Thursday, January 11, 2018

My Log 578 Jan 11 2018: Chronicles from (almost) the Tenth Decade: 15; When I fell into working occasionally for the National Film Board it was certainly the most fortunate accident of my life.

For 26 years I had been working as a journalist for daily newspapers. I usually quit after three years, and I had just quit for the last time in 1971. Actually I had worked for The Montreal Star for fourteen years, but this was the second time I had been on the point of quitting them. The first occurred in 1960 after my first three years. That would have been eminently achievable, because there were only my wife and myself to worry about, no children. But I was rescued from my solid intention to quit, indeed to leave Canada after spending six years in the country, when my boss suddenly asked me if I would like to go to London, England, to represent them. I have written about this already in my Chronicle 6, on December 29.
In London I had what I have always said was the best job in world journalism, so good a job, indeed, that I never had the guts to quit it.   The home office --- that is to say, those fellows sitting at their desks who had theoretical authority over me ---  never bothered me. When I arrived in London I found that we bought a bewildering array of news services from all the great newspapers of the English-speaking world, assuring that whatever happened in the way of news, we were covered for it. So I decided to ignore all that stuff and just do my own thing.  This was a fortuitous decision because these assembled desk-men, I discovered, were happier than sandboys, so long as they got a regular supply of copy early enough in the morning that they could put it into every edition for the coming day. With all the deadlines in my favour --- pity those poor Indians and Pakistanis, nice fellows, whose deadlines ran the other way and were always looming in their faces! ---- I could not have asked for a more favourable working environment.  I figured that if I couldn’t find something to write about in London, I shouldn’t be in this line of work.
But eventually, after eight glorious years, I was recalled to Montreal, where once again I came under the purview of these guys at their desks.  I had a favourable gig, as one would now say, wandering around the country freely to write about things that interested me. But the knowledge that I had to be careful about what I could and could not write, as usual began to grind on my nerves, and after a few run-ins with management, three years after my return --- that three-year limit on my tolerance for newspapers reasserting itself inexorably --- I handed in my notice. This time it was a highly speculative decision, because I now had four children to feed, and extremely questionable prospects of making a living. The CBC for which I had worked on a freelance basis ever since I had arrived in Winnipeg in 1957, showed absolutely no interest in hiring me for anything, so one can imagine how eagerly I accepted the suggestion made by Colin Low, one of the NFB executive producers, that maybe I could do a little research for him.
The research achieved, Colin suggested I might like to co-direct its first fruit, a proposed film on Aboriginal Rights, a subject not widely understood in Canada at that time.  Well, to make a long story short, the work environment of film-making was completely strange to me. I had been accustomed to working alone, to wandering around the country with a notebook and pen, writing up the result, and handing it in. I discovered that to make a film you had to be part of a team, and to my surprise I found that, in spite of my life-long enthusiasm for team sports, I was not what one might call a team player.
To make the NFB film we had to assemble a formidable array of equipment, food, and all the rest of it, not to mention the four team members --- cameraman-director, sound man, electrician, and research-writer (that was me) --- and fly it to a Cree hunting camp hundreds of miles north in the Quebec wilderness. I had dabbled in making a film a few months before for the Indians of Quebec Association, and it was easy to compare that extremely amateurish effort with the smooth efficiency of the NFB team, because the story we were telling was roughly the same in each case. We were trying to find a way to allow our Cree subjects --- a subsistence hunting people most of whom could speak neither English nor French, and whose most important members were older men who had never been to a school of any kind ---- to express to the outside world their opinion of the recently announced policy of the Quebec government to build a huge series of dams and electricity generating stations, on the several great rivers that had always been central to their hunting life, which they had followed for thousands of years. One can see, I hope, that we were present at what might be termed an historic clash between a civilization closer to the Stone Age than to our present day, pitted against a multi-billion dollar, super-technological advance of modern life, smashing insensately into the very centre of their world.
As a journalist I had always been interested in public issues, and on this job I had the biggest issue I could ever have imagined, a matter of life and death for a small group of people whose fate seemed to lie in the hands of their attackers, so ludicrously unequal was the balance of power between the two sides. So I was essentially interested in finding a way to collect and transmit their opinion.
Not so fast, comrade. I discovered that the NFB team was concentrated on something I had never given a moment’s thought to, which was the need to produce a quality product. At an early stage of our filming one evening, crouched in a tent alongside one of the countless lakes that are scattered over this entire wilderness, I was asking questions of the leading hunter, Sam Blacksmith, my questions and his answers being translated by our interpreter Philip Awashish, a young Cree who spoke English, with the discussion being recorded by our soundman, Richard Besse, and filmed by our expert cameraman-director Tony Ianzelo.  I was well pleased with the way the conversation was going, Sam giving us profound but simple-sounding answers that we could never have received from any anthropologist, when suddenly Richard threw off his earphones with a disgusted gesture, and said, “It’s no good. There’s too much noise.”
I had thought we were filming in what seemed like ideal conditions of total silence, something that is always hard to find wherever you are filming, so I was unreasonably irritated by this interruption.  “Noise?” I demanded.
“It’s the snow falling on the tent,” Richard remarked. “It’s just totally drowning out the answers.”
 I could hardly believe my ears. Here was this technician deciding we could not take note of this epoch-making conversation bearing directly on the quality of our civilization, because of the noise being made by falling snow?
That I was so far from understanding this, could be put down to my total ignorance of the film-making process.  I thought all that mattered was to get the opinions of the hunters on to tape, and I kept my contempt for this technical impediment to myself, so as not to disturb the crew, to whose judgment, obviously, I had to bow.
It took me quite a long while, months in fact, perhaps even years, to understand that if a serious message was to be delivered by film, it was better that the quality of the film in which it was delivered should be of the highest order.
When we returned to Montreal and began assembling our raw footage into what began to look like the semblance of a film, every week or two we would hold a screening of what we had assembled and invite other members of the staff to come and watch it. As many as 25 people might turn up for such a screening, and every opinion they uttered --- no matter they might know nothing of the issue, have never seen a Cree person on film before, and had no idea of the problems we had overcome to obtain the footage --- every opinion was recorded and considered seriously by the producers and technicians on our film crew.  I thought this was ridiculous. What interest did these people have in our film? So what interest could we possibly have in their opinions?
And yet, eventually, after being repeatedly subject to his procedure, I began to realize that these onlookers represented what would eventually be the audience for our film, and we would be more likely to reach that audience as we wanted to do, if we managed to set our message in a technically-sound setting of the highest possible quality.
It was this quality which lay at the basis of the immense, world-wide success the National Film Board achieved with its documentaries, making it the leading factory for documentary film that existed certainly in the Western world.
It was this quality, the superb sensitivity of Ianzelo’s camera work especially, the meticulous perfection of Besse’s sound, that earned this very film, Cree Hunters of Mistassini, an award in 1975 from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts named in commemoration of the great Arctic film-maker, Roberrt Flaherty.
This award was gratifying, of course, but for me the film deserved another award, for the remarkable act of generosity of Colin Low and Tony Ianzelo, who took on board a complete neophyte who to this day doesn’t know one end of a camera from another, and carried him with them through the whole process, opening up to him a whole new world of persuasion in which a camera might be as effective --- possibly more effective --- than his notebook and pen.
·                                *                                 *

 As a last-ditch line of defence, I might argue that it depends how many pens one is using. I recall one occasion on which, after having had a tempestuous three-day acquaintance with a beautiful, hard drinking and rather eccentric investment counsellor in Norway --- I met her when we bumped into each other on a ferry crossing Oslo harbour, and she said, “Will I sit in your lap, or you in mine?” --- I used my waiting time at Schipol airport in Amsterdam by writing her a letter for which I used every one of the 22 pens I discovered I was carrying with me.  I would bet on them against the camera any time.

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