Sumita Dutt-Chatterjee – “Challenge For Change”: Media and Social Change – Innovative Alliances and Practices

The introduction of the “Porta Pak”, the handy “super 8”, half inch videotape and such new portable video technologies animated practitioners of the documentary craft on the potential of these technologies to create demystified, decentralized access to the medium for participation and perhaps empowerment and social change.

The evolution of technologies of media has generated multiple theories on media’s uses and abuses. The debates have ranged from its reach, function and dysfunction, potential for change as well as hubris. From Marshal McLuhan’s celebration of technological innovation in media as progress and possibilities for democratization and decentralization, his “medium is the message” mantra, to Raymond Williams’ advice against narrow technological determinism, there have been many theories on media’s role in social change. The scholarship on thorny questions such as reception and communication of images, “ways of seeing”, the dichotomy between the producer of media content and consumer of the same, the power and politics of technologies of media is too immense to summarize here. What is apparent is that media practitioners and cultural critics, scholars, activists and community members engaged with complexities of bringing change grapple with these issues and are key in shaping and changing theories as well as praxis at it relates to media making and social change.

It is therefore worthwhile to understand the thought process, methods, values and ethics that shaped the Challenge for Change/Societe Nouvelle (henceforth CFC/SN) programs that were created for the purpose of engaging with marginalized communities, encouraging decentralization and democratization that McLuhan envisioned. This is not to measure success or failure, as this perhaps is not quantifiable, but the ideas, methods, tools of engagement, use of new media technologies, alliances and partnerships allow further discussions and may inform our understanding of the proliferation of new media, especially the advent of social media and its impact in our times.

Donald Snowden, Colin Low, George Stoney, John Grierson, Dorothy Todd Henaut, Bonnie Sherr Klein, Anthony Kent and Noel Starblanket are among the many who worked under the CFC platform in various capacities. They have written and spoken about their experiences in creating new forms of participatory spaces in the use of video technology, the creativity and challenges of making documentary film in the interstices of media institutions, marginalized communities and government departments. Using annual reports, scholarship on CFC as well as interviews conducted by Sanjeev Chatterjee, we will briefly highlight their concerns, challenges, and new methods forged in grappling with uses of media technologies for social change in the period of CFC’s existence – 1968-1980.

The introduction of the “Portapak”, the handy “super 8”, half inch videotape and such new portable video technologies animated practitioners of the documentary craft on the potential of these technologies to create demystified, decentralized access to the medium for participation and perhaps empowerment and social change. Some of the effective and innovative film making and video technology use that was ushered under the umbrella of CFC was to “implicate the communication media in the process of social change” as prominent media activists Dorothy Todd Henaut and Bonnie Sherr Klein put it. (Henaut and Klein 24) Some of the projects that created new ways of participation of communities in shaping their own stories and creating solutions with the use of new media technologies were the ‘VTR project in St. Jacques’, ‘Newfoundland Fogo Island Project’ (The Fogo Process), ‘the training of an Indian Film Crew’ with the view to create an indigenous point of view, early feminist engagement in the ‘Working Mothers Series’, which helped set up the subsequent Studio D (a first of its kind government financed organization for women’s films).

These new engagements to address issues of social change through the language of film began with the path-breaking partnerships formed in the late 1960s. The stakeholders in this collaboration were the CFC/SN of the National Film Board of Canada, and several Canadian federal government departments, namely Labor, Regional Economic Expansion, National Health and Welfare, Agriculture, Secretary of State (Citizenship), and Central Mortgage and Housing Corporation. The NFB and the departments contributed equally to the financing of such films. This unique experiment, is perhaps best encapsulated in the annual report (1967-68) which describes this collaboration thus: “exercising its mandate to give the voiceless in Canada the ability to communicate with their governments and the establishment, the CFC/SN has produced a series of films that may well be unique in the history of government assisted film-making, in that they openly and purposefully criticize the agencies that support them.” (Emphasis mine)(Annual Report 1967-68 p.7).

Even before CFC was launched, the larger context of progressive film making and social justice concerns of addressing issues of poverty and inequality existed in the film culture of the National Film Board. It is interesting how an aesthetically sensitive and well made documentary by Tanya Ballantyne Tree, “Things I Cannot Change” shown on national television the year before (1967) on poverty of the Bailey family became the touchstone documentary for what not to do and raised important ethical questions about cinéma-vérité representations. Anthony Kent, who became the distributor of CFC films talks about how given the negative fall-out for the Bailey family after the broadcast, CFC launched a year later in 1968, took the lessons of “Things I Cannot Change” to heart – the first ethical method learnt from this debacle. On “Things I cannot Change”, Kent observed, “it was like the forerunner, and that’s why the name ‘Things I Cannot Change’ and so we got the title ‘Challenge For Change’”. Dorothy Todd Hennaut added, “…in the way it was used and the effect it had on the family was one of the ethical challenges that CFC decided to solve.” (Interview of Anthony Kent and Dorothy T. Henaut by Sanjeev Chatterjee, 2015)

CFC took on the issues of ethics and representation in its earliest, and perhaps most iconic and impactful partnership – the Fogo Island project, which engendered the “Fogo Process”. This process would be replicated in many other developmental contexts outside Newfoundland where it first emerged. The partners included filmmaker Colin Low, university professor Donald Snowden, community activist Fred Earle, and the Fogo Islanders themselves. Donald Snowden, the director of the Extension Department at Memorial University in Newfoundland, Canada was known for his extensive fieldwork in people centered community development in Canada and in places like India and Bangladesh. He was not a filmmaker, but provided the methods of engagement and emphasized the need for local participation in any quest for social change. In 1968 he was instrumental, with others such as Fred Earle, filmmakers of the NFB’s CFC like Colin Low, in developing and applying the participatory praxis he had honed in diverse local field experiences to issues of rural poverty amongst Fogo islanders in Newfoundland. The “Fogo Process” that emerged from this experiment of using video for community issues and well being, owes much to Snowden’s years of field experience. His “theory” so to speak came from his practice. He felt that the role of the fieldworker was a sensitive and important one that would help demystify the technology for communities, where such literacy was scarce, if not non-existent. In a McLuhanesque manner, Snowden did feel that video technology lend itself to unique and effective ways of learning – horizontal/peer centered, vertical, as well as through exchange, creating greater opportunity for success in community change and empowerment. He however, did not see video technology by itself as a harbinger of democracy, greater voice and participation. He argued against the West’s technology as aid-in-itself for third world development purposes, which he felt to be ineffective and useless. (Snowden n.p.) Colin Low ended up directing not one or two but 27 separate short films on different aspects of Fogo island life. He pointed out that these images fascinated the islanders, opened them to networking with others with similar issues, finding solutions and communicating them to the government – as Low called this process a “loop” which challenged the “watchdog” aspect of documentary making to what is today termed as the “restorative” role of media in community. (Chatterjee interview with Low 2015)

The lessons of the Fogo Project were taken to heart and the CFC in the ensuing years moved to new ways of engagement. In the next few years the CFC moved from the lessons of Fogo experiment where Fogo islanders found voice and articulated their needs to the outside agencies and government through film, to training and helping communities become filmmakers themselves. In the early years outsiders had made all the films in Fogo and elsewhere. The logical next methodological leap was to develop skills and create a true insider’s perspective. Noel Starblanket (became the Chief of Starblanket Cree Nation, Saskatchewan at the age of 24) was one such recipient of training in filmmaking (focused on sound and editing) and was the original member of a film crew made up of First Nations youth. Starblanket discussed this training process in the student film in St. Regis Mohawk Reserve, Cornwall that the Indian film crew shot, and then screened in different communities, and the particular promises, and pitfalls of such engagement. He noted in 1968 that lack of funding was a constant threat, and though they understood and embraced the powerful communication tool of film, the worry was long-term commitment and sustainability of such resources. He raised a pertinent question, “…we are a diverse group, because we are individualistic, there is difficulty in preventing the crew from splintering. But a greater danger is not that the group will splinter but that we may not be able to carry on our work with full independence. Our future is not assured. Is a strong, independent voice for the Indians worth supporting?” (Emphasis mine)(Starblanket p. 40)

Noel Starblanket’s doubts and critique are worth reflecting on. Did the National Film Board and the Challenge for Change filmmakers have similar doubts about the long-term viability of this form of partnership? Janine Marchessault, assessing the impact of the CFC methods and ethics, argues that while the CFC, filmmakers and the National Film Board may have seen the video as a “simple recording device – a mirror – that enabled people to speak to each other, to have a voice, to have access to the means of production”, there was generally a lack of critical reflection of the government’s overall power and control on actual shaping of change and impact in communities (Marchessault 354) – something that CFC protégé Noel Starblanket had raised about “independence” and long term “support”. This is perhaps one reason why CFC did not structurally impact sustained media involvement in social justice projects, but remained an experiment that ran for a few years in the context of the larger progressive moment of its time. This “failure” however does not take away from the enormous excitement the CFC platform generated with innovative styles of documentary production, distribution and consumption – fostering alliances, new methods of self representation, cooperative capacity building, new voices accessing “remote” areas of power and privilege such as government and technology, and participation in finding solutions.

Dorothy Todd Henaut and Bonnie Sherr Klein who remain media activists today, share some of the lessons learnt and ideas that emerged as they worked on different projects under the CFC platform. Their work with the St-Jacques Citizen’s Committee revealed certain methodological pointers about participatory engagements between video technology and community. As they noted, “video does not create dynamism where none is latent. It does not create action and ideas; rather these depend on the people who use video. Used responsibly and creatively, video can accelerate perception and understanding and therefore accelerate action.” (Henaut and Klein p. 33) Henaut and Klein highlight three aspects of the use of video technology in addressing needs of a community: video technology’s effects on individuals, its impact as an organizing tool, and in understanding “objectivity” in media. Individuals felt they understood themselves and others better, and this tool allowed development of neighborliness and engagement in community issues. Furthermore, through immersion in handling video, making films, they also understood that this is not an “objective” medium, and were therefore less likely to “buy” particular media messaging! As Henaut and Klein pointed out, “their experience with video – conceiving, shooting, editing, and presenting their own programs – made the citizens particularly aware of the myth of objectivity in mass media reporting and sensitive to conscious and unconscious manipulation. They have become a less gullible public.” (Henaut and Klein p. 32)

John Grierson, the founder of National Film Board provides a cautionary note to uncritical celebration of the potential of such technologies to generate change. While recognizing the importance of smaller and cheaper cameras, super 8s etc in encouraging easy accessibility and decentralization of film making, he was nevertheless skeptical of this technology as a cure all! As he put it in somewhat alarming imagery, “Much is claimed – and rightly – for the technical range of “Super 8.” But I am skeptical. It troubles me to see people loosely waving a camera around. It is like loosely waving a baby around; for the camera, like the baby, has its rights. I shudder at all catch-as-catch-can film approaches, even when they claim to be catching a falling star.” (Grierson 61-62) He felt that “real decentralization” though worthwhile to pursue, had not really happened. He astutely observed, “What we have is presentation of local concerns without a real representation of local concerns.” (Grierson 63) Many of the CFC filmmakers did grapple with the philosophical and methodological differences and conflict between “presentation” and “representation”. Despite Grierson’s concerns and criticisms of media’s role in creating participatory democracy and social change, he did however recognize that CFC’s approach contributed significantly to highlighting local concerns and to the process of decentralization generally. (Grierson 63)

Perhaps George Stoney, executive producer of CFC best encapsulates the particular challenges that CFC members often faced from multiple ends of CFC partnerships – the community, the government and the film board: all voicing some doubt and skepticism about the intent and long term impact of such communications at different moments of CFC experiments with media. These alliances were not without conflict and tension. Covering, engaging, and allowing an insider perspective on thorny problems was never without its challenges, but as Stoney very aptly put, “a non-rocking boat is a sunken ship.”(Stoney p.2-3) To its credit CFC and its efforts to use portable new video technology toward change making remained a rocking boat through its existence!


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

Challenge for Change Original Posters for Films

Challenge For Change Filmographies

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

Grierson, John. “Memo to Michelle about Decentralizing the Means of Production” in 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.

Henaut, Dorothy Todd and Bonnie Sherr Klein. “In the Hands of Citizens: A Video Report” in 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.

Marchessault, Janine. “Amateur Video and the Challenge for Change” in 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.

McLuhan, Marshall. “The Medium is the Message” in Meenakshi Gigi Durham and Douglas M. Kellner edited, Media and Cultural Studies – Key Works. Revised Edition. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2006.

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

Starblanket, Noel. “A Voice for Canadian Indians: An Indian Film Crew” in 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.

Stoney, George. “A non-rocking boat is a sunken ship” in Challenge for Change Newsletter. National Film Board of Canada: Vol. 1 No. 3 (Winter 1968-69)

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.

Williams, Raymond. Television: Technology and Cultural Form. Glasgow: Fontina/Collins, 1978, pp. 9-31.

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