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WWII: An Overview in Moving PicturesWWII: An Overview in Moving PicturesMany Voices, Many StoriesMany Voices, Many StoriesThe Home FrontCritical PerspectivesCritical PerspectivesSee Everything, Hear EverythingSee Everything, Hear Everything
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Cinema in aid of the war effort

The National Film Board was born of a parliamentary vote taken on October 14, 1939. It was needed urgently. Canada had declared war on Germany on September 10, and it was agreed that given the need for a concerted war effort, propaganda was essential. There was a particular focus on the power of visual communications. The Scotsman John Grierson, who was known for his productions in the U.K., was brought to Canada and installed in Ottawa. He, in turn, poached Norman McLaren from the Walt Disney studios. V for Victory, the visual component of the famous Victory Bonds campaign, was one of McLaren’s first Canadian animated films.

In fact, Canada already had a long history of films and posters promoting immigration to its immense and under-populated territory. This tradition of propaganda, which had fallen into disuse by 1939, was nevertheless successfully revived and contributed to the spectacular growth of a new government entity, the National Film Board. In the space of six years the NFB grew from three to 800 employees, all dedicated to promoting and explaining Canadian politics at the time of the most terrible conflict of the 20th century.

The Film Board employed a whole range of methods: posters, flyers, filmstrips, photographic reports, travelling exhibitions and documentary films. It had its own special system of distribution, designed to reach into the furthermost hinterland of the country, and at the same time ensure a coherence with the strategies of the other Allied countries. During these years the Film Board took charge of distribution as well as production. Travelling projectionists criss-crossed the country equipped with their own generators so that they had electricity in even the most remote regions.

Much was produced, though we now mainly remember the films, no doubt because they represent the roots of what is most important today – the presence of both French and English-language Canadian cinema at the Oscars, Cannes or Venice.

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Catherine Saouter, author and professor of Visual Communications, explains the context and strategies of the propaganda films produced by the NFB during the Second World War.
Catherine Saouter has been a professor at l'Université du Québec à Montréal since1988. With a Ph.D. in Semiotics, she focuses her research on image theory from a semiotic and historical perspective. She is the author of Images et sociétés – Le progrès, les médias, la guerre  (PUM, 2003) and of Le Langage visuel (XYZ, 1998).