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Mix It Up With The NFB

ESSENCE OF LIFE With interactive sites to complement documentaries like Waterlife, the NFB takes its 70-year tradition of telling people's stories to a new level.

With interactive sites to complement documentaries like Waterlife, the NFB takes its 70-year tradition of telling people’s stories to a new level.

The National Film Board of Canada‘s ongoing digital transformation is astonishing. The home of iconic Oscar-winning films from Canada’s past—like Neighbours and Churchill’s Island—has been digitizing its assets for years, and now has a huge library from seven decades of existence to view for free online.

All the classic NFB films familiar to Canadians are online:  Buster Keaton Rides Again, The Railrodder, Paddle to the Sea, If You Love This Planet, The Big Snit, Project Grizzly, Don Owen’s Nobody Waved Good-bye, those brilliant animated shorts by Norman McLaren. They’re all there, indexed alphabetically by title, director, keywords, genre, language and year. For the uninitiated, or for those who don’t even know where to begin, there are even “playlists” created by invited experts and media personalities to make navigating the content easier. Films are even grouped by specific interest channels.

Just as fascinating is the NFB’s new online initiative: a series of engaging interactive website documentaries with lush web environments produced using Flash and other cutting-edge development software. The interactive elements include moving and static imagery—both illustrated and photographic—layered text and video elements, with various sound and visual media montages accentuating information.

These sites tell stories unique to the Canadian experience, but in an engaging, new way. Welcome to Pine Point, by the Goggles (Paul Shoebridge and Michael Simons) is a nostalgic look on a northern Canadian industrial mining town that no longer exists, based on the ruminations of Richard Cloutier, a former resident. Out My Window, by Katerina Cizek, part of the larger Highrise project, is dubbed a 360° documentary, one that audio-visually explores how different cultures live and interact with each other in highrise apartment building complexes.

In Crash Course: Creative Lessons On Surviving An Economic Tsunami, filmmaker, musician and media personality Nobu Adilman tries to make sense of the global recession—and his own—by visiting Buenos Aires, to see how they’ve managed their economic hardships over the years. Part audio-visual travelogue and part cultural history lesson, Adilman enters into a dialogue with locals on how they creatively manage their lives, in both art and business.

Others fascinating works include The Test Tube, with David Suzuki, a reminder of cause and effect of exponential growth and what it means to us humans, and the remarkable Waterlife, a collection of stories by people living around the last great supply of fresh drinking water on Earth (The Great Lakes). It is a companion to the NFB documentary of the same name.

These websites speak to various aspects of the human condition, and the subject matter in all these works touch upon the various realities, frailties, delights and challenges we face as human beings living on this planet.

These innovative works—some stories look forward, others look back—are part film, part soundtrack, part photo album, part essay; but the sum of these parts is something else entirely, something new and fresh.

For decades, we’ve been fortunate in Canada to have had the NFB as an important part of our cinematic heritage. Its international reputation and reach in film circles and in educational institutions is inarguably secure. Now though—more than ever—a wider audience all over the planet can easily comb through the plethora of works from the comfort of their own homes. There they can witness for themselves why the NFB is so highly-regarded.

Michael Thorner tweets at @michaelthorner

This is an expanded version, originally published in edited form in IN Toronto Magazine, April 2011 issue.