JWR Articles: Film/DVD - Spotlight on the NFB at 70 (Directors: Roman Kroitor, Colin Low, Phillip Borsos, Terence McCartney-Filgate) - May 4, 2009
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Spotlight on the NFB at 70

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Reviewed at the 2009 Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Film Festival
Seven decades of lovingly preserving the past

Congratulations to the National Film Board of Canada—70 years young, its relevance is stronger than ever. As this quartet of previous productions demonstrate, the history of Canadian society has seldom been so succinctly and universally preserved.

Savouring the easy life

Paul Tomkowicz: Street-Railway Switchman
1953, 9 min.
Four and one-half stars

In 1953 Winnipeg, keeping the trains on time fell to Polish immigrant Paul Tomkowicz. During the winter months—which some would say go on for eight months—the switchman, his well-worn broom and a bucket of salt kept the all-important switch tracks passable for the fleet of streetcars that brought much of the population to work or play.

Nearing the end of his career, Tomkowicz reflects on his “easy job” in this relatively small city (“You could carry Winnipeg in a wheel barrel,” he says comparing his adopted town to Paris) which is not known for middle-of-the-night police visits resulting in sudden death or permanent disappearance …

Feasting on a cholesterol buffet (“the fat keeps me warm”) of three sausages, a half-dozen eggs, stack of bread and much coffee, the contented man realizes that the emergence of the trolley bus will soon threaten his livelihood, but by then mandatory retirement will also ensure that the challenges of helping others get from point A to point B safely and securely will be left to the next generation.

Roman Kroitor’s brief, engaging portrait is still a lesson to us all.


Taming wild horses

Wally's usual horse happily accepts his mount

Corral
1954, 12 min.
Five stars

Corral is a magnificent depiction of how the West was fun. With nary a word being said (raising the degree of global reach considerably) cowboy Wally Jensen herds, selects and a breaks a frisky bronco with a surety of patience and skill that belies the difficult task (for a present-day take on this singular art it’s back to the NFB and John Zaritsky’s latest creation—cross-reference below).

Wolf Koenig’s camera fearlessly steps into the ring, giving a spectacular you-are-there feel. The staff composers (Al Harris, Eldon Rathburn and Stan Wilson) have assembled a score—notably the herding waltz as Wally and his tireless dog make child’s play out of bringing the skittish creatures back to the farm—is at one with the gradually changing relationship between man and beast.

The closing dash to the horizon (shot from a truck—no helicopters here!) visually says, “Mission accomplished: on to the next.” It’s as breathtakingly moving as the dialogue is mute. Filmmaking of the highest sort, indeed.


The original heavy-metal music

Inside and outside a Hamilton mill

Nails
1979 13 min.
Five stars

Here’s a symphony of steel that compellingly marries a fully formed orchestral score (Michael Conway Baker), deft camera work (Ron Orieux) that balances a single blacksmith, crafting one nail at a time, with a Hamilton steel mill that produces hundreds in seconds and stainless-steely editing (Raymond Hall): not a frame is wasted.

With such a stellar crew at his disposal, director Phillip Borsos gives a largely free hand but quietly manages to let the film flow like a musical composition, bookended by the sturdy calmness of oxen at work. As good as Baker’s Holst-informed music is, the aural tour de force arrives when the musicians take a break and the ear is serenaded with the tenor, tone and rhythm of perpetually moving machinery as the massive plant makes its own art with unwavering conviction. What else but the gut, nylon and metal strings of a concert harp could subliminally reinforce the notion of old versus new as this brilliant production winds its way into the coda.


Heroic efforts to harvest death

Row upon row of deadly profit

The Back-Breaking Leaf
1959, 30 min.
Four and one-half stars

A half century ago, the good citizens of Norfolk County, Ontario faced their annual race against time and the elements during the annual tobacco harvest with accustomed stoicism and good humour. Using teams of six (no experience necessary; $14 per day; three solid meals; all of the backache you could imagine), horse-drawn “boats” in the fields, a table gang (usually women whose fingers soon became as raw as the product) and the all-important kiln-and-cure man, the $80 million crop was painstakingly picked then prepared for market.

The challenges facing the largely Belgian, Hungarian and German landowners (who realized the sandy soil and sun-drenched growing season were perfect for the addictive weed) included rain, hail, frost and labour shortages (a telling scene of wage “unrest” could have happened at any GM or Chrysler plant yesterday) during the crucial 6-week “priming” period.

Director Terence McCarney-Filgate has captured both life on and off the fields in a non-intrusive manner that lets the largely migrant workers speak for themselves (“I feel like quitting every day,” offers a veteran). Like the cholesterol-rich feasts that were a daily favourite of Paul Tomkowicz (above), the home-cooked meals were as full of what would now be looked upon with the same disdain by the medical profession as the deadly crop that required such a massive human effort and sacrifice to harvest. Oblivious to all of that and with Eldon Rathburn’s cheery score—replete with a world-class harmonica and spoon practitioner—keeping the pace moving steadily ahead, this film is a compelling portrayal of life in the good old days where folks just went about their business and worked hard, seemingly unaware of the health risks that were feeding their livelihoods. JWR

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