Essential Urbanist Documentaries from the National Film Board of Canada

The National Film Board of Canada–NFB (Office National du Film du Canada–ONF) was established as the National Film Commission in 1939 during the third government of Prime Minister William Lyon MacKenzie King. As Canada’s public film producer and distributor, the NFB’s mission as set forth in the National Film Act of 1950 has been “to produce and distribute and to promote the production and distribution of films designed to interpret Canada to Canadians and to other nations.” As part of this mandate, the NFB has produced over 13,000 works that speak to issues of national and international importance. As I have also come to find out, its collection is also a treasure trove of historically-relevant urbanist films. From feature-length interviews with Jane Jacobs to vignettes about Montreal neighborhoods in transition, here are some must-see titles for your next urbanist movie night:

Regina Telebus (1973)

“This short film from 1973 offers a report on Regina’s successful experiment with dial-a-bus, a flexible service midway between a bus and a taxi. The idea is to provide passengers with door-to-destination transportation at an affordable cost.”

Regina Telebus, Rex Tasker, provided by the National Film Board of Canada,

September Five at Saint-Henri (1962)

“This short film is a series of vignettes of life in Saint-Henri, a Montreal working-class district, on the first day of school. From dawn to midnight, we take in the neighbourhood’s pulse: a mother fussing over children, a father’s enforced idleness, teenage boys clowning, young lovers dallying – the unposed quality of daily life.”

September Five at Saint-Henri, Hubert Aquin, provided by the National Film Board of Canada

A Capital Plan (1949)

“This short documentary features a portrait of Ottawa in the mid-20th century, as the nascent Canadian capital grew with force but without direction. Street congestion, air pollution, and rail traffic were all the negative results of a city that had grown without being properly planned. French architect and urban designer Jacques Gréber stepped in to create a far-sighted plan for the future development of Ottawa. With tracks moved, factories relocated, and neighbourhoods redesigned as separate communities, Ottawa became the capital city of true beauty and dignity we know today.”

A Capital Plan, Bernard Devlin, provided by the National Film Board of Canada

Chairs for Lovers (1973)

“In this documentary short, Vancouver architect Stanley King demonstrates his method for involving the public in urban design. Called the “draw-in/design-in”, the method is applied to a downtown Vancouver area slated for redevelopment. How can it be made to best serve the needs of the people who will use it? Here, sketches prepared by students and refined by adults are used to guide city planners.”

Chairs for Lovers, Barrie Howells, provided by the National Film Board of Canada

City Limits (1971)

“This short documentary features acclaimed author and activist Jane Jacobs’ forthright, critical analysis of the problems and virtues of North American cities. Jacobs orients her fascinating observations around Toronto, to which she moved after leaving New York City because Toronto “is a city that still has options … it hasn’t made so many mistakes that it’s bound to go downhill.” Her remarks, made in 1971, are prescient yet earnest and will interest all urban stakeholders. This colourful city film, accompanied by an upbeat, jazzy soundtrack, is a must-see for all civic and community groups—indeed, for all urban dwellers worldwide.”

City Limits, Laurence Hyde, provided by the National Film Board of Canada

Home Feeling: Struggle for a Community (1983)

“This feature documentary takes us to the heart of the Jane-Finch “Corridor” in the early 1980s. Covering six square blocks in Toronto’s North York, the area readily evokes images of vandalism, high-density subsidized housing, racial tension, despair and crime. By focusing on the lives of several of the residents, many of them black or members of other visible minorities, the film provides a powerful view of a community that, contrary to its popular image, is working towards a more positive future.”

Home Feeling: Struggle for a Community, Jennifer Hodge & Roger McTair, provided by the National Film Board of Canada

Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance (1993)

“In July 1990, a dispute over a proposed golf course to be built on Kanien’kéhaka (Mohawk) lands in Oka, Quebec, set the stage for a historic confrontation that would grab international headlines and sear itself into the Canadian consciousness. Director Alanis Obomsawin—at times with a small crew, at times alone—spent 78 days behind Kanien’kéhaka lines filming the armed standoff between protestors, the Quebec police and the Canadian army. Released in 1993, this landmark documentary has been seen around the world, winning over a dozen international awards and making history at the Toronto International Film Festival, where it became the first documentary ever to win the Best Canadian Feature award. Jesse Wente, Director of Canada’s Indigenous Screen Office, has called it a “watershed film in the history of First Peoples cinema.”

Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance, Alanis Obomsawin, provided by the National Film Board of Canada

*Descriptions retrieved from NFB website

Featured image credit: Adam Hasan

Adam is a Senior undergraduate student studying Geography and City & Regional Planning. His research interests include understanding the actors involved in defining and redefining Global South urbanisms through social movements, governance systems, and media, as well as the history of spatial planning in post-colonial regions.