MONTREAL — SEEN from the highway that runs by its main entrance, the National Film Board of Canada (NFB) looks more like a factory than an arts center. Inside, the atmosphere has a more aesthetic flavor. But the rooms and corridors have a busy look that conjures up the industrial as well as the artistic. All of which adds up to a message that's readable in every inch of the board's headquarters: This is a place where imagination, inventiveness, and creativity are nurtured by practical people in no-nonsense circumstances.
The Film Board turns 50 years old on May 2, and the cinema world is already preparing a string of tributes and celebrations in honor of an institution that's unique in all the world. One such event will be a major NFB retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Nowhere else has a government film agency racked up such an impressive reputation on at least three levels: for artistic quality, for thoughtfulness, and for independence from governmental influence as well as the whims of fashion.
Not that every moviegoer is enthusiastic about the Film Board's record. A taxi driver in Montreal voices an alternative viewpoint - scorning the board for making ``intellectual'' pictures that ``average people'' find irrelevant and dull.
One wonders if such critics have actually seen many NFB productions, though. Have they encountered, say, ``The Big Snit,'' a freewheeling cartoon about the not-so-different subjects of household quarreling and worldwide warmaking? Like many another NFB prizewinner, it does provoke serious thought. But its context is no more ``intellectual'' than its title or its wacky animated images.
In a different vein, have the skeptics seen ``Train of Dreams,'' which portrays a teen-age prison inmate in terms as blunt and streetwise as its own hero? Have they seen the NFB's trailblazing studies of such tough topics as incest and pornography? Have they sampled the products of Studio D, a production unit devoted entirely to women?
Some of this work does qualify as intellectual, or at least serious and reflective. Yet few of the board's best films are solemn, and almost none are elitist. For the past five decades, NFB filmmakers and administrators have clung proudly to their original mandate: to interpret Canada for Canadians and for the world. It's a broad mandate that allows an enormously wide range of activity.
The board reaches an awesome quantity of ``average people,'' moreover. ``Over a billion people saw our films around the world last year,'' reports Anthony Kent, who works in the NFB's international distribution wing.
The structure of the Film Board is a canny mixture of centralized and decentralized offices. The headquarters building houses production facilities, divided into English-speaking and French-speaking departments. The board also has branches in 12 Canadian cities, six of which have their own production facilities as well as distribution and marketing operations. The films are also marketed internationally through offices in Paris, London, and New York.
What these offices distribute is a prodigious number of movies: More than 17,000 have flooded from the NFB's busy cameras so far. Of that number, more than 6,500 are full-fledged original productions. The rest are adaptations, revisions, newsreels, multilingual versions of existing films, and the like.
In the course of making all these pictures, the board has found itself on the leading edge of technical development in cinema, and current projects in the research-and-development stage sound impressive - such as a gadget called ``The Brain,'' a multiaxis camera and ``object motion control system.''
FORTUNATELY for the movie world, the Film Board doesn't like to work in isolation. Co-productions, often in conjunction with TV outlets, are an increasingly high priority with NFB administrators. Current projects include a cooperative production with PBS-TV in the United States and, more exotically, a co-production with China's enterprising Xian Film Studio that utilizes the elaborate IMAX system of large-screen projection.
``Co-productions allow us to do more expensive projects that we couldn't do otherwise,'' says Colin Neale, an NFB executive producer. Now in the planning stage, he adds, is a series of six hour-long films on urbanization in developing countries, to be co-produced with Channel 4 television in the United Kingdom.
Internationalism is a high priority at the board. Even pictures made with Canadians in mind, Mr. Kent says, can reach out to people in very different cultures. As an example he cites ``Loved, Honored, and Bruised,'' a film on battered wives - made for Canada yet shown as far away as Nigeria, where it was accompanied by a lively panel discussion that pointed up the universal importance of its message.
Another priority is using modern video technology to disseminate films. Kent reports that TV screens accounted for 85 percent of the NFB's worldwide audience in the past year. This makes a sharp contrast with bygone times, when spectators saw NFB films largely on 16-mm screens in schools, libraries, church basements, and union meeting rooms. Today, the advent of video is revolutionizing the distribution of NFB products in two ways - making them more accessible to viewers in their own homes, and leading the board to aim its marketing at individuals as well as institutions.
``I think the opportunities that video technology offers are enormous,'' says Thomas J. Bindon, the board's director of international marketing. ``I'm especially heartened by the new video formats that will be coming out - high-definition video and that sort of thing.'' Yet changes in technology pose challenges, too. Barbara Emo, who recently became the NFB's director of English-language programming, points out the difficulty of choosing from the growing assortment of options - since any exciting (and expensive) new technology may become dated or even obsolete almost as soon as it's purchased and deployed.
In any case, what matters most at the NFB is the films themselves, regardless of how audiences eventually come to see them. Here, diversity - in a Canadian context, of course - is what counts.
``We're creating films for various audiences,'' says Douglas Macdonald, a longtime NFB producer in the English-speaking animation department. ``We have one group of films loosely called `Just for Kids,' for instance. They're all directed to children between five and about 11 years old.
``On the other end of the spectrum we have the `65 Plus' series, where we're creating films specifically for seniors. The first film, `George and Rosemary,' deals with romance after 65. And although we designed it for older people, it's a crossover film that's winning audiences with all age groups. We were delighted to recognize that kids in high school loved it, because what it deals with is a first date!''
Since the Film Board operates in a country that has two widely spoken languages, is there a substantial difference between its English- and French-speaking productions? ``There has always been a perception that there is a cultural difference,'' says Ms. Emo, ``and I think there probably is, because [the French production departments] are addressing the Quebec market. The kinds of films they make have a different perspective from the kinds we make.
``Certainly it's more than just an administrative separation,'' Emo adds. ``It's a real and valid cultural separation. But we're under the same roof, and we sit at the same table, and we discuss budget allocations and common policy, so in that sense we work together.''
The future looks vigorous for all production - French and English, animation and live action - at the NFB. Recent years have brought budget squeezes and policy questions to the board, including doubts from some people in the Canadian public about the necessity of government-sponsored film production in today's economic climate. Such questions prompt discussion and concern at the NFB, but filmmaking goes on at full thrust even while the debates continue.
``The first 50 years were the easy part,'' says a longtime NFB producer. ``The next 50 are the challenge.''