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Researchers build archival record of feminist filmmaking in Canada

National Film Board's Studio D central to the study of feminist arts and media


Rebecca Sullivan, left, and Annie Murray are working on "strengthening the feminist lens on social, political and cultural issues in Canada through lessons learned from Studio D." Photo by Riley Brandt

By Jennifer Sowa and Heath McCoy
March 8, 2017

A significant chapter in the history of Canadian filmmaking is at the heart of a new study which explores and honours the legacy of feminist media arts activism in Canada. Studio D was a unit of the National Film Board (NFB) and the first state-funded feminist filmmaking studio in the world. Now, researchers are aiming to preserve the records and revive the momentum of Studio D.

During its 22-year run that began in 1974, Studio D produced some of the NFB’s most critically acclaimed films, including Not A Love Story (1981), If You Love This Planet (1982), and Flamenco at 5:15 (1983). Budgetary cuts, as well as conflicts with feminist film collectives and independent producers, spurred its disbandment in 1996. Ever since, academic studies and policy reports have indicated that women’s participation in the film and media industries in Canada has steeply declined, particularly when it comes to key creative and decision-making roles.

Principal investigator of the study, The Legacy of Studio D for Canadian Feminist Media Arts Activism, is professor Rebecca Sullivan, co-ordinator of the Women’s Studies program and the author of Bonnie Sherr Klein’s Not a Love Story (University of Toronto Press, 2014). That book examines Not a Love Story, the first-ever documentary to explore pornography’s role in society from a feminist perspective. Directed by Bonnie Sherr Klein for Studio D, the controversial film was censored in Ontario upon its release, but it went on to be widely acclaimed.

At heart of project is the need to preserve record of Canadian feminist media

“I met Bonnie Klein, who was a founder of Studio D, at a conference organized by my co-investigators, Catherine Murray and Zoë Druick,” says Sullivan. “Bonnie was candid about the good and the bad of Studio D and she gave an impassioned call for a new kind of feminist media commons, which she called ‘Virtual D.’ That’s the birth of this project.”

Co-researcher Annie Murray, associate university librarian for Archives and Special Collections with Libraries and Cultural Resources, explains that archival records of the Studio D group of filmmakers are not currently accessible to researchers.

“Studio D is an important moment in Canadian filmmaking that is worthy of further study,” says Murray. “We are identifying and seeking out archival materials from members of this dynamic group of Canadian filmmakers. Through this research, we will build and preserve a strong historical record of the work done by members of Studio D in this significant era in Canadian film.”

Key to the study is strengthening the feminist lens on social, political and cultural issues in Canada through lessons learned from Studio D.

As Sullivan notes, “The goal of this project isn’t to enshrine the past, but to learn from it, so that our activism, art, and scholarship is always reaching out to the people who need it the most.”

Project team includes UCalgary and Simon Fraser University researchers

This research is supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC). The research team includes professor Rebecca Sullivan (English and Women’s Studies) and Annie Murray (associate university librarian for Archives and Special Collections with Libraries and Cultural Resources) from the University of Calgary as well as two faculty members from Simon Fraser University: Zoë Druick, professor in the School of Communication and associate dean (graduate and research) of the Faculty of Communication, Art and Technology; and Catherine Murray, professor in the Department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies and associate dean (undergraduate academic programs and enrolment management) of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences.