WHEN the National Film Board of Canada (NFB) celebrates its 50th anniversary in May, one of its divisions will just be marking its 15th year. It's called Studio D, and while it's still rather young, it could well be the most talked-about branch of the NFB operation - with activities and priorities that have generated more than their share of controversy. The board describes Studio D as ``the first ever all-women's filmmaking unit.'' It was established in 1974 as part of the NFB's continuing effort to give all segments of the Canadian public meaningful access to its government-funded facilities. Since its founding, the studio has earned solid respect not only from filmmakers and feminists, but from the public and even Hollywood's influential Academy Award voters - who have bestowed three Oscars on Studio D productions.
Why did the NFB decide to establish a separate unit devoted entirely to women? ``They realized at last that there was a huge audience of women out there,'' says Kathleen Shannon, who founded the studio and served as executive director for its first 14 years. She is one of the pioneers who drafted the original Studio D proposal in an effort to change the status of women at the NFB, which, she says, ``was pretty appalling.''
The board accepted the proposal's ideas and moved to enhance the status of women through a new production facility. ``It all started as a form of tokenism, in a sense,'' Ms. Shannon says. ``But when tokenism is all you can get, you can do remarkable things with it!''
The mandate for Studio D was based on five points, according to Shannon:
Providing employment opportunities for women.
Providing training opportunities for women.
Meeting the information needs of women.
Creating an environment that would facilitate ``exploring our creativity in our own way.''
Bringing the perspective of women to bear ``on all social issues.''
Another motive in the founding of Studio D, according to Shannon, was an attempt to answer a fundamental question: If a ``women's aesthetic'' were given a chance to flourish on its own terms, would it be different from the masculine approach that has dominated cinema since its beginnings?
Shannon says the answer has turned out to be a resounding yes. Even on a basic technical level, she asserts, ``a woman's camera work tends to be different from a man's. We see differently, because we learn to see differently in our lives.''
Shannon illustrates her point with a practical example. ``A few years ago,'' she says, ``I could have predicted what would happen if you sent a cameraman to take some shots of a Montreal street. His footage would show mainly white men between the ages of 18 and 50. There would be a few pretty girls, but none over 30 - unless it were somebody quite ethnic, like a 90-year-old with lots of wrinkles, so people could exclaim what a `wonderful face' she had. There wouldn't be a lot of female heads, but there would be other parts of their bodies.
``I've never seen women show women like that,'' Shannon continues. ``Women tend to focus on heads, and to show a person as a whole human being.... We had some footage shot in New York - first men did the shooting, and then women - and we noticed that the women generally showed people in some kind of relationship with each other. The men didn't. They liked to show people going somewhere in a hurry.''
In all, says Shannon, the Studio D experiment has borne out her feeling that ``a really different life experience does create a different way of expressing.'' She stresses that the situation has improved in recent years, though. ``Grossly sexist attitudes tend to be questioned a little more than ... 15 years ago,'' she states. ``And the mass media have changed a little, partly because of better employment opportunities for women there.''
The original plan for Studio D was to base it on ``a small, flexible core group'' of filmmakers, so that a large number of women could make films there and then move on to other activities. This changed because of ``management pressure to have staff filmmakers,'' and before long ``a stable of permanent filmmakers'' was attached to the studio. Still, says Shannon, half the studio's films have always been made by ``outsiders'' not permanently employed by the NFB.
Many of Studio D's personnel, Shannon says, would agree that ``our primary identification has not been as filmmakers, but as Canadian women at this time in history.'' The feminist movement has also played a part in shaping their aspirations.
``I've used my filmmaking skills - which I was almost uniquely lucky to be able to get - toward goals I share with other Canadian women,'' Shannon explains. ``And we had a movement to plug into that's perhaps the most important social movement of this century. This gave us a strong sense of community, purpose, jobs to be done, and goals to be reached. That creates a lot of energy and sense of commitment. ... Still, we haven't followed a narrow party line. Feminism values diversity, and we've had lots of that. Some women in Studio D might not have called themselves feminists at all!''
What reaction has the NFB had toward Studio D over the years? ``At first there was support,'' Shannon reports. ``There was also jeering and misogynist mocking.'' During a period when a strong program committee held sway at the board, Studio D filmmakers often had trouble getting projects approved. ``Then we won our first Oscar,'' says Shannon sardonically, ``and we became very popular. Like mascots.''
Today, according to Shannon and other NFB figures, Studio D is a solidly established NFB branch with a busy agenda for the future. This includes an impending reorganization of the unit, whereby established Studio D directors will be attached to other NFB studios, thus bringing more women to male-dominated units and making room for more new faces (especially from racial and ethnic minorities) in Studio D itself. An increase in Studio D production may also result from the new structural changes, which are in line with Shannon's longtime hope that the studio will begin to tackle racial problems more vigorously than in the past - a difficult area to deal with, since barriers faced by an aspiring nonwhite filmmaker can become insurmountable long before that filmmaker reaches the point of approaching a major organization like the NFB.