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Documentary reveals National Film Board's "shameless" wartime propaganda

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TORONTO - The National Film Board has always been a medium for telling Canadians about Canada. But in its early years, the public film agency took that objective a step further — to produce the "boldest and most successful propaganda effort in our history," a new documentary reveals.

"Shameless Propaganda," airing Tuesday on the CBC channel documentary, examines the formative wartime years of the NFB between 1939 and 1945. Under the leadership of founding commissioner John Grierson, the agency sought to convince Canadians they had a country worth dying for.

"When I first came up with the title, my thought was this is a little play on words, because this is the kind of propaganda we need not be ashamed of," said Winnipeg-based director Robert Lower, who also wrote the film.

"Part of the reason I called it 'Shameless Propaganda' was because Grierson called it propaganda. He believed he was involved in a propaganda war with Stalin and Hitler... He was very proudly a propagandist and wouldn't have denied that for a second."

The NFB was created in 1939 to centralize Canadian government film production under the leadership of Mackenzie King. Its creation happened to coincide with the beginning of the Second World War, prompting its goals to broaden from promoting public health and education to getting Canadians behind the war.

Grierson, a pioneering Scottish-born documentary filmmaker, was selected to be its first commissioner. He is presented as a powerful personality who didn't mince his words and made enemies easily. But he attracted terrific loyalty from those on his side, and believed fully in the NFB's goals.

"We need to take Canadians by the throat and convince them they're a great people," he once said. "How do we do that in film? Answer me that one."

Grierson certainly tried — the NFB produced an astonishing 500 films between 1939 and 1945. From ice hockey to coal mines to the Alberta tar sands, the films explore a variety of topics but all try to paint a picture of a united, industrialized Canada.

"What they tried to introduce into every film they possibly could was Canadians' love and value of democracy and the notion that all Canadians wanted to spend their lives working their hearts out, which of course also served the war effort," says Lower.

But as Lower watched the hundreds of documentaries — a "fairly gruelling" task, he admitted — his title "Shameless Propaganda" became more complex. Even though the NFB was propagandizing democracy, it was also emphasizing all the positives about Canada while hiding the negatives, he said.

"Through today's eyes, there were a lot of things they were glossing over and even propagating, as you see in the material about the Japanese-Canadians and Native and Inuit," he said.

Depictions of non-Anglo-Saxons are often stereotypical and condescending, when depicted at all. Others are even more damaging: In 1944, the NFB commissioned "Of Japanese Descent" to promote post-war reconciliation.

The film implies that thousands of Japanese-Canadians were banished to internment camps not because of their race, but because their prior living conditions in fishing villages were unsuitable. One of the internment camps — here called "relocation districts" — is described as "one of the most beautifully situated and one of the healthiest spots."

Lower makes a point of presenting these dark periods in Canadian history, but also questioning how far we have come. Racism and privilege have not vanished from our society, he points out in the documentary.

"This wasn't a mistake they made that we have since corrected, this was the beginning of a process that still goes on," he said, adding he hoped viewers would "take it easy" on the filmmakers since they were capturing the zeitgeist of the time.

"Look, just because they did those things, doesn't mean they weren't doing something very positive and progressive at the same time, which was introducing Canada to Canadians, and starting the conversation... It had a lot of mistakes that you make whenever you start a conversation about something that is controversial."

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