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Oscar-winning director David Fine, seen at his home studio in Vancouver on March 12, 2020, says he thinks there should be an independent review of the NFB’s spending decisions.Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

From January until early March, National Film Board chair Claude Joli-Coeur travelled across Canada, meeting with NFB stakeholders – filmmakers, in particular – to discuss the issues and priorities meant to inform the agency’s next strategic plan.

The NFB consultations followed a December survey of creators, technicians and industry professionals that identified two themes on which to focus: NFB production spending and its relationship with the creative community.

But the multicity tour happened amid all kinds of turmoil at the film board. There has been a widely publicized campaign by freelance filmmakers to expose what they say are crucial problems with the NFB’s spending priorities and devastating results of an internal employee survey. Then a significant restructuring eliminated the key executive director role, which resulted in the departures of senior, respected NFB leaders. It has raised concerns about a lack of hands-on experience at senior management levels, and alarm over the continuing amalgamation of English and French operations.

“It’s a very dramatic story in that sense,” director Munro Ferguson says. “It’s like a movie. Everything’s going wrong at once.”

In a range of interviews, both on and off the record, the senior management team at the NFB has been described to The Globe and Mail as insular and disconnected without direct production experience, making poor decisions, demoralizing the work force and alienating the freelance film community. Filmmakers are dissatisfied with Joli-Coeur’s repeated response to tough questioning at the recent meetings: that the way forward for the NFB will be clear when the federal budget reveals the level of funding for the commission.

But the community is expressing hope that this low point can also be a turning point.

“I really do see this as what I hope will be the beginning of the pendulum swinging the other way. This is where the arc of change at the film board goes in a new direction,” Ferguson says. “One good thing about a crisis is it’s an opportunity to re-evaluate what the film board’s strategic direction is.”

Academy Award-winning filmmaker David Fine says he thinks there should be an independent review of the NFB’s spending decisions. “And I say this as someone who is not trying to undermine the NFB,” he says, “but to save it.”

‘It’s a place, not just a funding agency’

The National Film Board of Canada, originally the National Film Commission, is a federal cultural agency created by an act of Parliament in 1939 and has produced thousands of films, including documentaries, animated films and interactive digital works. It has won thousands of awards, including 12 Oscars.

“What makes the NFB unique is that it’s a site of creation; it’s a place, not just a funding agency,” Ferguson says.

Joli-Coeur, an entertainment lawyer, joined the NFB in 2003 and has been chair since 2014, after the abrupt departure of his ambitious and once well-regarded predecessor, Tom Perlmutter, amid allegations of conflict-of-interest. Joli-Coeur, who declined an interview request for this story, was reappointed last June for a second three-year term, sparking some outcry.

A group of filmmakers calling itself NFB/ONF Creation, with more than 250 directors (including many prominent, highly regarded filmmakers supporting the cause), issued a statement at the time, decrying the drop in spending on production budgets and increase on non-filmmaker expenditures, such as internal salaries.

Among the figures the group cites: Last year, with a budget of $62-million, the taxpayer-funded NFB spent $50-million on executive salaries, marketing, administration and the move to its new headquarters in Montreal. Just $12-million was spent on external production costs.

But the protest has been about more than financial statements; for many filmmakers, this is about a vision for this crucial Canadian cultural institution.

“It’s important to point out that this moment, this push for dramatic change and a bold new vision at the NFB has been a very long time coming, with filmmakers of all ages, and across the country, showing up to fight to save a cherished film board that we all love, and believe very strongly in,” filmmaker Christy Garland said by e-mail, while shooting a film overseas.

“The NFB has arrived at a point where the creative momentum and production of films, and the rights of filmmakers and creators, are much less important than the hierarchical, bureaucratic culture and branding of the NFB itself.”

For many of the filmmakers, this was top of mind when Joli-Coeur announced his listening tour.

“My goals are clear: providing creators with a stimulating environment that embraces innovation and facilitates the creation of unique and powerful works, while fostering closer ties and greater engagement with the public in a world inundated with content unconstrained by borders,” Joli-Coeur wrote in his response to RSVPing attendees.

NFB/ONF Creation filmmakers saw it as an opportunity to get answers from Joli-Coeur about this pressing issue and they asked tough questions in meetings across the country, and through a webinar.

After early meetings in Western Canada, including Vancouver, to which The Globe and Mail was denied access, Fine, who with his partner, Alison Snowden, has four Oscar nominations and one win, wrote an open letter to Joli-Coeur calling for “urgent steps” to address “serious issues” at the NFB.

“The NFB needs a new vision, but we have yet to hear material ideas as to what that would be and how it can be achieved,” writes Fine, who with Snowden won the 1994 Academy Award for best animated short film for Bob’s Birthday. “What is your vision? How do you see turning this situation around so the NFB can better support its core purpose: making original and compelling films and media?”

At the later webinar, Joli-Coeur was challenged about where the money will come from to support more production, says Fine, who attended virtually. Fine says filmmakers did not receive the statement of confidence they were hoping for and that Joli-Coeur “kept avoiding the issue by saying things like, ‘We will try to find ways,’ and, ‘We will wait to see if the government gives us more funding.’”

Fine adds, “It feels like he’s side-stepping the most critical issues that we’re raising.”

With the tour wrapping up on the East Coast the first week of March, the reviews have been mixed.

“It wasn’t the really engaged dialogue that we were hoping for but there were moments that a conversation started,” says Ferguson, spokesperson for NFB/ONF Creation.

“The exercise of Claude touring has not presented any answers or plans as to how the NFB will move forward to correct the present situation,” Fine adds.

It hasn’t helped that the tour has been taking place shortly after the news in early December of an NFB restructuring to eliminate three executive director positions, as well as the chief digital officer and the administrator of digital platforms.

In the absence of the heads of programs, the person in the position of director-general, creation and innovation will oversee the NFB’s entire slate across the country, English and French. The position is currently vacant with the departure of René Bourdages, who left to join Telefilm as senior director of cultural portfolio management.

The internal NFB memo announcing the restructuring touted the new approach and management structure as a way to reduce management lawyers and bring teams closer together “to improve the way we create and engage,” and says it would strengthen English and French programs. But that is largely not how the news has been received, either inside the NFB or in the NFB filmmaking community.

“The decision to restructure the NFB is a historical one and represents a fundamental change to the NFB’s DNA, one that has been in existence since 1964,” filmmaker Monique Leblanc says. “I, for one, am not taking it lightly and nor are a great many people inside the NFB or within the filmmaking community,” says Leblanc, a francophone filmmaker based in Moncton.

“I and other francophone filmmakers are wary of suddenly finding the French studios lumped in with the English studios.”

There is concern from filmmakers working in English as well.

“It is difficult … to imagine that it will be better for filmmakers of either linguistic group to not have someone in upper management represent them,” Academy Award-winning NFB filmmaker Torill Kove says. “It feels a bit like the pilot has fired the air traffic controllers, and is telling us it’s actually better that way. It’s not convincing.”

Leblanc says Joli-Coeur told the Toronto meeting that the NFB was too small an organization to have both a French and an English program. “We’re talking about a federal agency here,” she says. “He keeps forgetting they produce content. It’s not like working for Canada Post.”

Among those losing their jobs were Michelle van Beusekom, the executive director of the NFB’s English program. Van Beusekom declined to be interviewed for this story, but she wrote a Facebook post in December, shortly after being let go, saying that she was angry.

“For 13 years I poured a lot of myself into serving the NFB’s beautiful public mandate of producing meaningful work at the intersection of art and public interest,” she wrote. “I have loved that work, although I have grown pretty weary of the politics.”

In more than 200 comments, many from colleagues and filmmakers, people described the decision as outrageous, shocking, disappointing, baffling and “a great loss for the NFB."

“We looked to you for the smarts, wisdom and artistic curiosity in the NFB management that you had, uniquely,” replied Chris Landreth, the Oscar-winning director of the animated short, Ryan. Landreth described van Beusekom’s presence at the NFB as giving him the knowledge “that there was some sanity among those charged with making the NFB’s vision. It’s a way smaller and poorer place there without you.”

Michèle Bélanger, van Beusekom’s French-language counterpart, also lost her job. As did Loc Dao, the Vancouver-based chief digital officer. Bélanger had been with the NFB for more than 33 years. According to sources, both van Beusekom and Dao had applied for Joli-Coeur’s job before he was reappointed last year. Bélanger, Dao and van Beusekom all declined to comment for this story.

But as several people pointed out, Joli-Coeur restructured the organization before his consultation tour.

Separately, a survey of federal government employees revealed a demoralized and highly critical work force at the NFB. The 2019 public service employee survey showed that 62 per cent of NFB respondents somewhat or strongly disagreed that they had confidence in senior management, compared with 21 per cent across the federal public service.

And 42 per cent somewhat or strongly disagreed that senior NFB managers lead by example in ethical behaviour – compared with 15 per cent of the overall public service.

As for the question of whether “senior management in my department or agency makes effective and timely decisions," 65 per cent of NFB respondents disagreed, compared with 25 per cent of the public service over all. The NFB also rated poorly when it came to supporting employees experiencing mental health problems and stress caused by “competing or constantly changing priorities.”

Then, in late January, the report Canada’s Communications Future: Time to Act was released. Among its recommendations was combining Telefilm Canada and the Canada Media Fund into a new publicly funded entity. The omission of the NFB, the third screen-based federal agency, raised questions about what that might mean for the NFB’s future.

The NFB is set to present its new strategic plan in late spring. At that point, the NFB says Joli-Coeur will be available for an interview.

“The proof will be in the pudding,” Ferguson says. “The question is whether the tour and the copious feedback that the filmmakers gave will influence his thinking going forward.”

With a report from Barry Hertz

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