Film Education | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Film Education

For some 40 years following the invention of cinema Canadians demonstrated little interest in either the formal training of filmmakers or the appreciation of film as an art form. In the training of filmmakers, the national experience was far from unique.

Film Education

For some 40 years following the invention of cinema Canadians demonstrated little interest in either the formal training of filmmakers or the appreciation of film as an art form. In the training of filmmakers, the national experience was far from unique. Most filmmakers prior to the 1960s learned their various crafts as apprentices. But Canadians' understanding of film as an art form may have been especially hampered by two factors. First was the utilitarian nature of early Canadian film production. Canadians associated their own filmmaking with education, propaganda and advertising. Secondly, the theatrical films most Canadians saw were the Hollywood product, sold to them as anything but art.

The beginnings of Canadian film education may be traced to the relatively late arrival of the film society movement. While the earliest film societies were formed in Paris in 1924 and in London the following year, it wasn't until 1935 that Donald BUCHANAN assembled a sufficient number of film enthusiasts to launch the National Film Society of Canada. That organization, largely modelled on the British Film Institute, took as its mandate the establishment of a genuine film culture. Within a year, the society opened branches in Ottawa, Toronto, Montréal and Vancouver. Buchanan succeeded in changing customs regulations to allow for the importation of art films for non-theatrical screenings. By the end of the decade, he had established five more film societies, including the first university-based film society at the University of British Columbia. The NFS also published a newsletter and a Canadian edition of the British Film Institute's journal, Sight and Sound.

WORLD WAR II caused a suspension of film society activities. But the war also saw the creation of the NATIONAL FILM BOARD, founded by John GRIERSON. During the war years, the NFB greatly enhanced the presence of film in Canadian life, providing innumerable screenings of its work in theatrical and non-theatrical venues. It produced the first general awareness of Canadian films. And it provided apprenticeships for a generation of Canadians who were to become the nation's pre-eminent filmmakers in the decades following the war.

After a wartime hiatus, the Canadian film society movement enjoyed what may now be seen as its golden age. The National Film Society, renamed the Canadian Film Institute in 1950, became a clearing house for a growing number of societies across Canada. It was soon a victim of its own success as the groups broke away in 1954 to form the Canadian Federation of Film Societies. Spearheaded by Dorothy Burritt, CFFS member societies programmed ambitious retrospectives often accompanied by lengthy and erudite program notes.

In the mid-1960s, the CFFS also worked with the Canadian Film Archives (created by the CFI in 1964) to acquire prints of classic international films. A 1970 agreement between the CFI and the Museum of Modern Art brought to Canada a significant selection of titles from MoMA's collection, while the CFI's Film Study Centre housed the largest collection of film books, stills and periodicals in the nation. From the mid-1960s, the CFI also published a series of film monographs, focusing primarily on Canadian cinema. In 1988, the CFI merged its film collection with the Conservatoire d'art cinématographique de Montréal to form Cinématheque Canada. Other film centres tracing their origins to the film society movement are the Pacific Cinematheque Pacifique and the Ontario Film Institute (which, since 1990, has been run as Cinematheque Ontario under the auspices of the Toronto International Film Festival).

The film society movement was also instrumental in the organization of Canadian FILM FESTIVALS. Gerald PRATLEY, long-time CBC film commentator and co-founder of the Toronto and A.G.E. film societies, founded the Stratford film festival in 1957. Stan Fox and Eric Gee of the Vancouver film society helped launch that city's festival the following year. In 1960, Guy Côte, co-founder of the Canadian Federation of Film Societies, played a key role in creating Montréal's annual event. The CFI itself founded and continues to administer the biennial Ottawa International Animation Festival.

Film society members and CFI staff were responsible for the nation's first post-secondary film courses. Gerald Pratley taught a course at Queen's University as early as 1956. Stan Fox taught at the University of British Columbia in 1960. "The Art of Film," a week-long intensive seminar offered by McMaster University's Extension Department in 1963 and a similar course offered by Carleton University the following year were both organized by the CFI's Peter Morris with assistance from the Canadian Federation of Film Societies.

The McLuhanism of the mid-1960s, the success of the EXPO 67 films, and the birth of a government-subsidized feature film industry - all amid the rapid expansion of post-secondary education - greatly increased the demand for film courses at universities and colleges. Peter Harcourt, a Canadian critic based at the British Film Institute, was hired by Queen's University in 1967 to teach its first regular film course. In 1968, the French film theorist Jean Mitry initiated a film program at the University of Montréal. John Grierson, after leaving the National Film Board, taught at McGill University from 1969 to 1971. In 1969, the veteran film producer, James Beveridge, was hired by York University to chair the university's film department.

By the mid-1970s, film courses were offered at most Canadian universities. This rapid expansion led in 1976 to the formation of the Film Studies Association of Canada which, in 1990, began the publication of its own learned journal, The Canadian Journal of Film Studies. A Francophone learned society, the Association québécoise des études cinématographiques, was founded in 1984.

A number of Canadian universities also offer programs in film production. The largest such programs are at York University, Concordia University, Ryerson Polytechnic University, the University of Regina, the University of British Columbia and the University of Québec at Montréal.

Colleges, CEGEPs and art schools such as the Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design, the BANFF CENTRE and the ONTARIO COLLEGE OF ART AND DESIGN also offer film production. Perhaps the best-known of these programs is the animation training originated by SHERIDAN COLLEGE (Oakville, Ontario) in 1969. Sheridan's summer institutes continue to attract the world's premier animators. An equally ambitious digital animation production program has provided large numbers of graduates to the Hollywood special effects industry and has received considerable private-sector and provincial support.

The growth of film production training raised the prospect of creating in Canada a national film school, the equivalent of those in most European nations or of Canada's own National Theatre School. In 1982, the Federal Cultural Policy Review Committee recommended that the National Film Board cease its own production functions and, in effect, become this school. While the recommendation was never enacted, the NFB was instrumental in the creation of the National Screen Institute in Edmonton and continues to provide some assistance to young filmmakers through its regional offices.

Canadian filmmakers also find training at freestanding film organizations such as: the Canadian Screen Training Centre in Ottawa; the Directing, Acting and Writing for Camera Workshop in Toronto; the Vancouver Film School and the Praxis Centre for Screenwriters in Vancouver. The most ambitious of these private academies is the CANADIAN FILM CENTRE, founded by director Norman JEWISON in 1988. The Toronto-based centre's mandate is to provide advanced training for established Canadian producers, screenwriters and directors. In the process of doing so, its students have made more than 70 short films and five features.

At present, the filmmakers trained in Canada have taken their place not only in the nation's expanding film and television industries but in key positions abroad. The first generation of Canadian-trained film studies students are, in a similar way, shaping the future of cinema in post-secondary institutions, in the schools and within what is now a fully mature film culture.

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