In a cavernous event space in Kitchener's Tannery District, Tom Perlmutter is addressing a crowd that includes local filmmakers, communications students, a woman who runs a monthly storytelling evening in her barn and a retired carpenter. He is telling them a story about his mother.
Perlmutter is the chair of the National Film Board of Canada. His mother is a 91-year-old Hungarian Holocaust survivor who lives in Montreal and likes to shop - a lot. Perlmutter figures it has something to do with asserting that she belongs in Canada. Recently, she bought him two new sweaters. He dutifully wore one the next time he came to visit her, but she was clearly out of sorts. When he pressed her for an explanation, and even suggested he call her doctor, she said this was not a medical matter, and accused him of not loving her any more. Then she flung the evidence in his face: "You don't like the other sweater."
Perlmutter is not visiting the burgeoning research-and-high-tech centre of Kitchener, Ont., to mythologize himself or his mother. His stories about how she fled postwar Hungary, or how his aging stepfather had finally to give up his butcher shop on St. Laurent Boulevard, are interspersed with clips from NFB documentaries on similarly universal themes of old age, home, family and work. Perlmutter is here to say that stories - all our stories - matter.
For him, it's not a question of recognizing oneself on film but of participating in the conversation. "Your story may have little relevance with something from Quebec or Tatamagouche," he says. "I think you might find more in common reading an urban novel [from Japan]than one from the Prairies. … I find my story reflected not as a mirror, but as a way of seeing things differently."
With this uniquely multifaceted approach to grappling with that troublesome thing once known as national identity, Perlmutter is on a cross-country tour that this month alone is taking him to Edmonton, Saskatoon, Regina and Winnipeg. He is engaging Canadians in a conversation about storytelling and the NFB's national role, in a bid to keep the 72-year-old federal filmmaker, purveyor of worthy documentaries and Oscar-winning animated shorts, relevant.
He is travelling to Canada's major centres, and more unusual places, too: Tatamagouche, N.S., because its film club often screens NFB films; Timmins, Ont., because everybody else stops at Sudbury. Often, he is speaking in communities where the local NFB office was closed during cutbacks in the 1990s. Sometimes people reciprocate with their own stories, especially if there are native Canadians in the crowd, he says.
In Kitchener, people seem more interested in talking about how the NFB could advance local filmmaking than they are in swapping personal tales. But Perlmutter persists in questioning them about the role of film in their lives; and they produce some traditional answers. "I realized I had never seen a play about the place where I live," remarks one local, as he defines the need for regional film. "I had never seen a film about the place where I live; I had never seen a TV show, and yet this where I grew up."
"It's grassroots work," Perlmutter says in an interview after the Kitchener event. "It's labour-intensive … what is crucial is continuity, following up, maintaining the links."
This tour of communities is the human flip side of the organization's big digital push: As of January, 2009, you can stream hundreds of NFB documentaries, shorts and animated films online at nfb.ca. Getting the collection online - Perlmutter refuses to call it the archives, asking "Do you call Michelangelo and Leonardo or the works of Balzac archives?" - has proved a highly successful way of reaching audiences. Since NFB launched the service, adding an iPhone app a year ago, the content has been played seven million times.
That's one way the film board is working to remain relevant; Perlmutter's outreach is another. In a multicultural, postnationalist age, he doesn't believe that storytelling or filmmaking can define a Canadian identity, but rather that it can speak eloquently to our differences.
"We are in the middle of a grand social experiment, redefining what it is to be a nation," he tells the people in Kitchener. "To make this experiment a success, we need a great deal of space, private and public, to explore and share. … With our storytelling, we can negotiate ways of being with each other."