New Book – Screening Nature and Nation: The Environmental Documentaries of the National Film Board, 1939-1974

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Michael D. Clemens. Screening Nature and Nation: The Environmental Documentaries of the National Film Board, 1939-1974. Athabasca, AB: AU Press, 2022.

I first got the idea idea for Screening Nature and Nation while I was watching a favourite movie of mine – Bill Mason’s wonderful National Film Board of Canada (NFB) documentary about wolves, Cry of the Wild (1972). It was one sequence in particular, actually, that really got me thinking.

It’s night. Mason huddles next to an open fire somewhere out in the wilds of Northern Quebec. He stares into the crackling flames. Something catches his attention and he glances at the woods. The camera cuts to a dark shape – a wolf – darting between the trees. Mason has been waiting for this moment. It’s why he’s out there all alone: to film the predator in its natural habitat. But the moment is lost. The wolf quickly vanishes into the moonlit gloom of the boreal forest. She is powerful but elusive this wolf. On the edge of our periphery – a dim and fleeting presence of wildness. Mason looks back to the fire and waits.

There is something deeply melancholic about Cry of the Wild. Why did it resonate so? As I studied more of Bill Mason’s filmography, I realized there was more than just nostalgia or entertainment at play. There was something ideological afoot. These NFB documentaries were saying something about nature and its complicated relationship with Canada, and more broadly, humanity.

Screening Nature and Nation was an attempt to grapple with this theme. It tells the story of the NFB’s preoccupation with nature and how those depictions changed over time. Established in 1939 by the federal government to be the eyes and ears of Canada, the National Film Board produced documentaries on many different subjects. One of its favourite genres was the nature film. These pictures, I think, provide a unique glimpse into government authorized representations of the environment. Guided by a federal mandate to produce films in the “national interest” and to “interpret Canada to Canadians and other nations,” the NFB typically expressed a state way of seeing nature in the 1940s and on through the 1950s.1 The natural environment was framed as a unifying symbol of national identity, and as an abundant resource to be surveyed, rationalized, and eventually exploited. In each instance, natural fecundity is proclaimed as the key to a healthy and robust nation.

Still from Windbreaks on the Prairies (1943), directed by Evelyn Cherry. Courtesy NFB.

“Official” representations of nature persisted through the decades, notably reappearing in documentaries about the North, “a new frontier with a rich promise” as the narrator of Look to the North (1944) puts it.2 But this imagining of Canadian nature began to fracture, I soon discovered. In the 1960s, several NFB filmmakers produced films that opposed such representations of the environment. Ernest Reid’s The Enduring Wilderness (1963) and Mason’s Cry of the Wild famously advocated for a non-instrumentalist appreciation of wildlife and wilderness spaces. Similarly, Larry Gosnell, an iconoclast of NFB cinema, decried human efforts to boost agricultural productivity through the use of pesticides. In Poison, Pests, and People (1960), Gosnell articulated an early environmentalism that predated the warnings of Rachel Carson. Screening Nature and Nation explores this schism. How and why did these alternative representations occur? What was happening institutionally and culturally at that moment? Did these kinds of documentaries introduce a new kind of way of thinking about nature, or were they reflections of larger trends in Canadian culture? The answer to the last question is “both.”

Still from Poisons, Pests, and People (1960), directed by Larry Gosnell. Courtesy NFB.

The story takes another turn in the 1970s. Although the environmental films of the 1960s challenged the utilitarianism of early NFB cinema, they still upheld a predominately Anglo-white interpretation of nature. Wilderness was constructed as an empty space, bereft of civilization.3 This depiction of empty wilderness was, of course, ahistorical; notions of the primeval obfuscated the complex history of Indigenous culture and their diverse ways of living and thinking about nature. In the 1970s, however, NFB filmmakers started making documentaries that privileged an Indigenous perspective of nature, thereby challenging both the state’s vision of nature and more broadly, dominant culture’s belief that wilderness was something entirely separate from human culture. The most prominent was Cree Hunters of Mistassini (1974), a film about the hunting traditions of the James Bay Cree. In the documentary, Boyce Richardson and the Cree hunters present nature as an interrelated system of both human and non-human actors. The Cree derive sustenance and meaning from the land; their habits, beliefs, and relationship with the land is characterized by humility and respect. In documenting the lives of Sam Blacksmith and the other Cree hunters, the film implicitly critiques the environmentally ruinous James Bay hydroelectric project, a paragon of high modern achievement. Unlike previous NFB pictures, Cree Hunters of Mistassini demonstrated that state visions of nature destabilize Indigenous ways of living/knowing and exposes them to ecological harm.

Still from Cree Hunters of Mistassini, directed by Boyce Richardson (1974). Courtesy NFB.

Screening Nature and Nation was Inspired by the work of Gregg Mitman, Finis Dunaway, and other scholars who have explored the relationship between the cinematic image, culture, and nature.4 Following their lead, I suggest that culture informs the way in which we imagine nature on celluloid, and vice versa, cinema shapes our expectations of nature. In the case of the NFB, the involvement of the federal government in non-fiction cinema inflected the ways in which nature was represented and understood in Canadian culture. However, these pictures also broadened the ecological imagination of Canadians and in some cases, were used as a tool of protest, and even inspired an environmental movement. For environmental historians, the NFB is a wonderful archive that provides a window into the complicated ways Canadians have imagined our connection with the natural word, and the country that we call home.

[1] National Film Act, s. 9(a), cited in Canada, Report of the Royal Commission on National Development in the Arts. Letters and Sciences (the Massey-Levesque Commission) (Ottawa: King’s Printer, 1951), 51.
[2] Look to the North, produced by James Beveridge, NFB, 1944.
[3] I use the term “constructed” intentionally here. For non-fiction cinema is an artifact of human imagination and subjectivity. The camera is never neutral; it its tethered to our impulse to organize and narrate reality as we experience it.
[4] Gregg Mitman, Reel Nature: America’s Romance with Wildlife on Film (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), and Finis Dunaway, Natural Visions: The Power of Images in American Environmental Reform (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005).

Feature image: Still from The Enduring Wilderness (1963). Courtesy NFB.
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Michael Clemens

Michael has a PhD in history from McMaster University. In addition to writing and teaching about nature and film culture, he moonlights as a screenwriter and documentary filmmaker.

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