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Bet you didn’t know that the National Film Board of Canada has received almost 70 Academy Award nominations in its 65-year run. (Beat that, Streep.)

Look past the Botoxed parade of designer gowns and salivating paparazzi and you’ll find a distinctly Canadian story unfolding on this year’s Oscar red carpet. Canada’s public film producer, the National Film Board of Canada (NFB), received two Academy Award nominations this year: one for Chris Landreth’s animated short film Ryan, and another for the short documentary Hardwood, from first-time director Hubert Davis.

Oh, you typically modest Canadians. You’re probably not aware that these are the 67th and 68th Academy Award nominations that the NFB’s received in its 65-year history. In fact, the NFB has received more nominations than any other production company beyond the Hollywood hills. Many of us are also not aware that the film board already polishes 10 Oscar statues—nine for individual films and one for overall achievement, presented at the film board’s 50th anniversary in 1989.

For Jacques Bensimon, the NFB chairperson, there’s no time to bask in Oscar’s golden glow. On February 17, he screened the films for the Canadian Parliamentary Committee on Culture, where Davis received a standing ovation. Bensimon calls the next day, sneaking in a quick con- versation during a Telefilm Canada board meeting.

“It’s a spotlight that you don’t get for the rest of the year,” he says. “The film board participates in more than 300 festivals a year—we win awards all over the place. But the Academy Awards is the most visible of all the events, including the Cannes Film Festival. Even though it’s second in presence—and in fact, Ryan won four awards at Cannes—it’s not as important as being selected for an Oscar.”

Perhaps the biggest irony is that according to Bensimon, Americans want what we take for granted—a national film producer nurturing the next generation of talent. Oscar nominees in the animation and short documentary categories are scouted by American producers and offered big deals and budgets at major studios such as Disney.

While Bensimon is appreciative of the attention south of the border, he’s hopeful that the nominations will drum up some attention from Canadian audiences too.

“If we take a look at the hits we’re getting on the website, it’s increased 10-fold since the nominations because people want to seek out information about the two films, which leads them into more about the NFB, which leads them into other films that we do out of the Halifax or the Moncton office,” he says. “The counterpoint is when we have an event like the Atlantic Film Festival, the audience is very much aware of the NFB and there you’re on your own turf. That’s why, to a certain extent, the NFB has to be both local and international.”

A tricky proposition but one the NFB seems to manage with ease. There’s a universal humanity in both these films that would be difficult to develop within a Hollywood studio framework.

In some ways, Ryan is a story about the film board and the Academy Awards. During the 1970s, Ryan Larkin was a NFB wunderkind, drawing painstakingly exquisite animations that earned him his own Oscar nomination. Today Larkin’s a panhandler on the streets of Montreal. Through director Chris Landreth’s freaky sideshow of 3D-generated characters and candid dialogue between the two generations of animators, we literally face the sensitive artist’s demons.

Hardwood, meanwhile, is the emotional story of former Harlem Globetrotter Mel Davis and his absent relationship with his family, as interpreted by Davis’s son, the film’s director, Hubert. Before Hardwood, the 27-year-old was an assistant editor for Deepa Mehta (Bollywood/Hollywood), who also helped Davis develop the cliche-free basketball metaphor that moves gracefully through the film.

Bensimon thinks that Davis’s generosity as a filmmaker and a human being is what draws the standing ovations: “Hardwood brings you back to a universe where men can cry, where they can relate to each other. Where you admit that you made mistakes in your life.”

If you love to take in all the award nominees before the big night, you can watch Ryan at throughout the Oscar weekend. There will also be a short clip from Hardwood, which will be broadcast on PBS’s Point of View at a later date.

For those with shaky internet connections, CBC’s Rough Cuts presents Alter Egos on February 25 at 11pm. Alter Egos takes Ryan one step further, as director Laurence Green digs deeper into the relationship between Landreth and Larkin, including a heart-thumping scene where Larkin watches Ryan for the first time (and doesn’t entirely approve).Hopefully more Canadians will experience this fascinating movie for the first time too.

“The sad part of this whole thing is that it takes the awareness of the Americans to put the projector on the NFB,” says Bensimon. “I wish that we as Canadians would have that kind of awareness and affinity to the film board the other 11 months of the calendar year.”

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Vol 26, No 17
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