Studio D was first located in the basement of the NFB headquarters in Montreal and was, perhaps unsurprisingly, an underfunded unit during its early years. When presented with the challenges of working with a small budget in 1974, Studio D used its funds to launch and produce training project Just a Minute, a series consisting of twenty-three short films made by women across the country. This collection of one-minute films only scrapes the surface of various feminist issues and women’s experiences throughout Canada. Upon its release, Just a Minute left its audiences desiring more knowledge about these stories of feminist advocacy and action. This innovative and critical resourcefulness allowed Studio D to quickly develop a supportive audience and eventually produce three Academy Award winning-films: Beverly Shaffer’s I’ll Find a Way (1978), Terre Nash’s If You Love this Planet (1982), and Cynthia Scott’s Flamenco at 5:15 (1984). Studio D’s successes provided the unit with, Anderson writes, “the advantage of job security and eventually a fairly consistent amount of funding.” But while Studio D gained its legitimacy within the NFB, feminist filmmakers not employed by the film board found it increasingly difficult to receive funding and recognition for their work: “it could be argued,” Anderson writes, “that this institutional legitimation worked against Studio D by eroding its connections to feminist film culture.” Moreover, because many of Studio D’s films maintained the traditionally didactic and objective forms of NFB documentaries, experimental and radical feminist filmmakers criticized the unit for being elitist and exclusionary, both in their workplace and in the films they produced.
Bonnie Sherr Klein’s 1981 documentary, Not a Love Story: A Film About Pornography, encapsulates the challenges Studio D faced when attempting to disrupt patriarchal norms in a larger project of feminist community building. Many women both within and outside of the unit celebrated the film for “representing the first collage of pornographic culture,” Chris Sherbarth writes, “presented from a critical—and accessible—perspective.” Not a Love Story fulfilled Studio D’s larger intention to both document feminist movements and take part in their impetus insofar as Klein’s documentary simultaneously recorded and contributed to the anti-pornography movement in 1980s. But the film was also criticized for its employment of inherited cinematic forms and its imposition of stagnating moral judgments. Much like Studio D, Not a Love Story functioned as a point of contention for many feminist groups invested in the possibilities of representation.
During Not a Love Story’s initial interviews, Klein explains that her primary motivation for researching and documenting the sex industry is to protect her own daughter from being ideologically influenced and violated by pornographic magazines. But it is Linda Lee Tracy, an infamous Montreal-based stripper with a comedic and arguably parodic Little Red Riding Hood act, who becomes the central focus of Klein’s project. Under the supervision and guidance of the filmmakers, Linda Lee helps to research the amoral world of pornography in which she is professionally involved in. It is through this process that Linda Lee becomes aware of the gender inequalities that allow for the sex industry to thrive, eventually proclaiming that: “it’s starting to get to me on an emotional level.” The documentary concludes with Linda Lee’s discovery of her own moral consciousness, her rejection of porn, and her liberation from the oppressive world of the sex industry.
Coupled with this didactic representation of Linda Lee’s journey is the filmmakers’ decision to embrace traditional cinematic practices that objectify and further enforce polarized perceptions of gender and sexuality. The most obvious example of this formal choice is the documentation of women working in porn. Rather than showing the point of view of the woman facing the audience or camera, Not a Love Story captures its subjects from the perspectives of the observer. As American film scholar and critic B. Ruby Rich writes, “Not a Love Story is no call to arms, but rather an exercise in show-and-tell. Gaze at the forbidden, react with your choice of anger or outrage or grief… and leave a changed person.” Like Linda Lee, Not a Love Story’s audience is invited to sit in the position of the masculine observer, to witness the commodification of women’s sexuality, and to applaud one woman’s choice to liberate herself from the degrading world of porn. These didactic tools effectively communicate Not a Love Story’s message: porn is degrading, and the informed subject can find refuge from such patriarchal degradation by embracing a more balanced instance of heteronormative love.
Klein’s film thus demonstrates, at least for many of its critics, the limitations of Studio D’s liberal feminism. Much like the testimonies gathered by the RCSW, Studio D films collected women’s stories in an attempt to better represent issues that had been unjustly neglected; the Studio’s larger project was to invoke advocacy and activism by challenging the status quo. But somewhere along the way, Studio D’s films began to realign with the objective, rational, and arguably patriarchal representational norms of the NFB. Film Studies scholar Dianne Burgess writes, “the studio’s philosophy centered on a liberal feminist perception of unity in difference that exerted a reductive pressure on the shifting definitions of feminism.” Studio D set out to fulfill this project by employing inherited modes of inquiry. In doing so, Studio D’s objective—to find community through the representation of difference—came to resemble the larger objective of the NFB—to locate a cohesive national identity through the objective encapsulation of diversity. Like the testimonies that influenced the recommendations of the RCSW, Studio D’s films also contributed to a larger image of difference that did not institute change, but participated in a narrative of progress toward equality.
By the mid-80s, independent feminist filmmaking communities were able to perceive, in light of the lack of experimental films and the abundance of moralizing didactic documentaries produced by the unit, their own contradictory exclusion from Studio D. This feeling of alienation was only heightened by the fact that the unit defined itself as a collective aiming to not only increase women’s professional opportunities in the arts, but to also challenge patriarchal norms of representation. Moreover, there was an increasing lack of available funds to independent filmmakers, sparking competition within the feminist filmmaking community.
In response to these accusations of exclusivity and elitism, Studio D instituted several structural changes. Kathleen Shannon stepped down from her position as executive producer in 1986, after many years of struggling to accommodate Canadian women’s political interests and professional needs within the NFB. The following year Rita Fraticelli was elected to take her place. Although Fraticelli lacked a background in filmmaking, she had clear ideas about how the women’s unit should develop. Fraticelli set out to increase the “political relevance and social consciousness of Studio D’s films” and also to recruit “more filmmakers from outside of the majority of white middle-class culture of Studio D.” In order to institute these ambitious goals, Fratecilli reinstituted the Federal Women’s Film Program (FWTP), a program responsible for producing short informational films about current and pressing women’s issues. With FWTP taking on these explicitly didactic projects, Fraticelli encouraged Studio D to produce more experimental films and hired freelancers from independent filmmaking communities.
Throughout the early 90s, Studio D produced films that diverged from the studio’s earlier didactic strategies. Lynne Fernie and Aerlyn Weissman’s 1992 film, for example, Forbidden Love: The Unashamed Stories of Lesbian Lives, dispenses with traditional cinematic techniques like voice-over narration in exchange for more experimental forms, including fictional dramatizations of 1950s lesbian pulp fiction. Forbidden Love contrasts these romanticized reenactments of lesbian love with women’s real stories of struggle within gay, straight and feminist communities. Unlike many of the previous films produced by Studio D, this technique exposes fragmentation and alienation without affirming a unifying moral.
During her two years as executive producer, Fraticelli also worked alongside filmmaker and civil servant Sylvia Hamilton to develop New Initiatives in Film (NIF), a program “designed to address the under-representation of Women of Colour and Native Women in Canadian film.” Fraticelli and Hamilton’s proposal suggested that NIF would function as a sub-unit of Studio D, just as Studio D functioned as a sub-unit of the NFB, and would contribute to a larger project of differentiation: “This program may be viewed as the beginning of a broader institutional response,” the proposal reads, “to issues of equity, and the corrective measures necessary to bring a stronger correlation between the NFB’s mandate and the current reality of its implementation.” Launched in 1991, NIF not only promised to include these different communities of women in the content of their documentary films, but it also set out to diversify Studio D’s staff. That same year, Studio D released Dionne Brand and Ginny Stikeman’s Sisters in the Struggle (1991), a film that focuses on black women’s participation in political, labour and feminist organizing. Unlike previous films produced by the NFB, Sisters in the Struggle considers the economic and social forces that subject black women to both gender and racial discrimination, outside and within feminist and black movements. This collaborative project challenges the liberal pluralistic ideal of coexistence by focusing on the failures of such ideologies of multiculturalism to actually influence change in Canada.
Despite the success of experimental and political films like Sisters in the Struggle and Forbidden Love, as well as the unit’s public response to accusations of exclusivity, Studio D implemented little change within its own workplace during the early 90s. Dianne Burgess writes: “although the NIF allowed for the professional development of women of colour, problems arise when one faces the reality that these contract positions would not necessarily lead to changes in the management structure at the NFB.” By welcoming more divergent issues and opinions into the women’s unit without implementing substantial change within the institution itself, executive producers subjected outgrowths of Studio D to the same limitations they had inherited from the NFB.
Regardless of the number of divergent films produced, the studio was still governed in accordance with the NFB’s tradition of marketing non-partisan and objective images of difference. This structural oversight leads Elizabeth Anderson to suggest that Studio D’s efforts to produce films about women beyond the narrow demographic of the unit’s permanent staff were in fact token efforts that provided “a comfortable, distant way for audiences to sample the lives of people who exist at the margins of the national community without having to fully engage.” In other words, Studio D’s attempt to better accommodate difference actually realigned the unit with the NFB; Studio D’s sub-units like NIF only tokenized black and indigenous women’s stories in accordance to the aesthetic and political limitations that the NFB bestowed upon Studio D itself.