Counter-Hegemonic Discourse on the Working Class in National Film Board World War II Films
For a long time, films produced by the National Film Board of Canada immediately after its establishment and up until the end World War II have been greatly neglected or simply dismissed as examples of Canadian war propaganda. These films represent an essentially counter-hegemonic outlook on the role of the working class in Canadian society. In this context, these films informed and were informed by the discourse of the Popular Front, an umbrella formation which at the time was initiated and led by supporters of the Communist Party of Canada, both inside and outside the labour movement. This paper brings to light an investigation and analysis of a wealth of archival film material from the initial years of the NFB, much of which either have been long forgotten or were, in fact, never really known. Against several earlier and unsubstantiated scholarly assumptions, this study delineates the ideological significance of the NFB's depiction of workers during this critical period in Canadian history.
The establishment of the National Film Board of Canada (NFB) in 1939 ushered in a critical phase in the history of Canadian cinema's depiction of working class people. In contrast to the films earlier produced by provincial and federal film agencies, those produced by the NFB between 1939 and 1946 provided what amounts to a counter-hegemonic appreciation of the role of the working class in furthering and building a new social and political order.1 As a broad pro-labour and antifascist political and cultural movement transcended the circles of militant working class activists and their base within the Canadian communist left, the films produced by the NFB assumed a supporting role in a historical shift that witnessed the "labouring" of the Canadian cultural landscape.2These films became part of an intellectual stratum associated with a working-class-based counter-hegemonic historical bloc that advocated a new and more involved role for labour both in the fight against fascism and in the creation of a society based on the practice of grass-roots democracy and the collective use of economic and social resources.
My research within a wealth of NFB films from this period (many of which are long forgotten or were, in fact, never really known) calls into question revisionisms of writers who insist too strongly on the NFB's authoritarian and elitist propagandistic function.3 My reading of the films, which takes into account the history and the dynamics of the propositions put forward at the time by the Canadian political left, allows a recognition of the level to which these films correspond ideologically with how this left (primarily associated with the Communist Party of Canada) viewed its role and the role of labour during this period in Canadian history. In hindsight, this study describes how NFB films informed and were informed by a loose affiliation of movements and organizations which, in various forms of alliance or sympathy with the communist movement in the post-Depression period, contributed to the labouring of Canadian culture. In this context, this essay points out how these films designate a nascent counter-hegemonic formation, one that presents a critique of capitalism and points to the possibilities for progressive grassroots alignments between class factions in an advanced industrial era.
In setting the parameters of this research, I have surveyed almost the entire catalogues depicting the body of film produced by the NFB between 1939 and 1946. In this, my goal was to eventually survey the films that mainly dealt with issues related to labour and the working class. All in all, I was able to identify and analyze around 180 titles out of a total output of 553 films (a significant number of which were footage repeatedly or simultaneously produced under different titles). These films incorporate one or more themes relating to working class and labour politics.4
In addition to the above, I have also incorporated another set of films. At the time when early NFB films were produced, the discussion of topics such as communism, the Russian Revolution, and the Soviet Union had major implications on working class and labour politics. My survey, therefore, would not have been sufficient without the inclusion of films that dealt with such critical topics. All these films, in addition to the core of films dealing with labour and the working class, were screened and assessed and provided the primary analytical source for this study.
Out of the Depression and into the War: NFB Films between 1939 and 1941
The period between 1939 and 1941 represented a transitional moment in the history of the National Film Board of Canada. This period began with the establishment of the board and ended with the dissolving of its predecessor, the Motion Picture Bureau (GMPB) and the transfer of all its properties and staff to the control of the NFB. In the immediate period following the creation of the NFB, the GMPB/NFB network produced a total of sixty-six films. Films produced between 1939 and 1941 bore the official mark of the Motion Picture Bureau. All these films eventually became the property of the NFB. All early NFB productions were documentaries that mainly dealt with the mobilization in support of the war against Germany. Films produced in 1939, however, focused on the issues of unemployment and the effect of the Great Depression on working people.
Stuart Legg's 1939 films The Case of Charlie Gordon and Youth is Tomorrow epitomized a major shift in Canadian cinema. Legg did what no other filmmaker had dared to do up until then. He walked into the slums of the working class coal town of Glace Bay and came out with a story that went to the core of all the hushed-up hopes and fears of unemployed youth. As Canada was stepping out of the Great Depression, Legg's films advocated the consensual involvement of the government in the management and the co-coordination of the social and economic resources of the country in an effort to pull the country out of the depression, and as basis for building a co-operative alternative to the market and profit driven economy.
In turn, other NFB films similarly accentuated the importance of government intervention in relieving the post-Depression conditions among Canadian farmers and agricultural workers. In Heritage (1939), J. Booth Scott delineates how, after years of intensive drought coupled with the disastrous fall in prices during the Depression, many prairie farmers were forced to board up their homes and seek work elsewhere. Produced in the aftermath of a decade-long anti-government grassroots campaign by farmers and farm workers, Heritage favorably refers to the newly created Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration government plan, which attempted to address the demands of these farmers for more government involvement. While it ignores the more complex questions surrounding the state of despair of the farmers during the Depression, the film nevertheless reiterates the notion of collective public involvement as a sensible method for articulating working solutions to the problems faced by Canadian agricultural workers.
Labour at War
By July 1941, the dissolution of the Canadian Motion Picture Bureau and the transfer of its operations to the NFB's administration was virtually complete. This coincided with the Soviet Union's entry into the war against Germany, a political development that was to signify an even clearer association between the left and labour's outlook on the nature of the fight against fascism, and the NFB own assessment of the nature of the war in Europe.
A new political atmosphere began to emerge almost immediately after the Soviet Union entered the War against Germany. The Soviet Union had become a war ally to Canada and to Britain. The films produced by the NFB now provided an even more assertive appreciation of the role of labour in the war and in building of post-war society. This occurred in conjunction with the communist left's re-adoption of the policy of Popular Front alliance.5 When Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, Labour and the supporters of the policies of the Popular Front began to shift away from their earlier opposition to the war in Europe. Instead of their earlier characterization of the war in Europe as an inter-imperialist struggle between two capitalist blocs, the communists now began to conceive of it as a war aimed towards stopping fascism.
Continued here: Counter-Hegemonic Discourse on the Working Class in National Film Board World War II Films | University of Calgary