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Studio D

Production Company National Film Board of Canada

This iconic women’s documentary production studio, created by the National Film Board in 1974, was devoted to making films by, for and about women. Prior to the creation of Studio D, women occupied a marginal role at the NFB, mainly working in support positions such as office secretary, or as editor or production crew member, but rarely as producers or directors. However, in the late sixties and early seventies, with the women’s liberation movement gaining momentum and attention, women at the NFB began urging the Board to make changes, and the government began pressuring public institutions to improve the positions women held within them.

Kathleen Shannon, who joined the NFB in 1956, was one of the key figures who fought to improve the status of women at the Board, noting that the NFB was failing in its mandate to “interpret Canada to Canadians and the world” by ignoring half of the Canadian population. Change came slowly, with the NFB initially allowing Shannon to co-produce and direct the Working Mothers series in the early seventies. In 1974, however, in anticipation of International Women’s Year, Shannon and others persuaded the NFB to create a new studio dedicated to making films that would actively engage women’s concerns, address female audiences and bring a feminist perspective to social and political issues. That year, Studio D, the first publicly funded women’s film studio in the world, was created and Shannon appointed its Executive Producer.

The newly formed Studio began with only three people – Shannon, Yuki Yoshida and Margaret Pettigrew – and initially met with resistance, both within the NFB and without. Though the NFB’s intentions seemed noble enough, Shannon felt that, in some respects, the Board created Studio D merely as a token to pacify feminist agitation, and suspected that there was a desire among some for it to fail. As Matthew Hays notes in an article in Point of View, one journalist went so far as to state that he would “eat the first successful film that came out of a woman’s studio.”

Studio D did not receive sufficient funding in its first year to make even one film and did not receive additional staff until the early eighties. Despite this, Studio D forged ahead and, through determination and strategic planning, produced more than 125 films before closing its doors in 1996. Some of the Studio’s key early films include Bonnie Sherr Klein’s controversial anti-porn documentary, Not a Love Story: A Film About Pornography (1981); Margaret Wescott’s Behind the Veil: Nuns (1984), an examination of sexual politics in the Catholic church; and Beverly Shaffer’s To a Safer Place (1987), which documents an adult sexual-abuse survivor’s journey into her past. The Studio also produced three Academy Award®-winning films: Shaffer’s I’ll Find a Way (1978), Terre Nash’s If You Love this Planet (1982) and Cynthia Scott’s Flamenco at 5:15 (1984). The majority of the Studio’s films emphasized content over form and were made in a realist documentary style, drawing on cinema-vérité techniques, utilizing “talking heads,” voice-over narration and images to reinforce the narration. The films often conveyed a sense of urgency and intimacy as they explored personal stories and their connections to larger socio-political contexts.

In 1987, after Shannon resigned and Rina Fraticelli was appointed the new Executive Producer, the mission of the Studio was revamped to better represent the racial, ethnic and sexual diversity of women across Canada, and to create more aesthetically accomplished films by pushing the boundaries of the realist documentary style that had characterized earlier Studio D films. In 1991, New Initiatives in Film (NIF), which provided training for Native Canadian women and other ethnic minority women, was created, and the Studio began working with external independent women’s production groups. Key films made under Fraticelli’s leadership include Scott’s The Company of Strangers (1990), which combines documentary and fictional modes to tell the story of eight elderly women who become stranded in the Quebec countryside; Dionne Brand and Ginny Stikeman’s Sisters in the Struggle (1991), about black Canadian women facing sexual and racial discrimination; and Arelyn Weissman and Lynne Fernie’s Forbidden Love: The Unashamed Stories of Lesbian Lives (1992), which uses a variety of creative techniques to explore lesbian subculture in Canada in the fifties and sixties.

Studio D was an important landmark in the history of women’s filmmaking in Canada. It offered filmmaking opportunities previously unheard of for women, provided crucial training for first-time women filmmakers, and used films as social tools to develop important relationships with audiences and generate dialogue about key social issues, thus empowering women and encouraging change. The Studio also bravely examined risky and previously taboo issues, such as lesbian relationships, sexual abuse, pornography and abortion.

Studio D did have its critics. Other filmmakers (both within and outside the NFB) felt the Studio received too much government money. Some claimed the films lacked objectivity and were too didactic; some have highlighted its contradictory, exclusionary practices. As film scholar Elizabeth Anderson recently articulated, Studio D films primarily represented the ideology of white, middle-class, heterosexual women, and though efforts were made to include diverse voices, these were only small gestures. This is most clearly underscored by the fact that staff at Studio D was consistently comprised mainly of white, middle-class women (see Anderson in Gendering the Nation). Unfortunately, the Studio was closed just as it was beginning to address these concerns of diversity and inclusion.

Nonetheless, in the end, Studio D achieved an impressive international reputation for its efforts in privileging marginalized voices and its sensitivity to social issues; it became a model for other women’s production studios around the world. In 1996, due to federal government funding cuts, the NFB was forced to restructure and made the decision to eliminate Studio D (along with Studio One and Quebec’s Studio D counterpart, Regards de femmes), despite many passionate appeals and petitions. Arguably, the NFB believed women filmmakers had made such impressive strides and achieved enough footing, both in the Board and the industry as a whole, that a production unit dedicated to making films by, for and about women was no longer necessary.

By: Agata Smoluch Del Sorbo