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Exiting Film Board topper sees Canadian progress

Heritage Minister will appoint Bensimon's successor

TORONTO — When he took over as commissioner of the National Film Board of Canada in June 2001, Jacques Bensimon was asked the seemingly impossible: to revitalize the moribund public agency, whose morale had been gutted along with its funding.

And he was given no money to do it.

Now, five years later, as Bensimon steps down, he sees his tenure at the NFB as positive, if not perfect.

He never was able to convince the government to increase the NFB’s base funding, which was slashed by C$26 million ($22.6 million) — almost a third — between 1994 and 1998.

But morale is up, there has been a dramatic increase in international co-productions and work with independent filmmakers within Canada, as well as renewed distribution efforts. The NFB also has bagged its 11th Oscar (for Chris Landreth’s animated short “Ryan”) and sharpened its focus on social issues (which make up 85% of its fare) and feature documentaries.

“Jacques is the perfect marriage of someone who is very adept bureaucratically but still has energy and passion that is contagious,” says producer Nick de Pencier (“Manufactured Landscapes”). “Those things are sometimes mutually exclusive. It’s a big institution and it’s hard to effect change there, but from the beginning he’s been this wonderful catalyst and leadership presence.”

Bensimon’s strategy was to look both backward and forward: back to the NFB’s original mandate to produce, distribute and promote films about Canada, and forward by taking on new technology and new media.

The NFB’s solid reputation abroad provided him with a starting point. “The film board was still enjoying extremely good, high visibility internationally, but we weren’t doing much with that,” he says. “We needed to amortize that reputation.”

It only makes good business sense to pursue the international market. “In today’s universe, no one talks about sales, they talk about pre-sales,” Bensimon says. “My strategy was to map out the world and develop relationships with different institutions in each continent.”

He has pursued like-minded institutions and independent producers worldwide and worked to make the best of international co-production treaties. During his tenure, deals were inked in Brazil, Japan, France, England and Australia. Most recently, the NFB signed a new-media agreement with Singapore.

In the United States, the NFB has partnered with networks and producers including the Sundance Channel (“Diameter of the Bomb”) and POV (“No More Tears Sister”).

Bensimon’s NFB also has become more independent producer-friendly. “When I arrived, the NFB was under a bubble of its own,” he says, with 7% of its films co-produced. That figure now is up to 43%.

Bensimon notes the NFB has long had a social-issues mandate to “give a voice to the voiceless, in the sense that you put the tools in the hands of the makers and (do) not speak for them.”

To that end, in the ’60s the NFB launched a French-language division, followed in the ’70s by a women’s studio. In the ’80s it trained aboriginal Canadians; in the ’90s filmmakers from the social underclass; and this decade disabled filmmakers. One example: Bonnie Sherr Klein’s “Shameless: The Art of Disability,” by a vet filmmaker who herself survived a stroke.

The NFB also has tackled distribution — long considered its Achilles’ heel — by moving into new media with a series of platform co-productions. Popular NFB fare is available on its Web site, and its lawyers do not flinch when NFB work appears on YouTube.

Bensimon, who laments the fact that the NFB has never been awarded a TV broadcast license, sees new media as an opportunity to leapfrog that shortcoming. “We don’t carry the baggage of a public broadcaster,” he says. “It’s given the NFB and my successor the potential to move very fast into that universe.”

And although individual new programs have been funded, Bensimon was unable to convince the federal government to increase the NFB’s base funding. He notes that in five years he has dealt with four heritage ministers. “You just have time to prepare your dossier, make your presentation and they’re gone.”

His successor is a political appointment that will be made by Heritage Minister Bev Oda. Names bandied about include Montreal veteran filmmaker Peter Wintonick, NFB English programming head Tom Perlmutter, TVOntario creative head Rudy Buttignol and broadcasting vet Trina McQueen. In the meantime, Claude Joli-Coeur, former director general of legal for the NFB, is interim commissioner.

Bensimon’s parting message: “The NFB’s leitmotif is that it should always be at the leading edge of what the future is going to be. The moment the NFB becomes part and parcel of the industry and becomes only a funder investing for the sake of the money, it loses its meaning.”