MONTREAL The National Film Board of Canada is back in the alternative-drama game. The Montreal-based publicly funded film producer had abandoned feature drama in the early 1990s, deciding instead to focus exclusively on feature documentaries and animation shorts.
But now Tom Perlmutter, who took the top job at the NFB last June, says the studio wants to get back into making more films in the genre the Board pioneered back in the 1980s. At the time, the NFB churned out a series of innovative, critically acclaimed pics that mixed documentary footage with improvised dialogue and drama to great effect. Notable examples of the NFB alternative dramas of that period were helmer John N. Smith’s “Sitting in Limbo” and “Train of Dreams” and Cynthia Scott’s “The Company of Strangers.”
In the NFB’s new five-year strategic plan, unveiled at the Hot Docs Festival in Toronto this week, Perlmutter says the studio is set to produce between five and 10 alternative dramas in the next five years. The plan describes the genre created almost 30 years ago as “low-budget, unscripted, improvised drama … in essence, Dogma before Dogma.”
Pointing to the earlier work of Smith and Scott, NFB chair Perlmutter says the org is challenging itself to push creative boundaries on projects that spur reflection of Canadian society. “At the time, if the Film Board had created a marketing label with it, like Lars Von Trier did with Dogma, this would’ve been seen as groundbreaking. It’s time to pick it up and do it in ways that are interesting today. We don’t want to do scripted, we don’t want to what other people are doing. What we can do is take on a form and create new languages.”
“Water” helmer Deepa Mehta is in post-production on a new NFB alternative drama “Heaven on Earth” about arranged marriages and spousal abuse in the South-Asian community in Toronto. Toronto helmer Sudz Sutherland — who made the quirky feature “Love, Sex and Eating the Bones” — is working on “Home Again,” about boys from Jamaica who come to Canada, get in trouble with the law and are deported. Another NFB alternative drama on the way is “Acts of Dishonor,” a co-production with “Away From Her” producer Daniel Iron. Directed by “Return to Kandahar” co-helmer Nelofer Pazira, “Acts” is about a Canadian film crew going to Afghanistan.
“Family Motel,” an alternative drama about Somalian refugees in Canada, co-produced by the NFB and Montreal’s Instinct Films, just opened commercially in Montreal and is set to open shortly in Toronto.
Returning to alternative drama makes sense for a public studio like the NFB, says Silva Basmajian, exec producer of “Heaven on Earth,” “Home Again” and “Acts of Dishonor.” “I think it’s a perfect fit for the Film Board because we’re anchored in social reality,” she says.
Basmajian notes that the budgets for these alternative dramas are in the same range as high-end feature documentaries, which means they’re within the NFB’s price range — and its mandate for innovation.