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Social animation / social change through video and film at the Rencontres…

Par Mariano Mestman 1

André Pâquet (Canada), Tahar Cheriaa (Tunisie) et Carl Henrik Svenstedt (Suède) lors des Rencontres internationales pour un nouveau cinéma, Montréal, 1974. Photographie : Férid Boughedir.

The audiovisual records of the talks and debates of the Rencontres… of 1974 transmit the most vivid aspects of that moment in political cinema. Although they are not organized, systematic or laid out like a discourse or manifesto, this new source for the social and film research allows us to reconstruct and revise aspects that have been only partially addressed in film historiography. I mean, some of the debates and controversies at the Montreal meeting are indicative of the transnational bonds between groups and institutions, and these audiovisual documents provide insight into many aspects of this moment in Canadian and world cinema.

One of the specific aspects of the conference debates was the experience of Quebecois documentary film, particularly the Challenge for Change/Société Nouvelle program of the legendary National Film Board of Canada (NFB). They show not only the transnational consensus on the social use of film, but also the problems and tensions associated with this experience.

Although the international participants in this meeting –maybe the most important event in world political cinema of the period- were a lot and from different countries of Europa, Latin America, North America or Africa, the list of Canadian participants, particularly those from Quebec, was naturally the longest of the Conference 2. Some of them were part of the Comité d´action cinématographique 3, created by André Pâquet after his return from Europe to Montreal one year earlier. Critics, independent filmmakers, government representatives of participatory film projects and people working in social media or opposition cinema from across Quebec attended the conference or expressed their adherence. Filmmakers like Arthur Lamothe, Fernand Dansereau, Jean Pierre Lefebvre and Gilles Goulx were there along with other committee members, as well as Martin Duckworth and Maurice Bulbulian, two important figures in the NFB’s program Challenge for Change/Société Nouvelle. Other participants included representatives of important state-run and independent film institutes of Quebec (and, to a lesser extent, from other places of Canada), as well as several members of the Association des réalisateurs de films du Québec (Quebec Filmmakers Association). Several of these figures played prominent roles in the conference workshops.

This wide spectrum of groups shows that in spite of the fact that the Montreal conference was set forth as an autonomous gathering 4, it was open from the beginning to independent entities, more radical groups and government institutes alike.

The audiovisual records of the conference show participants challenging the official policies and censorship exercised by NFB, the scope of the public programs that had been implemented and the role of the host province; Quebec considered itself to be a sort of colony within Canada and thus a potentially of both the so-called “small countries” of Europe as well as the countries of the southern hemisphere because of its staunch defense of “national” production and its cultural decolonization program.

From the beginning, the conference workshops were planned as the principal moment for exchanges among the participants. The organizers ultimately decided on five themes for workshops that in their understanding would coalesce the experiences of all the participating groups. These themes, formulated as questions, were the following: challenges to the traditional theater and the way the filmmaker-distributor-audience relationship affected industrial exploitation; existing alternatives for new cinemas and the options of “movie/theater forums” and “screening-events” 5; the issues associated with audience participation, the work with grassroots organizations, coops, unions, etc.; the role of television (both major broadcast networks as well as so-called free TV or educational channels); the search for specific alternatives to traditional modes of film circulation on the dominant market; the possibilities for hands-on collaboration with Third World cinematography; and the diverse types of social intervention (educational, cultural, political) through film and video in communities.

This last theme (along with a few others) was developed in the “Social Intervention through Film” Workshop, mainly in relation to the Canadian experience. The debate mainly focused on censorship by the NFB, though it also touched on the scope and limitations of the film board’s most important program, Challenge for Change/Société Nouvelle.

The initial intervention of Carl Svenstedt, from Stockholm’s Film Centrum 6, is an excellent example of the commensurate themes and issues facing participants from diverse countries, particularly the contradictory nature of projects that mobilized people and got communities to discuss their problems and seek possible solutions but then did not manage to create the conditions necessary to actually implement these solutions. In other words, it was the myth of “information without power”, as proposed by Svenstedt. In this regard, he was referring to the American film Attica about rebellion and repression in the U.S. prison of the same name; the film had been screened the previous evening and the U.S. Group Third World Newsreel had focused on it during its presentation at the “People´s Participation” Workshop. Svenstedt connected (and distinguished) the experience of this group with film of his own work in Swedish prisons. This initiative had been inspired by his last trip to Canada in 1969, when he had seen the work of the Challenge for Change project, especially the pilot project Fogo Island. 7

Started in 1967, this program was articulated within Canadian government policies against poverty. The idea was to use film and video to foster awareness or mobilize public opinion about the needs and rights of the underprivileged and minorities while also involving the communities themselves in the search for changes related to development and social justice and in the making of the films. Divided in two sections, Challenge for Change (English language) and Société Nouvelle (French), the program lasted until the end of the 1970s with more than 250 audiovisual records (on film and video); regional distribution centers; a newsletter that permitted exchange and reflection; systematic work to evaluate the program’s impact on communities; and the involvement of many progressive filmmakers and social motivators from the left (albeit with certain contradictions 8).

One of the first projects of the program, which involved nearly thirty documentaries over the course of three years, was that of Fogo Island. This was a pioneering project in the use of documentary film for community development: the films revealed the community’s economic and social problems and promoted their discussion among the island dwellers 9. Carl Svenstedt had studied this project through interviews done in 1969 and 1970 and at the time he questioned the project (along with Canadian sociology in general), believing that it focused too much on the local aspect without addressing the structural issues or actually empowering the island dwellers. 10

However, during the Montreal conference, the Challenge for Change/Société Nouvelle program was deemed positive, at least as an initiative, even in the critiques offered by Gilles Groulx and by Svenstedt himself. What became the subject of controvery was the general policies of the National Film Board.

Jean-Marc Garand had been invited to report on the activities of the Société Nouvelle during this panel discussion (“Social Intervention through film” Workshop). From the audience, Gilles Groulx (an important political filmmaker and, remember, member of the organizing committee of the conference) asked Garand how the program managed to avoid the ever-increasing sanctions and censorship that the NFB (which controlled the program) imposed on any politicized or liberation-oriented initiative; Groulx himself had experiences in this regard. Although the tense exchange between the two men became the principal focus of the discussion, Françoise Girault was the one to attack Garand from a more radical stance. In following with the position of the Comité d´Information Politique (CIP/Champ Libre), Girault characterized the policy of the National Film Board and its programs as part of a « depoliticization » characteristic of the “cultural apparatuses of advanced capitalist society”. According to Girault, this policy yielded “highly effective” results for the system to the extent that they maintained people’s hope in being able to express themselves or improve their situation without ever establishing clear policies that would allow them to do so. In this sense, it was an interpretation very similar to that of Svenstedt.

Françoise Girault
Françoise Girault (Canada) lors des Rencontres de Montréal, 1974. Image tirée des captations vidéo de l’événement. Coll. Cinémathèque québécoise.

However, Girault also brought into question a good portion of the committed Quebec film community at the time, the so-called “political films” with orientations that claimed to be unionist, pequiste, independentist, humanist or fatalist; she mentioned, among others, La Richesse des autres, produced by Garand and directed by Maurice Bulbulian and Michel Gauthier (1973), and Le mépris n´aura qu´un temps (1970) by Arthur Lamothe, a member of the conference’s organizing committee. Girault and the CIP had opposed them all by their recent collective film On a raison de se révolter (1974), which included interviews with workers and grassroots organizers (from companies in conflict like Firestone, Regent, Knitting, etc.) and was being utilized as a propaganda tool in worker contexts.

With regards to these diverse stances in Canadian cinema, it is interesting to note that a few years later, when the French thirdworldist critic Guy Hennebelle (also participatant at the Rencontres…) organized a well-known dossier on the global influence of the manifesto “Towards a Third Cinema” and the film The hour of the furnaces (Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino, 1968/1969), André Pâquet wrote of the affinities among the progressive filmmakers from diverse backgrounds in Quebec 11. Yet at the same time, Pâquet complained about those who believed that an “ideal” associated with the climate of ‘68 could be found in the Argentine film and thus tried in some way to impose it within the militant circuit to the detriment of the progressive films of Quebec. Pâquet believed that these progressive films in some way reflected the spirit of the Argentine film since on other occasions, the Quebec films had been described as intervention film. The example he gave was Arthur Lamothe’s movie, which in fact had been criticized in Canada in a comparison with The hour of the furnaces. Although Pâquet did not explicitly mention the Comité d´Information Politique of Girault, Yvan Patry and others, the reference is evident. 12

These debates among filmmakers, groups and institutions of Quebec—which have only been briefly summarized here—reveal to some extend the scope of intervention of the Comité d’action cinématographique, the organizer of the event, along with the importance of Canada’s own situation within its work. However, they also reveal the transnational flow of global political cinema: the influence of the Canadian government program on other latitudes 13, the contemporary interventions of cinema with social issues (like the American and Swedish cases referred to briefly above, but others as well) and the dialogues or appropriations of Third Worldist film in the context of Quebec itself.

In the same way, we can also observe international affinities in specific discussions about combining the use of audiovisual technologies with the proposals for community involvement in problem resolution and in filmmaking.

The notion of animation sociale (animateur social) or social animation for example, had been brought up by representatives of both public institutions (such as Jean Marc Garand, from Société Nouvelle) and of independent institutions with connections to the state like Lucien Hamelin (Conseil québécois pour la diffussion du cinéma). And, Girault had associated the experience of social animation with the limits of “reformism”. Yet it was Fernand Dansereau who explicitly recovered it as a “singular” aspect of the Canadian experience.

This notion allows us to explore the connection between films/videos and the people; the role of the “auteur”; and the activist work in communities or at the grassroots level. As noted by Zoe Druick, in the sixties Quebec “lead the way in the field of animation sociale”, which “was not exactly the same as social work” though the two concepts are related. While the latter often made reference to “functionaries (officials) of the social welfare system”, animators were “social organizers who attempted to bring people to an awareness of the issues that affect them and the things they can do about their situation”. As facilitators of community participation, the animators (motivators) had an important role to play in programs such as Challenge for Change/Société Nouvelle, according to this author. 14

By using this notion of social animation, Dansereau was particularly referring to the connection between the “auteur” (the filmmaker/video maker), the community and the participation of the people in the production of the films. He spoke from his own experience, which undoubtedly constituted a point of reference in the recent history of intervention documentary film. Remember that in 1967, in the framework of the National Film Board, Dansereau (with Maurice Bulbulian, Robert Forget and Constance Roy) had created the Groupe de recherches sociales, generally considered the predecessor of the Société Nouvelle and of Vidéographe 15. Scott MacKenzie discusses Dansereau’s own thoughts on the control of the audiovisual medium by the makers and the types of community intervention during the transition between his social films À Saint-Henri le cinq septembre (1962) and Saint-Jérôme (1968). To some extent, MacKenzie argues, this marked the passage from the “auteur/director” to the “facilitator” of participation among the population involved. It was no longer about merely obtaining the authorization of the people filmed in order to use the material (as required by Canadian law) but about granting them the right to participate in the process of making the film, right through the final cut, and letting them censor or remove their images if they so desired. But at the same time, Dansereau had moved forward with an attempt to generate more interactivity, creating 26 films (which he called “satellite films”) with material taken from the original audiovisual records of the main film. These were utilized to interact with spectators during the screenings, delving deeper into specific aspects of the problems addressed in the main feature-length film. During the post-screening debate, said Dansereau, “The social animator, based on the questions [posed by the audience], may refer to one of these satellite films and thus add to the initial perception of reality garnered from the main film,” thus making use of the “film-tool” 16.

Although he did not explicitly mention these films, Dansereau’s talk at the Montreal conference was based on his experience; he insisted on the need of giving “true power” to the people at the production level, even if this meant forfeiting the filmmaker’s control and “authorship”—an authorship that Dansereau clearly rejected. But at the same time, in order to show that his reflection was anything but naïve, Dansereau questioned the scope of these attempts to generate interactivity. He referred to cases in which the community members were giving handheld cameras to express themselves; beyond their unquestionable creativity, he noted “conflicts of ambition” or “copies of [hegemonic] models”. In this regard, he proposed that the professional’s presence was of the essence to “truly set the voice free” in the face of sophisticated technological devices (like cinema and television) which presented problems that in many cases he himself had been unable to resolve. Because, he claimed, although he had successfully shared the work of scriptwriting, shooting and producing film with the community, it had been much harder to share the actual montage.

Many of these issues associated with the Canadian experience were also addressed in other workshop interventions during the Rencontres…. Several parallel distribution groups discussed the objective conditions of mass movements in each of their countries and related them to the possibilities and limitations of their own practices: the differences between the new African states (the FEPACI was attempting to work with local governments using film but also tv), Latin America (with highly diverse national contexts at that point in time), the larger European countries with strong mass organizations (like France and Italy), or the “small countries” of Europe (and Quebec was included there), which generally faced difficulties, or the United States, where in spite of all the agitation in the sixties the construction of a revolutionary force still seemed impossible.

The myriad positions on filmic intervention in the “system´s gaps”, on commercial circuits, among militants, or in different combinations, were often attributed to the political differences mentioned. But they were irrelevant when it came time to promoting collective authorship, “enabling a voice” or fostering grassroots participation, even when these were viewed in diverse ways. 17

In the particular case of the French groups that participated in these workshops (along with other parallel producers/distributors), the question of “authorship”, be it through film (super 8 and 16) or video (already very much in use) had to do with the scope of a film’s articulation with protest movements; that is, whether one was simply cooperating by providing a technical or professional service or whether there was true political integration with the organizations that was realized at some point of the production: from prior discussions of the contents to the use of the media by the workers themselves. In their activities of screening and intervening in conflicts, this type of group shifted between didacticism, the promotion of debates, agitation and the creation of political events, the latter in following with a film-act or film-event that is, the creation of a political occurrence during or after the screening. Bear in mind that many of these experiences sprung from conflicts or in worker contexts, although others reached schools, neighborhood associations, municipalities, etc. and sometimes mobile cinema.

I cannot address here the many discussions during the Montreal conference about the mechanisms for grassroots involvement in the production of materials, the desired styles (direct, reconstruction or fiction), or intervention through films. But I do believe that the issue of technology merits its own separate study. Of course this is not about establishing any type of a priori determinism; instead, we assume that the decision to “enable a voice” or facilitate community participation in the film’s making fundamentally depends on objective conditions and political decisions. But even here, it is evident that this was a historic transitional moment (between film-video-tv) in which the access to lighter cameras and new technologies for visual and sound recordings seemed to play a more important role in the projects of intervention through media. Because it was no longer about questioning the notion of the “auteur”—which corresponding to the nouvelles vagues of the sixties—and replacing it with the collective authorship proclaimed by militant film groups; instead, it was now also about the specific discussion of ways to directly incorporate the community, an incorporation that was partly facilitated by the access to lighter handheld equipment, especially video cameras. Naturally, this is a phenomenon that has been studied, but perhaps not specifically in terms of its relevance to social intervention and political cinema in those years. The audiovisual records of the Rencontres… may help us to do so.

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  1. Translated from: Mestman, Mariano, Estados Generales del Tercer Cine. Los Documentos de Montreal, 1974; Rehime número 3 (Cuaderno de la Red de Historia de los Medios-Universidad de Buenos Aires), Buenos Aires, 2013-2014; pp. 18-79.
  2. In any case, Marc Raboy observed: “Whether the Rencontres will influence the film scene in English Canada is more difficult to predict. There weren´t many English Canadians at the conference, and the few who did attend suggested this was an accurate reflection of a general lack of interest in political cinema among the conuntry´s film-makers”. (Montreal, The last post, vol. 4, n.2, 1974).
  3. Guy Bergeron, René Boissay, Marc Daigle, Fernand Dansereau, Carol Faucher, Roger Frappier, Claude Godbout, Gilles Groulx, Arthur Lamothe, Jean Pierre Lefebvre, Raymond Marie Léger, as well as Sandra Gathercole from Toronto, and Werner Aellen from Vancouver. A short time after the Montreal conference, many of these members would dispute control over Quebec film as film institutions were challenged and laws related to the industry were debated. Some of them participated, for example, in the occupation of the Bureau de Surveillance du cinema in November, 1974.
  4. Also The Comité d´Action Cinematographique had decided to establish itself as an autonomous group and reached a joint decision on the type of film it would promote: confronted by a powerful commercial film industry, the only option was to defend the “endangered other cinema” (un autre cinéma). To achieve this, they planned to promote a sort of “International of small filmmaking countries,” that is, countries where such cinema was facing particular challenges.
  5. From the notion of film event (by group Cine Liberación, Argentina: “Towards a Third Cinema”, 1969) as a tool to convert the spectator (in the traditional cinematic sense) into protagonist of the exhibition and “actor” (militant) in the political process.
  6. Svenstedt had an important role during the conference. He was one of the five panel-members at the Final Plenary, where he spoke in the name of the so called “small countries”. Also, the Sweden Film Centrum organized two years later a sort of continuity of the Rencontres… in Stockholm, in this case just for European groups.
  7. See the excellent compilation by Thomas Waugh, Micheael Brendan Baker y Ezra Winton, Challenge for Change. Activist Documentary at the National Film Board of Canada. Montreal & Kingston, Mc Gill-Queen´s University Press, 2010. Especially on the Fogo Island Project, see: Peter K. Wiesner, “Media for the People: The Canadian Experiments with Film and Video in Community Development” (1992), pp. 73-102. I follow it here.
  8. About these contradictions, see: Zoe Druick, “Meeting at the Poverty Line: Government Policy, Social Work, and Media Activism in the Challenge for Change Program”, in: Waugh et al., op.cit., pp. 337-353.
  9. See Wiesner, op.cit., pp. 82-86.
  10. Carl Svenstedt, Arbetarna lamner fabriken. Estocolmo, Pan/Norstedts, 1970. (Quoted in Marit Kathryn Corneil, “Winds and Things: Towards a Reassessment of the Challenge for Change / Société nouvelle Legacy”, in Waugh et al. pp. 396-398).
  11. André Pâquet in: Guy Hennebelle, “L´influence du Troisiéme Cinéma dans le monde”; Revue Tiers Monde (XX, n. 79, 1979). See the text of A.P. at pp. 627-629
  12. Especially if we consider the vast amount of work (information, screenings and discussions) that this group had been doing since 1971 for The hour of the furnaces in Quebec: it was the film they promoted the most during their first years as a group, the members would later recall. See the group’s magazine, Champ Libre, Montreal, n.3, 1972; pp. 97-99; y n.4, 1973; p. 83.
  13. As seen in the bibliography for the case of Africa in the seventies. At the same conference, Simon Hartog had spoken of the existence of a movement in England to sway public opinion in favor of a program of this kind.
  14. Op.cit., 340.
  15. Vidéographe was founded in 1971 as a project of the NFB’s Challenge for Change/Société nouvelle; it became an independant non profit video production and distribution centre in 1973; it still exists today.
  16. See: Dansereau, F., “Saint-Jérôme: The Experience of a Filmmaker as Social Animator”, Newsletter, Challenge for Change/Societé Nouvelle, issue n.2, Fall 1968; reproduced in Waugh et al., pp. 34-37. On other Dansereau´s experiences, see: Scott MacKenzie, “Société nouvelle: The Challenge to Change in the Alternative Public Sphere”, pp. 325-326. On the Groupe de recherches sociales and the francophone experience, see also: Marion Froger, Le cinéma à l` épreuve de la communauté. Le cinema francophone de l´ONF, 1960-1985. Montréal: Presses de l` Université de Montreal, 2010.
  17. Note that in terms of the worker movement and the left, certain groups considered grassroots to only include radical workers and militants, the more “advanced” people (as proposed by CIP, Quebec), and excluded unions and parties (as argued by Inger Servolin, from SLON/ISKRA, France). In other contexts, grassroots was extended to include rural dwellers, middle sectors and even the articulation with populist governments.