JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

The sodden suburb where I came of age. I knew about Bridgeview's atrocious conditions, as evidenced by this photo I took for our local weekly paper. Credit: Surrey Delta Messenger, October 23, 1975.

Vancouver, B.C. in the 1970s. Credit: City of Vancouver Archives 1435-46 - British Columbia - Vancouver skyline 197?

Some People Have to Suffer features part-time aldermen drawn from the local business ranks, shrugging polyestered shoulders as they walk the tightrope between profit and “the people.”

“I do a little bit of crewing with various people but…I don’t have the responsibility of a boat anymore, so it seems that I devote a lot of time to whatever I do, so this (being an alderman) filled a gap.”

“I like to have industrial and residential close by—I like to get back to this concept of walking to work. We talk about saving energy, we talk about an access problem, I’m talking about—well, let’s have industry and people a little closer together.”

“When people live in an area like Bridgeview they feel…oppressed because they haven’t had the same level of services that other parts of the municipality has, so they’re bound to react in an emotional rather than in an objective way.”

“I think a kindergarten can do a better job than them guys doing out there. They’re just a bunch of…”

“If I have to get a shotgun, they won’t phase me out.”

The National Film Board’s Challenge for Change logo.

Vancouverism is defined as an architectural technique combining a medium-height commercial base with narrow high-rise residential units, and preservation of view corridors (allowing for glimpses of ocean and mountain). Credit: Institute for Urban Design

 

 

Media activists for livability:
an NFB experiment in 1970s Vancouver

by Jean Walton

It was in part the striking contrast between the sodden, featureless suburb where I came of age, and the alluring cultural hub to its immediate North that made me want, in the first place, to write an autobiographical novel set near Vancouver in the seventies. Combing the Internet in search of images that could take me back to the hockey rinks and logging trucks of my teen years, I hit pay dirt: production stills depicting the rosy-cheeked mayor I recalled from those days, confronting a group of working-class residents who had lived down the hill from us. Bridgeview was a tight-knit neighborhood flanked by scrapyards and sawmills, and that seemed to be sinking into the mud along the banks of the Fraser River.

I had been aware, at the time, of the atrocious conditions of this little corner of our municipality of Surrey—dilapidated single-family homes fronted by open ditches that flooded in the wet season—but I hadn’t realized that Canada’s National Film Board (NFB) had come to town to make a documentary film about Bridgeview residents’ battle for a decent sewer system, which is to say, their battle for existence. Some People Have to Suffer, the film was titled, and while it is not among the hundreds available for streaming on the NFB website, I was able to purchase it in DVD format through their online store. I was soon treated to all the period footage I could have hoped for of Surrey’s suburban and industrial landscape: stained stucco under flapping tarpaulins, school kids in parkas dodging puddles, geese and horses sharing the residential landscape with trucks and bulldozers, and a vintage cast of talking heads. There was the mealy-mouthed Mayor that my grandmother had found so handsome, with his Dudley Do-Right face and his disdain for the downtrodden; the part-time aldermen drawn from the local business ranks, shrugging polyestered shoulders as they walked the tightrope between profit and “the people;” city administrators, weighing the pros and cons of industrial encroachment; and the citizens themselves, mostly first- or second-generation immigrants of British or German origin, set among crochet afghans of the living room, cigarette displays of the convenience store, or the banks of the river itself as they put their case to the camera. “They have an awful lot of homes to get for people before they phase us out,” asserts one angry resident. “And if I have to get a shotgun, they won’t phase me out.”

This and following images are from Some People Have to Suffer, dir. Christopher Pinney, National Film Board, 1976. Bill Vander Zalm, Surrey’s rosy-cheeked mayor.
Bridgeview, a tight-knit neighborhood hemmed in by industry. Bridgeview’s ditches flooding during the rainy season.
In Bridgeview, horses sharing the residential landscape … … with bulldozers.

Curious about the provenance of this film, I hunted down its director, Christopher Pinney, and thereby stumbled on a long-obscured chapter in the history of media democracy. In this article I tell the story of Some People Have to Suffer (1976), and perhaps more important, of the larger state-sponsored—but activist—media project out of which it emerged. For as it turns out Chris Pinney was the regional coordinator of the West Coast division of one of the National Film Board’s most radical forays into community-based documentary, the Challenge for Change program (1967-1980). This film was only the most polished artifact of an extensive community activist project, set in the municipality of my youth, during a volatile era in the history of urban and suburban development in Vancouver and its outlying neighbors. We may live in a digital age that promises universal access to media resources, but we can learn a lot from this pre-digital episode in the history of media activism on Canada’s West Coast.

I propose that we ask not whether media can truly be democratized (it always can or cannot, depending on your perspective), but rather what makes one experiment different from another, depending on how its social goals are framed and how it fits into and transforms the immediate geopolitical landscape that serves as its setting. With its reputation for utopian living, its geographical location on the Canadian edge of the Pacific Rim, its proximity to water, mountains, and wildlife, Vancouver has served in the last few decades as a global model for city planning—so much so that architects and planners have coined “Vancouverism” as a shorthand term for desirable urban design. See for example this photo essay on Vancouver-branded  Developments in China:  http://www.vancitybuzz.com/2012/05/vancouver-name-used-to-sell-in-mainland-china/.

For these reasons alone, the recent history of its evolution is worth interrogating, particularly with respect to whether and how the average citizen participated in decisions about development. Because it focused directly on land use issues in British Columbia in the seventies, the NFB’s Challenge for Change program produced a rich repository of documents that shed light on the relation of the suburbs to this shining metropolis that has emerged as the “Shangri-La” of Canada. Just as importantly, the program revealed how alliances might be formed between political interests too often thought to be at odds with each other—those of working class residents with a sharp sense of community belonging, and of environmentalists challenging the apparent inevitability of industrial encroachment.

The Challenge for Change Program

Challenge for Change (CFC) was a world-famous experiment that brought community development together with film and video expertise to address social and political problems across Canada between 1967 and 1980. As government-sponsored programs go, Challenge for Change (and its Quebecois version, Societé Nouvelle) was unprecedented in its commitment to facilitating citizen awareness and activism. The idea was to identify troubled locales where social, economic, and political conflicts might be effectively resolved if the residents were trained by “social animators” in the use of film and video to gain a more active role in the decision-making processes that most affected them.[1] [open endnotes in new window]

The program had been piloted in Newfoundland, where what came to be called the “Fogo process” was developed, and where an emissary with a camera was “as much a community development worker as a filmmaker.”[2] The residents of Fogo Island, off the coast of Newfoundland, had undergone serious economic hardship when the fishing industry began to fail; more than half were on welfare, many slated for relocation by the federal government. The NFB Challenge for Change program, under the directorship of Colin Low, stepped in and made a series of films in which the local people discuss their daily lives, not for “public” distribution, but to be shown privately among Fogo’s own, dispersed population. The films

“acted as something external which mediated the hostility that might have erupted in face-to-face confrontation among people with opposing views” (Kurchak, 122).

Changes did occur following the presence of the NFB in Fogo insofar as the impoverished residents were said to have gained new confidence in the idea of collective action and, indeed, formed a fishing co-op and marketing board. The government, meanwhile, pulled back on its intention to move people to the mainland, and it altered a law pertaining to fishing boats that better met the fishermen’s actual needs (Kurchak, 122-23). Critics differed on whether these changes were the result of the CFC program; but the practice of using film, and then of training local citizens in the use of video, was repeated in every province across the country. For the most part, the local incarnations of the program were framed either explicitly in terms of poverty and the welfare state (echoing the “war on poverty” that had been launched under the Johnson administration in the United States) or in terms of what we would now call identity politics, offering media assistance, for instance, to First Nations groups or empowering women to address labor or childcare issues.

McGill-Queens has just published a substantial volume of critical articles on the program, and a wide array of the films produced under CFC auspices have been made available for streaming on the National Film Board website. It is possible now for a whole new generation of film scholars and media activists to contemplate these social and media experiments set in inner-city Montreal and Halifax, obscure fishing villages of Newfoundland, and small mining communities in Alberta.[3] Taken as a whole, the book and the films open up a complex set of questions about the role of the state in facilitating citizen access to the public sphere, and of how media tools can be used to address poverty and social welfare, whether problems be framed in terms of a waning industrial era, depletion of natural resources, squalid urban living conditions, or gender, race, and colonial inequities.

While for the most part, the Challenge for Change program has been hailed as having led the way in state-sponsored “media democracy,” questions have been raised about the larger implications of federal sponsorship of a purportedly radical form of media intervention. Structurally speaking, is it possible to challenge a system that itself provides the economic base for the activism in question? What interests are served by the mechanisms through which social animators are employed to mobilize groups of people, indeed, to interpellate them in their capacity as “citizens” of a local constituency, a province, a nation? What precisely is meant by “change” in the formula: “challenge for change?” How does one measure the efficacy of the use of video and film technology, even if the question of “change” has been defined?[4]

Marie Kurchak critiqued the program as early as 1972, in her article “What Challenge? What Change?” Several regional CFC experiments were in the planning stages by this time, including the project that Chris Pinney’s film emerged from. Kurchak had just attended a “recent re-organizational meeting” at which the regional directors “emphasized their concern for long-range projects rather than social documentaries.”

"For instance, in a land-use planning project in Surrey (a suburb of Vancouver), co-ordinator Chris Pinney will be using film and VTR to encourage people to participate in community decisions that affect the area in which they live. Pinney looks upon this as 'a very conservative notion: getting people to depend on themselves and create their own communities rather than depending on remote governments to make all the decisions.'” (Kurchak, 125)

Kurchak’s main concern in her assessment of the program was that “long-term subtle attitudinal changes are needed as well as immediate political and economic change” but “Challenge for Change […] has not defined what it means by social change” (126). That Pinney shared this concern not only to define change more carefully but also to provide, through NFB support, the resources over time to ensure enduring transformation is reflected in the founding Surrey Project document, drafted in the following year:

“It is not possible to change people’s relationship to media and their community overnight or in six months. We have learned that it is a slow process that may take several years and will only have a lasting impact if given this kind of time frame. For this reason, the project as proposed here is conceived of as being a long-term project with Challenge for change support for two to three years.” (Pinney, n.d., 4)[5]

Zoë Druick contextualizes the CFC program in the larger arena of Canada’s federal campaign to integrate the welfare state and those it affected with national modernization. She asks whether CFC social animators, wittingly or unwittingly, might simply be reproducing, rather than challenging, the government’s desire for cooperation and conformity among its citizens. As the federal government stepped up its “war on poverty,” Druick notes, there was a simultaneous “shift in the register of citizenship from the local and the provincial to the national level, an important aspect of nation-building.” She traces a historical government-sponsored trend from small-scale to more commercialized modes of making a living:

“As Canadians became modern, urban citizens, they simultaneously became more national in orientation. According to historians Finkel and Conrad, ‘following the Second World War, government policy and economic activity were focused on bringing every Canadian into the modern age. Subsistence survival by farming, fishing, and hunting was deemed unworthy, and rural life, unless fully commercialized, experienced a rapid decline. As a result, many communities became ghost towns, while cities experienced unprecedented growth.’ […] Urbanization was so rapid that where at the end of the Second World War more than one-quarter of Canadians lived on a farm, thirty years later fewer than one in fifteen farmed.” (Druick, 2010, 339)

Druick astutely points out that

“as more and more features of social life were taken over by the state in the postwar period…film became one of the many educational and promotional processes used to convey the new role of the state in administering people’s lives” (343).

It became a way to “convey messages about the federal state to the general population—ultimately it became an advocacy tool for federalism itself”(343-344).

In Fogo, for instance, a way of life premised on subsistence fishing would be sacrificed to a more modern, “Canadian” citizenship through the subtly working micropolitics practiced by social animators. An NFB report on what it hoped would be accomplished in Fogo is telling. Emphasis was placed on eliciting and recording discourse from groups of individuals and playing the resultant films to other groups, for the purpose of eliciting more discourse, and so on.

“By this simple process we hoped to generate confidence in people to formulate and express their problems as they saw them, for it was felt that the expression of problems is a step towards understanding and solving them” (345).

The report goes on,

“It was believed that the playback of these expressions in the community could reveal the contradictions in individual attitudes and also in group attitudes. It would be a beginning in modifying attitudes, achieved not through dissemination of information or propaganda but through real participation which has the potential of creativity” (345).

The language of behavior modification in this passage suggests that what is cast as “expression” can begin to shade off into “confession,” as participants are made complicit in their own state-facilitated conformity.

In her reading of individual CFC films on welfare, though, Druick finds that despite the state-serving objectives espoused in official NFB documents, in actual practice, more radical aims were pursued by some activist filmmakers and social animators who truly sought to bring about “a radically democratic public sphere” (352).

She bases this conclusion on a study of CFC welfare films made before 1970; but if we expand this kind of investigation to include the next phase of the program as it unfolded in Surrey on the West coast, we find that both the goals of the NFB, and the accomplishments of its regional practitioners, had moved even further from the federalist tendencies evinced in its earlier incarnations to the East. This was almost entirely due to the decision, made by Chris Pinney and NFB film distributor Jan Clemson, to frame the Surrey Project explicitly in terms of land use, rather than in terms of poverty and welfare.

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