In 1996 the federal government published the findings of the Mandate Review Committee’s Juneau Report—a review of the mandates for the NFB, CBC and Telefilm Canada. The report recommended that the NFB refocus its resources on production and freelance talent, instead of permanent staff within the centralized location of Montreal. Federal cuts to these Canadian cultural institutions soon followed the issuing of the Juneau Report and resulted in the organizational restructuring of the NFB.
In an attempt to encourage collaboration throughout the NFB, the board dissolved its segregated film units. The dissolution of Studio D and its sub-units was thus justified by the argument that reporting on women’s issues and providing training and creating employment opportunities for women should not be limited to a particular area or unit, but should be, as government commissioner and NFB Chair Sandra MacDonald said to Members of Parliament in May 1996, “an across-the-board obligation.” The closure of Studio D represented, as Canadian film scholar Gail Vanstone writes, “a lamentable official retreat from women’s issues,” and signaled “a new chapter in the struggle of Canadian women nationally to have their voices heard and stories taken seriously.” And yet, it is also arguable that the logical end result of Studio D’s vision of unified diversity could only be the dissolution of the segregated unit itself for the sake of full integration of women’s voices throughout a more fluid NFB. Studio D’s films imagined possibilities for finding equality and embracing coexistence, and these imaginings served as evidence that the next step toward gender equality was the re-integration of women’s voices throughout the NFB.
The closure of Studio D thus exemplifies the NFB’s contradictory retreat from and embrace of feminist organizing, advocacy and research in Canadian film; it also marks the final stage of Studio D’s realignment with the NFB. The depoliticization of feminist perspectives is not limited to the NFB, but as Status Quo? helps to reveal, it has taken a number of forms in Canadian social, political and economic institutions. Close to the beginning of the film, Cho includes a 1982 clip of NDP Member of Parliament Margaret Mitchell insisting that the House of Commons address the issue of spousal abuse. Mitchell says that, according to a parliamentary report on battered wives, “one in ten husbands beat their wives regularly.” Her appeal to discuss the matter, however, is met with laughter. Subtitles are provided to capture one man calling out, “I don’t beat my wife, do you beat your wife George?” The derision that met Mitchell’s statement could suggest that the general public’s understanding of women’s issues has significantly changed since the 80’s. However, interviewee Lee Lakeman of the Vancouver Rape Relief and Women’s Shelter Collective explains that while this statistic would not likely be met with laughter today, it is rare that an MP would bring up the issue of abuse against women in the House of Commons. Significant evidence proves that women face violence in the home and elsewhere, and yet our MP’s are unwilling to discuss the matter. Despite the fact that Canada believes itself to be beyond gendered inequality, there is little concern for the persistence of those issues first addressed in an official capacity during the RCSW hearings. In light of this growing disregard for the material struggles and abuses of women, Status Quo? stresses the need to reopen the debate about gender inequality in Canada.
By providing a survey of feminist causes that are either immobile or in fact losing ground, including examples such as the official disregard for murdered Aboriginal women, the failure to provide access to abortion clinics in New Brunswick, the absurdity of the $100 monthly federal childcare subsidy, and the false promises made to immigrant childcare workers, Status Quo? takes up the representational project that Studio D once began. But considering the trajectory of Studio D, Status Quo?’s alignment with the NFB begs the question: can the representation of women’s stories still motivate women’s movements in Canada? Or do such representations only contribute to a larger image of equality, an image that softens the blatant inequalities women still encounter, and thereby fails to provoke action?
KNOWING OUR HISTORY
During the Know Your History event this year, the NFB also provided free access to Jenn Strom’s short film Assembly, an animated homage to Kathleen Shannon and Studio D. In the first few minutes of the film, a woman’s hands splice together numerous images of reel film on an editing table. The animated hands bring together clips of women marching, rallying, writing, giving speeches; disjointed excerpts of Shannon’s voice overlay the soundscape of cuts and edits. Assembly thus conveys the foundational promise of the social realist documentary film: by holding together diverse and localized images of an alienated group, a filmmaker can motivate various groups to assemble as a united, in this case, feminist community. The audio clip Strom has chosen to include appropriately encapsulates this motivation for collective resistance against dismissive assumptions and false representations: “We have to stop being invalidated by people who call us idealistic, or naïve, or too emotional or all these other things that are said to silence the brilliance of ordinary people.” But the meaning of Shannon’s words is only audible once the animated screen turns black. Without cohesively uniting voice and image, Assembly fails to forge a unity between Shannon’s call for feminist action and the images of women organizing. Assembly thus laments the loss of filmmaking specifically focused on women’s issues, or in this particular case, Shannon’s most significant legacy, Studio D.
It would be easy to conclude that Kathleen Shannon and the filmmakers of Studio D got it wrong: their liberal feminism, which sought to unify women through the representation of diversity, had clear similarities to the NFB’s nationalizing aesthetic. But at a foundational level, Studio D intended to disrupt any alienating and invalidating assumptions about women by politicizing the experiential through the feminist/social realist documentary form. The project’s redundancy was instigated by the social and political forces that looked to the increased representation of women’s issues as evidence of progress toward equality. Looking back at Studio D, we can perhaps recognize that, while the unit’s larger project may have led to its own demise, this history marks an integral moment in feminist organizing and reform. In order to address the systemic forces that have dismissed women’s voices and struggles today, we need to learn this history, among many others, and imagine more radical ways to influence change in our particularly immobilizing positions within the status quo. ♦