Politics and History
From its beginnings, the National Film Board has tackled social and economic issues. Excerpts in this theme show how documentary film can play a part in social action.
Front of Steel
"I Just Didn't Want to Die": The 1914 Newfoundland Sealing Disaster
"Just One Big Mess": The Halifax Explosion, 1917
Land For Pioneers
On Strike: The Winnipeg General Strike, 1919
Rush for Gold - The Klondike Gold Rush, 1897
"They Didn't Starve Us Out": Industrial Cape Breton in the 1920s
Voice of Action
When Asia Speaks
In this large category, the films are Front of Steel (1940), "I Just Didn't Want to Die": the 1914 Newfoundland Sealing Disaster (1991); "Just One Big Mess": The Halifax Explosion, 1917 (1991), Land For Pioneers (1944), On Strike: The Winnipeg General Strike, 1919 (1991), Trans-Canada Express (1944), Voice of Action (1942) and When Asia Speaks (1944). Individual films are treated separately with questions in the What to Watch For section of About The Film.
1. A number of films treat specific incidents in Canadian history."I Just Didn't Want to Die", "Just One Big Mess", "They Didn't Starve Us Out", and Rush For Gold use the technique of telling a story with archival images, documents, and/or illustrations while narrators, including eye-witnesses, describe events and tell personal accounts. Students can imagine their own versions of such documentaries.
- Have students brainstorm events in the recent or distant past that they have studied or wish to learn more about (or you may assign them).
- Have them collect images surrounding the event. These may come from textbooks, library books, and online resources (such as the National Archives of Canada photographic and documentary art collections). You may have them photocopy and print out the resources or digitize them all by scanning and downloading them.
- Have them collect pertinent quotations and accounts regarding the events they are documenting.
- Have them assemble their illustrations, with commentary they write and/or accounts they have collected, as a storyboard for their documentary. They may use large chart paper, with room for text under each graphic. If they are ambitious, they may imitate the films by storyboarding details of the images, as well as wide shots, as if they were focusing on parts of the images. Students who are comfortable with digital media may even create a multimedia slideshow or documentary from their research, with a spoken commentary.
2. Five of the films in the section were made during the Second World War. Front of Steel, Land for Pioneers, Trans-Canada Express, Voice of Action and When Asia Speaks were all part of the NFB's propaganda efforts to build support for the war. (Also see the next theme, War and Peace, for treatment of wartime films. Read comments by John Grierson about propaganda and education in the About the Film sections for the War and Peace documentaries Break-through and The War for Men's Minds.)
- Identify the purposes for each of the excerpts. Does the film encourage audience members to undertake any specific action? Does it stir specific emotions or try to instill particular attitudes about the subject?
- What methods do the films use to achieve their purposes? Be as specific as you can, noting particular film techniques, phrases, shots, or sequences.
- Are the films convincing? Do you think they worked in the past? Do they still work today?
- What does each excerpt reveal about the aims, ambitions and national objectives of Canada in the war years?
- You may want to continue a discussion about propaganda. John Grierson, the founder of the NFB, thought that "good propaganda," which reminded people of what they were fighting for and united them against forces that undermined national purposes, was a legitimate use of documentary film. Do you agree? Or do you believe that "the first victim of war is the truth"?
- You may treat the subject of propaganda as a debating topic, such as "Resolved: Propaganda is sometimes positive and necessary."