Sumita Dutt-Chatterjee – “Challenge For Change”: methods, tools, questions

Bonnie Sher-Klein Talks About the Basic Premise of Challenge for Change Films

In this post Sumita Dutt-Chatterjee looks back to Challenge of Change – an innovative approach to media for social change devised at the National Film Board of Canada. Video interviews by Sanjeev Chatterjee.

Challenge for Change (in English), and Société Nouvelle (in French) operating in the years 1967 to 1980, was initiated by the National Film Board of Canada, with partners that ranged from documentary filmmakers, government officials, community activists and citizens. These innovative programs were broadly imagined and functioned as facilitators for better communications and exchange of new ideas for effective social change in different communities. The primary medium of these dialogues was documentary films, ranging in length from 4 to 60+ minutes. Colin Low, Michel Regnier, Maurice Bulbulian, Bonnie Sherr Klein, Kathleen Shannon, Dorothy Todd Henaut, Helene Girard, George Stoney and several others were among the pioneers in this new experiment of using documentary and the technology of “portapak” video for social change. The variety of topics explored under the umbrella of Challenge for Change and Société Nouvelle programs were vast: rural poverty, developmental challenges to the fishing industry, critical look at marriage, motherhood and women’s status, child abuse, civic engagement, community participation in political processes, concerns of first nations people, labor’s working conditions, housing crisis in low income communities, incarceration, education access, community theater arts, protection of wilderness, and intellectual discussions on “change”.

People are able to identify their problems…these same people are in the best position to find solutions.

A simple yet powerful philosophical framework bound the 145 English and 60 French documentaries produced under these two banners. It was giving people and communities rather than outside filmmakers, the central voice and significant editorial control in the films. A large section of these documentaries raised an important question: “Can an on-going film project serve as a cohesive agent and catalyst for change within a community, and at the same time serve as a means of communication with government?” The distribution and consumption of these films also differed widely from traditional documentary viewing. These films were played and replayed within the community and amongst those who had similar issues, or with stakeholders such as government officials etc. These films were deeply contextual and reflected the concerns of Canadian society of the 1960s and 1970s: the gaps between rural and urban, settler and indigenous communities to name a few.

Focusing on the English language Challenge For Change initiative, the first widely discussed group of short documentaries produced under this banner were films made on/by Fogo Islanders that explored the causes of rural poverty from an insider perspective. These “series of unscripted modules” were directed by the Canadian filmmaker Colin Low, in collaboration with Don Snowden (pioneer, and practitioner in the field of “communication for development”) and field worker in community development, Fred Earle. What emerged from these early experiments in participatory communication for change is the now renowned “Fogo Process” – visionary in its scope, putting people at the center of understanding the multi-faceted issues facing their communities; and using the finished film as a tool for further dialogue and reflection in the community of Fogo Islanders. These modules (27 in number) became the earliest scaffolding for the entire Challenge for Change Program, whose methodology and philosophical framework would guide numerous other films on different topics. The majority of the Fogo documentaries were not meant for wider distribution, but remained a tool for community networking, communication and development. The “Fogo Process” was promoted by CFC to be replicated internationally – in the USA as well as in development projects in the “third world.”

The Challenge for Change initiative created numerous documentaries such as “The Ballad of Crowfoot”, “Building an Organization”, “A Bus for Us”, “…And They lived Happily Ever After”, “Citizen Harold”, “Citizens’ Medicine”, “Cree Way” and countless others. Many became series such as Fogo Island Newfoundland Project, The Alinsky Approach: Organizing For Power, Occupational Health and Safety, and the Working Mothers Series amongst others. The Challenge For Change initiative became a space not merely for film making but engaging the new technology of video to critically look at the possibilities and pitfalls of this powerful medium to effectively engage with communities to bring positive change. It questioned traditional documentary film production, editorial process, as well as distribution and broadcast methods and inaugurated a different language and method on the use and reach of the new technology of video and documentary film to apply and engage in wider social change.


Annual Reports (Excerpts) for CFC and SN (1969-1980)

Challenge for Change Original Posters for Films

Challenge For Change Filmographies (1967-1980)

Challenge For Change/ Société Nouvelle Newsletters. (Multiple Issues)

Chatterjee, Sanjeev. Interviews with CFC members conducted in June 2015.

Snowden, Donald. “Eyes See; Ears Hear” Memorial University. 1984.

Waugh, Thomas, Michael B. Baker and Ezra Winton, edited. Challenge for Change – Activist Documentary at the National Film Board of Canada. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2010.

Williamson, Tony. “The Fogo Process: development Support Communications in Canada and the Developing World”. In AMIC-NCDC-BHU Seminar on Media and the Environment: Varanasi, Feb. 26- Mar. 1, 1989. Singapore: Asian Mass Communication Research and Information Centre.

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