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Sponsored Films
Marc St-Pierre has studied film, theatre, and philosophy. He has been a collection analyst at the National Film Board of Canada since 2004.

Introduction
In the 1960s and 1970s, over half the films about the environment were sponsored. They were ordered by various federal departments and all had a propaganda angle. Some are of high quality and over time have become classics.

A Monopoly
Sponsored films made up almost a quarter of all films produced and distributed by the NFB from its founding until 1980. For more than 40 years, the NFB was the exclusive producer of films for the federal government. From 1981 on, most sponsored films would be made by private-sector producers.

Well-Defined Goals and Target Audience
Foresters (view an excerpt) is a good example of the kinds of sponsored films produced by the NFB in the 1960s. Made for the Ministry of Fisheries and Forests, Foresters had three clear goals: emphasizing the importance of forest conservation, fostering understanding of the work foresters do, and encouraging young people to go into the profession. While the issues raised in the film could be of interest to all, it is clearly aimed primarily at youth.

A Clear Message
Foresters (view an excerpt) does not offer a critical look at the forestry industry, and doesn’t attempt to cloak its purpose. The film seeks to persuade viewers that the forester, who works for the Ministry of Fisheries and Forests, is doing his job well. He is an effective guardian of the forest with a powerful tool at his disposal: modern science. The idea of controlling nature through science recurs frequently in sponsored films of this era.


An Industry in Danger?
Tomorrow is Too Late (view an excerpt) was made for Environment Canada’s Fisheries and Marine Services. Like Foresters, it aims to show the public the good work being done by ministry employees. The film looks at efforts to conserve and restore fish stocks in Canadian waters. While the tone and title of the film may seem alarmist, Tomorrow is Too Late (view an excerpt) does not really sound the alarm over threats to Canada’s fishing industry. Rather, it makes the case that fisheries officers are doing an excellent job of surveying and protecting stocks, and offers a positive look at ministry programs. The film is concerned more with reassuring viewers than with causing concern.

Studio E
The Challenge for Change program sought to turn documentary into a tool for social change. In 1974, in the midst of the Challenge for Change era, the NFB’s English Program created Studio E, which was to focus on the environment. Some sponsored films were produced through the studio. One of them was Operation Conservation (view an excerpt), funded by the Department of National Defence and released in 1977.

Energy Conservation
Operation Conservation (view an excerpt) is aimed at employees of the Department of National Defence and the Canadian population at large. Instead of singing the praises of DND employees, this film offers them tips on conserving energy. It notes that oil reserves could be depleted in the near future, and that everyone must do their part for energy conservation. The Department of National Defence uses more energy than any other federal ministry, so they want to set a good example. But is that really all there is to this film?

The Context: Crisis
1973 was the year of a global oil crisis. The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) put an embargo on exports to Western countries to punish them for supporting Israel in wars against Arab states. When oil exports resumed, OPEC increased the price of a barrel of crude oil by 70%. The embargo and sharp price increase created scarcity and skyrocketing prices at the pumps. A series of negotiations with OPEC ensued, with the targeted Western countries eventually forced to modify some of their policies seen as too favourable to Israel. The crisis was over by March 1974.


A Sense of Power
This series of events made consumers aware that petroleum politics were part of a battle with OPEC countries. In fact, the pre-release version of Operation Conservation (view an excerpt) was A Sense of Power. It is likely that the film was more about responding to the events of 1973 than to the threat of oil reserves running out – which, as we know, has yet to happen.

A Personal Approach
Not all sponsored films had a message, attempted to promote the activities of a ministry, or sought to persuade people to the benefits of an idea or course of action. They could take a more subtle point of view, and some – through the efforts of their directors – even became personal films. One of the best examples of this type of film is Death of a Legend (view an excerpt) by filmmaker Bill Mason.

From Film to Television
In fall 1966 the Canadian Wildlife Service asked the NFB to produce a short film on North American wolves to promote conservation efforts of the Service. The film was meant to place the wolf in a positive light, and show how this predator plays an important role in maintaining ecological balance. Death of a Legend (view an excerpt) was originally to be shot in 35 mm and launched the following year as part of Canada’s centennial celebrations. In the end, it was shot in 16 mm and premiered on television in fall 1971.

A Classic
It took Bill Mason three years to shoot the footage he needed, including images of wolves filmed in their natural habitat on Baffin Island in the Arctic. Mason also brought back two wolves, which he raised in captivity. This allowed him to film images capturing an event that had never been seen before: the birth of seven wolf cubs. He would later return to the Arctic to release four of the wolf cubs and film them as they adapted to an unfamiliar environment. Death of a Legend (view an excerpt) offered a new way of looking at wolves. It debunked the notion that wolves were ferocious, bloodthirsty killers, and focused instead on their social organization and life cycle. The film was first broadcast on CBC on September 28, 1971. It would gain large audiences and many awards, and, in time, was recognized as an NFB classic.


See film excerpts
Operation Conservation
Excerpt (3:17)
Tomorrow Is Too Late
Excerpt (1:33)
Foresters
Excerpt (1:26)
Tomorrow Is Too Late
 
 

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Excerpt  (1:33) 1974, production : Bané Jovanovic, Douglas Kiefer, Don Virgo
 
 
This film attempts to show that Environment Canada's Fisheries and Marine Services is doing its job well. The government has raised standards for salmon conservation and agents of the ministry conduct frequent and thorough surveys.