A champion of Canadian culture, and one of the country’s most experienced arts administrators, is gone. Jacques Bensimon died on Sunday at age 69 after a struggle with cancer.
Bensimon, who had worked as a writer, editor, producer and director on various documentaries, served in key positions at the National Film Board of Canada, the Banff Television Festival and TFO (the French branch of TVO).
“Jacques was passionate, intense and whole-heartedly devoted to filmmakers and filmmaking,” said Tom Perlmutter, current government film commissioner and president of the NFB. “This is a grievous loss to the industry and to filmmakers.”
Born in Morocco, Bensimon emigrated to Canada as a child, and his family settled in Montreal. In the 1960s, he began working on various documentaries, contributing to over 30 NFB films. He directed a number of films himself, including Rock-A-Bye (1973), a profile of several rock musicians of the day, which is now a time capsule of its era. He served as director general of TFO from 1986 to 2000, when the Quebec government cited the network for its invaluable contributions to North America’s francophone communities.
But it was at the NFB that Bensimon would leave what many consider his most memorable contribution. He took over the reins at the government-funded organization in 2001, when it was clearly on the ropes, with morale down after a series of gruelling budget cuts.
Between 1994 and 1998, the NFB had $26-million slashed – 32 per cent – of its annual budget. Bensimon helmed the NFB until 2006.“The morale at that point was just terrible,” Bensimon told me in an interview for Playback magazine, as he was preparing to finish his term at the NFB. “The cuts were still in close memory. They had gotten rid of the lab, the shooting stage, and most of the staff filmmakers.
“My main objective was, as corny as it sounds, to be faithful to the spirit that [original commissioner John] Grierson had founded the NFB on: to produce, promote and distribute films about Canada.”
Bensimon faced a daunting task: to renew the NFB’s fortunes, create new and intriguing films, bring on young talent while also respecting the Board’s historic legacy. He worked to create new international co-productions with film-production houses and broadcasters, working to create new audiences for NFB films. He also brought back staff positions for NFB filmmakers, reversing a decade-long trend, and worked to streamline the agency’s administrative bureaucracy.
“I didn’t want anyone to think there were hidden agendas, or that we were operating from some mandate we’d been sent in with from the government,” he said. “This had to be about the creative process first.”
He reopened NFB funds for dramatic filmmaking, including for co-producing Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner (2001), the Zacharius Kunuk film that would become an international sensation. In 2005, the NFB would win an Oscar for Ryan, Chris Landreth’s animated-doc hybrid that was an ode to filmmaking legend Ryan Larkin, himself an Oscar nominee who had wound up as a panhandler after a struggle with drug addiction and mental illness.
Bensimon pointed to these as some of his favourite films at the NFB, and said he was also heartened by the return to social issues as a focus for Board filmmakers. With Shameless: The ART of Disability (2006), Bensimon argued that filmmaker Bonnie Sherr Klein had “proven herself a filmmaker once more,” after two debilitating strokes and 16 years away from making movies.
“Being born in Morocco and raised in Canada, I feel that diversity is one of our strengths,” he said. “To me, one of the principal strengths of the NFB was to give voice to the voiceless.”
Bensimon said his biggest lament was that government officials seemed to see little value in the NFB’s “tremendous legacy. We never got any new financing from the government. If you add together all of the money that is requested and that finances the audiovisual industries in our country, we are still very poor compared to other countries.”