Man in Motion: Confused & Conflicted Views of the Canadian Working Man

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Shown as a package attempt to summarize the documentary output of the National Film Board of Canada via an exploration and celebration of the theme of the “Canadian working man” , the Calgary International Film Festival’s Man in Motion: The National Film Board of Canada Doc Retrospective (Shorts) screening presented four distinctly different films with a tenuous connection and lacking resonance with one another. While the films shown did demonstrate an attempt at exploring the breadth and history of the NFB’s documentary output – the oldest film dating back to 1953, the most recent from 1996 – the selection process in regards to the theme presented to the gathered audience was muddled and ill-fitting.

Opening with the classic Paul Tomkowicz: Street Railway Switchman (dir. Roman Kroitor, 1953), Man in Motion’s thematic structure of showing films exploring the life of the working Canadian Everyman began with one of the NFB’s celebrated high notes – and one of the two films most befitting the theme described. Tomkowicz, however, presents its own unique contradictions as documentary, primarily in how the titular Polish immigrant worker living in Winnipeg is portrayed and represented by an actor reading an edited script of his actual interview material. In her Projecting Canada: Government Policy and Documentary Film at the National Film Board, Zoë Druick claims, “This substitution is significant in that the actor’s voice, directed by Kroitor, produces another delivery, another text, out of Tomkowicz’s words. In that the immigrant represented is made into the imaginary immigrant by the government film institution, this film becomes a document of a mode of typification” (116). Furthermore, Druick classifies Tomkowicz himself as, “an immigrant with a typical occupation […] no one looks at or speaks to him for most of the film” (115), playing up the inherently tragic element of Tomkowicz’s life in Canada (following what the audience can assume was an even more-so tragic life in Poland, in which Tomkowicz off-handedly mentions losing his family in war-time violence) in what was in introduction proposed as a celebration of Canadian working life.

Following Tomkowicz, the appearance of The Railrodder (dir. Gerald Potterton, 1965) presented Man in Motion’s first primary curveball. As one of American comedian Buster Keaton’s final films, The Railrodder’s presence in a program of films classified as documentary in CIFF’s program – and particularly a program described as investigating the Canadian working man – struck a faulty note. Coming so early in the program, The Railrodder’s inclusion also suggested the CIFF programmers simply gave up on the proposed theme of the screening by the second film. That said, if one looks deeper, it’s possible to debate The Railrodder’s inclusion in a Canadian working man documentary presentation as such: as Keaton makes his way from the East coast of Canada all the way to the West via a rail track speeder, his route not only documents the route of Canada’s national rail system, but also occasionally includes comical interactions with those men who work on the rails themselves. Furthermore, despite his American background, The Railrodder’s 1965 vintage (for what is essentially a silent film throwback) arguably documents Keaton’s performance as an example of his own life’s work. While acting within a sight-gag-based plot, Keaton (at the end of his career) demonstrates a skill-set of film acting long absent from the screen by 1965. Admittedly both suggestions are somewhat of a stretch, but as shown, so is The Railrodder’s inclusion in the Man in Motion package. (Perhaps fittingly, Gary Evans’ sole mention of The Railrodder in his In the National Interest: A Chronicle of the National Film Board of Canada from 1949 to 1989 is a single sentence photo caption classifying the film as, “a metaphoric reminder that Canada’s seemingly unlmited natural resources are not always easy for the little man to grasp” (105). At the top of the page, the chapter’s title asks the question, “Art for Whose Sake?” – one can imagine The Railrodder receiving this type of questioning reaction from the strictest of documentary devotees at the NFB when it was made).

Taking up the largest chunk of screentime (at 52 minutes vs. The Railrodder’s 25 minutes, Tomkowicz’s 9 minutes, and Trafficopter’s 10 minute running time), The Road Taken (dir. Selwyn Jacob, 1996) explores the history of the black night-porter on Canadian rail lines from the early 1900s to the 1960s. Interweaved with music by jazz musician Joe Sealy (writing in tribute to his father, himself a Canadian rail night-porter), The Road Taken combines vintage footage with 1990s interview footage, all guided by the voice-of-God voice-over so familiar from the Expository mode documentaries common throughout the history of the NFB. In contrast with the somewhat more Poetic / Observational Tomkowicz and slapstick nostalgia of The Railrodder, The Road Taken’s slow-paced presentation acted largely as an interruption to the brevity and thrust established by the two previous films. Given the presence of rail transport in all of the films thus far, Man in Motion, rather than a sampling of working Everyman stories, seemed more accurately a look at Canadian rail travel from the archives of the NFB – Man in Motion on Trains and Streetcars, perhaps.

Where The Road Taken succeeds most, however, is in its sequences profiling the protests of porter Lee Williams in hopes of gaining union equality for the black night-porter workers, for whom promotion and job safety was unheard of until his efforts in 1955. Whereas Tomkowicz shuffles down the frozen streets of Winnipeg without complaint (despite working nights, outside, at the windiest intersection at Portage and Main in coldest winter), The Road Taken shows the Canadian working man standing up for his rights and eventually succeeding.

Both Tomkowicz and The Road Taken document men most often ignored by the public. For the night-porters of The Road Taken, intruding on the travels of their passengers as little as possible is vital to keeping their jobs; even speaking with female passengers could result in immediate dismissal. But, despite the hardships and loneliness expressed (and The Road Taken’s focus on the night-porter’s quest for equality), the subjects of both films do express gratitude and pride in their jobs.

While Tomkowicz holds its post-war politics slightly below the surface (there’s work here if you want it, oh battered populace of Europe), The Road Taken is up-front in its expectations of working equality for all, regardless of background. As such, both films present the working life of the Outsider in Canada, and within the Man in Motion collection, it is only Tomkowicz and The Road Taken that manage to connect and resonate with one another.

Acting as a bizarre finale, Trafficopter (dir. Barrie Howells, 1972) is more an interesting addition if one considers it as a twist on the more traditional documentary formulas explored in Tomkowicz and The Road Taken rather than a fitting conclusion to Man in Motion’s proposed theme. Radio traffic helicopter reporter Len Rowcliffe not only acts as subject, but also the literal embodiment of the voice-of-authority voice-over so common throughout the history of the NFB (and just demonstrated in The Road Taken). Flying above the clogged freeways of Montreal, Rowcliffe’s reports in essence document the commutes of those driving below him – it is those drivers stuck in traffic below who truly represent the average Canadian working man. That’s no slight on Rowcliffe’s profession as helicopter traffic reporter, but given the introductory description of the Man in Motion program as one exploring the average Everyman, Trafficopter does very little to further flesh out the theme, the job presented more of a curiosity than true representation of any large part of the population. Following the weighty experience of The Road Taken, Trafficopter seemed an unnecessary last-act addition, neither adding to the screening’s theme, nor (particularly due to its appearance at the end of the program thus eliminating the progression of time created by the chronological order of the previous three films) to the flow of a historical overview of the NFB itself. Incidentally, while the closing of the previous films were met with applause, the crowd (as small as it admittedly was) reaction to Trafficopter was noticeably muted. In a program already confused by the inclusion of The Railrodder, Trafficopter did little to draw the program to a united close.

Where the films of Man in Motion fail is in the bizarre and abrupt collisions created in showing them side-by-side, under the guise of exploring a unified theme. Each film, on its own, has individual merit within the historical context of the NFB. Were the theme of Man in Motion expanded (not to mention somewhat more clearly defined) and the running time of the program increased from its 96 minutes, the CIFF programmers could have provided a somewhat more fulfilling overview of the long, rich history of the NFB. Additionally, there is seemingly very little room for Aboriginal filmmakers and no room whatsoever for the female filmmakers active at Studio D within this theme of the Canadian working man, although The Road Taken does give insight to the seldom-heard voices of black Canadians.

Taken as individual expressions of Canadian identity, the films of Man in Motion also present a conflicted, uneven portrait of what it means to be a Canadian working man. Thrown off-balance by the inclusion of Buster Keaton (one of the most recognizable faces from early Hollywood cinema, an overwhelming force of which the NFB was created in part to act as counter-point to for Canadian audiences), and the scattered chronology of the films themselves, it’s difficult to emerge from the program as a whole with any true sense of the mentality of what the programmers claim as the inspiration behind their selections. Due to these programming choices, we as viewers get as close to the heart of the Canadian working man as Rowcliffe’s helicopter does to the ant-like commuters in the cars down below him. Instead of meeting him face-on, the programmers responsible for Man in Motion have kept us at a blurry distance.

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