NFB Ontario Studio: Ahead of the Curve

Sponsored feature: National Film Board of Canada

(This story is sponsored by the National Film Board of Canada)

Canadians have been turning to plenty of streaming services to give ourselves a break from the pandemic.

The National Film Board Of Canada would like to remind you that it, too, has a streaming site:, which offers over 4,000 award-winning documentaries, auteur-animated films and interactive works from the organization’s 82-year history – the vast majority of which are available free – as part of its mandate to creatively represent all regions of the country.

Quite a few of those productions come out of the NFB’s Ontario Studio, which has also positioned itself over the past decade as a leading supporter of diverse filmmakers.

Anita Lee

“We see the impact of the work that we’re doing,” says Anita Lee, executive producer and head of the NFB Ontario Studio, “in terms of the creative quality of the projects, the critical reception the projects are garnering, and the fact that every year there’s a major production by a BIPOC creator coming out of our studio that’s not only attracting Canadian attention, but international attention as well.” 

A veteran filmmaker whose credits include producing Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell  (TIFF’s list of Top 10 Canadian Films of All Time), as well as founding the Toronto Reel Asian Film Festival, Lee took the helm of the studio in 2014 with a vision towards expanding equity and representation in the projects the Ontario Studio commissioned.

“Toronto is one of the most culturally diverse cities, not only in Canada, but in the world; we have a rich, racially diverse talent base with unique voices,” she says. “As a public producer and distributor, I felt it was an essential role that we could play to support and develop these voices. I know these discussions are very much part of the conversation today, [but] at the Ontario Studio we have long reached parity and equity in programming. We’re proud to have played a role championing and being a launchpad for BIPOC creators and directors here in Ontario.” 

The Apology

Some of the award-winning documentary features developed and produced under Lee’s stewardship include Tiffany Hsiung’s The Apology, Charles Officer’s Unarmed Verses, What Walaa Wants by Christy Garland, What is Democracy? by Astra Taylor, This Is Not A Movie by Yung Chang and Stateless by Michelle Stephenson.

Otherly – A Portrait of Tracy

Future projects include Throat, a feature concert documentary in Dolby Atmos co-directed by performer Tanya Tagaq and director Chelsea McMullan (My Prairie Home), and a creative series of Instagram shorts, Otherly, launching March 15 in partnership with PBS (POV Spark), to help new creators to engage with new audiences. 

Draw Me Close

The Ontario Studio’s digital arm established a creative non-fiction VR lab in 2016 and has been exploring virtual-reality projects, including Jordan Tannahill’s Draw Me Close, a hybrid theatre/VR experience that premiered at Tribeca and Venice and was mounted at London’s Young Vic theatre in 2019, and is scheduled to open at Soulpepper in Toronto when conditions allow. 

“The idea of the lab was a space where creators and directors working in different forms could experiment with new creative technologies and imagine new ways of storytelling. The goals were very open and exploratory and we couldn’t be more thrilled with the ground-breaking success of the projects” says Lee. The most recent VR projects from the Toronto-based lab include Randall Okita’s The Book Of Distance, a personal family story of the Japanese Canadian internment, which premiered at Sundance 2020 and went on to play Venice alongside the world premiere of another NFB Ontario co-production, Pietro Gagliano’s Agence, the lab’s first foray into artificial intelligence. Both experiences are available now at the Oculus Store and on Steam. Along with industry partners, a VR lab for BIPOC creators called Open Immersion was also launched in 2016, with a 2nd edition for Indigenous creators held in July 2020.

The Book of Distance

Admittedly, the distribution aspect of the NFB’s outreach has been affected by the pandemic, as film festivals and distributors shifted from physical venues to streaming platforms.

“We entered a very different reality very quickly,” Lee says. “I’m amazed how quickly we actually made that shift in production and distribution. Some of this is likely going to stay with us post-pandemic as well, because it’s meant we’ve invested in some new infrastructure and technologies, and it’s opened up new ways of working for us.” 

The Curve – Back to School

One of the more ambitious NFB -wide projects launched during the pandemic is The Curve, a collection of short documentaries and experimental films from filmmakers all over the country. (Currently, 28 films are streaming at the NFB’s website, with more to come.) 

“Our Curve projects were an example of the ability for us, as a public producer, to reach out to new talent, mentor and work with emerging creators in a very hands-on way,” Lee says. “In the case of The Curve, we went one step further where we said, ‘You don’t have to be a professional creator in the way that we traditionally understand it. But if you have a story to tell from where you are, we will give you support to tell that story and launch it on’ You had a NFB creative producer working with you. You had a mentor-director that was hired from the community. Our entire in-house production team supported those projects in an entirely new remote framework.” 

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