Art, Arts & Life

Country, know thyself: Shameless Propaganda

Longtime National Film Board (NFB) filmmaker Bob Lower turns the camera back on the NFB and Canada during WWII in his new feature Shameless Propaganda, depicting the birth of the NFB amid a mandate to drum-up support for England during the war. Lower watched over 400 NFB films in preparing to write, direct, narrate and edit the film—a passion project which was carefully constructed over several years. At the film’s centre is the Englishman John Grierson, summoned to Canada by Prime Minister Mackenzie King and charged with the task of convincing Canadians they lived in a country worth fighting for.

Shameless portrays Grierson in the film as an authoritative tyrant, steadfastly devoted to democratic values. Lower’s balancing act between admiration and distrust of Grierson’s methods (often charged with lying by ‘omission’, ignoring regional tensions and marginalizing minorities) provide a compelling vehicle for Canadians young and old to look back on this part of our history—to carefully consider the propaganda of our own times, good and bad, which has formed our idea of ‘Canada’.

Below is a transcript of our interview. Note the film can be viewed for free here.

Q: I really like the title, and feel as though it acts as something of a misnomer. Within the first minute the viewer is let in on the fact that the film is not your standard, moralist attack on “propaganda.” Did you have this title in mind from the beginning of the project.

Bob Lower: Usually a film idea comes together over a period of time, and the title is often difficult to arrive at or even left to last. In this case both came in a moment, as it were. I got the idea as soon as I read the Grierson, “Take them by the throat” quote in Graham McInnes/Gene Walz’s book, One Man’s Documentary. And within 24 hours I knew the title. At first, it was a kind of joke and a play on words – Grierson took pride in being an (ethical) propagandist, and I thought, “The NFB – now that’s propaganda we can be proud of.” Using shameless in its literal sense, in other words.

That changed over time as I realized that propaganda always has pitfalls and those create its dark side. They weren’t reporting, they were projecting their notion of what Canada was and should be. That necessarily includes prejudices and illusions that lead to distortions – unintended, often unconscious, but distortions none the less. But I kept the title – whatever else it was, it was propaganda produced with no shame. It’s a catchy title and I let the audience decide the moral nuances. I make my own views clear in the last two minutes. If ambivalence can be called clear.

Q: In the film you mention how the rifts accentuated by NFB films around WW II (notably the marginalization of Quebec; ramping up the exoticism of Indigenous peoples) are still with us today. On this topic: is their anything in particular you were hoping young people might go away from this film mulling over in their heads?

BL:  I think it’s hard for young people to identify with the attitudes of an older generation, especially when those attitudes seem so antiquated. I could do it because their attitudes were given directly to me and I had to grow out of them. I guess I would say, put away notions of these people being less smart or less aware than you and grant them the credit of being as aware in their own time as you are in yours. It’s tempting to laugh at naivete or cluck at ignorance. Instead, wonder where it’s hiding in your own life, in all our lives, today. Because it unquestionably is, whether it’s toward marginalized groups or treatment of animals or assumptions about, say, Muslims or the Chinese government. Question authority, question yourself. That’s the lesson learned in looking back.

Q: At the film’s opening you said that, when you started going through the archival footage you expected an ‘overarching narrative’ to pop out at you; but that hadn’t happened, and this proved to be the principal obstacle to overcome in bringing the film together. This struck me as a problem very particular to Canadian history—all lateral, sometimes countervailing threads; with the reality always too complex for a proper Hollywood ending. That said, do you think its a coincidence that it took an Englishman in Grierson to “hammer” out a seamless, coherent identity for the country in film?

BL: What a good question, and one I didn’t ask myself in time. I know that he toured Canada and talked to a lot of Canadians before writing the report he was hired to make. I’ve never read that report, if it still exists, and it may contain the answer. Certainly I think, but this is only me in the privacy of my imagination until now, that it was his distance from Canada and his familiarity with a nation (Britain) with a spectacular degree of self-awareness and pride that allowed him to come to the profound insight that he did—that what Canadians REALLY needed was a sense of nationhood.

Q: In the film when you brought up Grierson’s quote ‘We’ve got to take the Canadian people by the throat, and convince them they are a great people’, I couldn’t help thinking of what the current government has been doing since in power, trying to lambast our way into becoming an energy superpower. Do you think their PR campaign for the energy industry bears any resemblance at all to what Grierson was trying to do? If so, do you think they’re doing as good a job at ‘Propaganda’ as Grierson did in the 30s?

BL: One person’s propaganda is another person’s (fill in the blank—truth, education, belief…) I think what makes propaganda pernicious is when it uses falsehood or omission knowingly in order to persuade. Given that it was wartime, Grierson used remarkably little of that (though enough). Canadians sensed the core of authenticity in it and embraced it, flaws and all. This government with its anti-democratic methods and clear distrust of the majority, uses advertising techniques to sell things (the tar sands, say, or climate change denial or other anti-science, anti-intellectual, anti-rational policies) and all I hear is skepticism and cynicism. I think their techniques are as good and much more sophisticated, but if there’s falseness at the core, people will not embrace it. Suspicion trumps. Grierson, too, faced suspicion, but his filmmakers overcame it.

But really, that’s just me. I certainly don’t speak for the NFB.

Q: Given the vast change between now and 1930 in how (and how much) Canadians consume media, do you feel propaganda as a force for ‘good’ has had its day in this country?

BL: No. Not at all. I think public education is essential in this incredibly complex world. But governments all over the world have used distortion and lies to hang on to power. It would be very difficult to convince people of the truth of an educational campaign designed to get them behind a controversial government policy. Look at Obama’s experience with healthcare. It was much easier for the malevolent forces of private monopoly to convince people he was lying than it was to get across the simple truth of common sense universal health care.

If a government wants to bring about change and needs controversial policies to do it, it has to combine its education/propaganda with a credible culture of transparency and sincerity, something very risky in a political climate of predators and 30 second news clips. I’m glad I’m not the guy charged with figuring out how to do it.

Q: The freedom Grierson had been given by Prime Minister King struck me as the sort of decisive move a political leader would never chance in 2014. Care to speculate on how Canada as a nation might be different today if King had never invited Grierson from Britain, and the NFB never was?

BL: Canada? Well that, as I like to say, is way above my pay grade (kind of a silly statement for a freelance documentary filmmaker to make—virtually everything is above my pay grade). But I can tell you it would have changed my life. The reputation of the NFB in the 60s is why I’m a filmmaker. And that goes for most of my contemporaries. Making my first film for the NFB was like today’s drama directors getting a call from Spielberg. And I think the NFB has really contributed, especially in the pre-thousand-channel world, to our self-perception as nice, compassionate, peace-loving people who just want to get along.

Even if that, like American illusions of liberty, has disturbingly little conjunction with historical truth, it’s a wonderful ideal to aspire to and live up to.

And it’s proving distressingly easy for the Harper Regime to undermine. But again, that’s just me.