Critical Approaches to Culture + Communications

A Weblog by Ron Burnett (Founded in 1994 and now celebrating 23 Years!!)

This site began as one of the first academic sites in Canada when the World Wide Web was in its early phase of development. I have maintained it through many iterations since 1994.

Video/Film: From Communication To Community (1)

In the late 1960's and early 1970's Challenge for Change was a program at the National Film Board of Canada whose primary mandate was to provoke social change through the use of video and film. Broadly speaking this desire to use the medium as an instrument for an activist relationship to Canadian society, grew out of the recognition that the Film Board needed to be involved in more than the production of films. It needed to connect with and better understand the audiences it was addressing. The audience became an obsession at the Board with specific people assigned to develop polling methods and questionnaires for distribution to the populace at large. After certain films were shown on television, for example, the Film Board phoned people at random to see if they had watched and to pose questions if they had. The case of Challenge for Change is a very interesting one since the premise of their work was pedagogical, but dramatically different from the usual applications of educational film or television.

This issue of connectivity, of the relationship between production and distribution is what distinguishes the Film Board from so many similar organizations elsewhere. The traditions developed during the heyday of the Challenge for Change period were improved upon in the late seventies when the Board decentralized and opened up a series of regional centers across Canada in an effort to build closer ties to the communities it was serving.

I bring up this central issue of connectivity to the community because it is presumably at the heart of the communications effort which people working in video want to establish. However, as the filmmakers associated with Challenge for Change discovered, the task is an extremely difficult one.

What does it mean to try and create a cultural object which will provoke fundamental social changes? Let me speculate on the complexities of this question as I try and explore its implications.

The best known experiment carried out by the people associated with Challenge for Change occurred on Fogo Island off the east coast of Canada. As the producer Colin Low said at the time, he wanted to recount the history of the people living there through their own words. He felt that what they had to say was more important than what he could put together as an outsider. So he interviewed them but he didn't use any hidden cameras and did his best to put the people at ease. He never shot without permission and he gave the interviewees the chance to view the footage and to remove whatever disturbed them. This interactive approach created more and more discursive spaces in which the local people could examine not only what the filmmakers were doing but also question their own orientation and direction. It is generally agreed that Fogo Island changed after the work of Low and his partners. Even at the present time the event is recalled with a great deal of fondness by Fogo Islanders. (To be continued)

With reference to THE EDGE, see the following article:

The Story of an Instant-Science Experiment By Marco Iacoboni