides in supporting Indigenous directors, the statistics on black and racialized filmmakers came as somewhat shocking to a longtime employee of the organization.
“It’s sad to see that the numbers are so grim,” said Ngardy Conteh George, a veteran Toronto filmmaker and co-founder of production company OYA Media Group.
“It’s disappointing that non-white directors weren’t offered as many opportunities as our white peers.”
George made her first short film with the NFB almost 20 years ago and has worked with them on several projects since then. She and her producing partner, filmmaker Alison Duke, are currently working with the organization on a film by documentary filmmaker Laurie Townshend.
“[The NFB] really been a champion for the last six years…. We’ve had that experience and we’ve had the opportunity, but we definitely want it to happen to more producers and more black-owned production companies,” George said.
“Our stories are not just different stories. Our stories are Canadian stories and should be treated as such.”
Racism “often burned into the system”
The report is part of an exploration of how systemic racism is embedded in the Canadian film industry and Canadian institutions in general. Barbara Lee, the founder and CEO of RESO, said racism is “often burned into the system”.
“Nobody really says in everyday life, ‘I’m going to exclude a certain group’ or ‘I’m going to do it consciously’. It’s all the small decisions,” said Lee, who is also the founder of the Vancouver Asian Film Festival.
By collecting race-based data, organizations can get a complete picture of the differences affecting Black, Indigenous and racist creators, and they can use those insights to correct course, the report says.
“Without this information, changes to programs and funding levels, recruitment processes and systems would likely not address the root cause of systemic racial barriers,” the report said.
Lee added that global audiences have a “real appetite for diverse stories,” a demand that the Canadian film industry can meet by investing in its diverse filmmaking community.
“You invest in Canadians and we’re going to build a great bridge, and the bridge will bring us stories, fresh ideas and new perspectives,” she said. “This will make us more competitive on the world market.”
Raised directors made up a significant minority of NFB films produced over the past decade, while white directors were behind 72% of NFB productions from 2012-2021.
RESO is also asking the National Film Board to set goals for racial justice. in the 2016the NFB committed to achieving gender parity in three years: half of its projects would be led by women, and half of its production spending would go to projects led by women.
This goal was not only successfully achieved by 2019, but also continued to be met each year since.
“Gender equality targets have been very, very effective in a number of places,” Jenkinson said, citing NFB, Telefilm Canada, Canadian Media Fund and CBC. “There are a lot of women in top leadership positions now, but it was after years of advocating for women, you know, who struggled to be counted first and then to achieve measurable standards.”
“Having those goals makes a big difference,” she added. “There’s accountability … people are watching and we’re seeing measurable results when we have those actions and we can see what the benchmarks are.”
Lee agreed. “It’s not the words. It’s in the actions, and the actions are specific goals,” Lee said.
“[The NFB is] We don’t argue with our dates,” she said. “I think they understand what we’re saying reflects what happened at the National Film Board.”
RESO calls for a goal similar to the NFB’s gender parity goal: 50 percent of productions should be directed by black or racialized filmmakers, and 50 percent of production budgets should go to these groups.
The number is intended to reflect current populations of both black and racialized people, but is also a reparative number that accounts for 80 years of systemic barriers, the report said.
“All the institutions — funders, broadcasters — are now looking for leaders who can help steer the ship in these times, and they can’t find anyone because there’s no one prepared for those positions,” Jenkinson said.
“We have many programs for emerging filmmakers, emerging talent, but there’s no plan, no ladder for them to climb.”