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Canadian Films Facing a Wrap? : Movies: For 50 years, non-commercial works have made the National Film Board a worldwide artistic force and innovator, but economic troubles threaten its future.


SAINT LAURENT, Canada — In an ill-lit, cluttered room not much bigger than the average walk-in closet in Bel-Air, Ishu Patel is making his newest movie.

He layers a pastel-colored patch of malleable Plasticine over the window of a light table, then, with practiced fingers and delicate tools, etches intricate patterns and figures into the modeling clay. The deeper the etching, the brighter the light that shines through.

Patel photographs the completed image on a single frame of film in the movie camera suspended directly above the light table. Then he begins again, altering the pattern in the Plasticine just slightly.

When the film is developed and run through the projector, the ghostly shapes he has created move fluidly across the screen. On a very good day, Patel will shoot 50 frames of film--about two seconds of running time.

This technique has made Patel, 52, a staff director at the National Film Board of Canada, a respected movie animator around the world. It also helps illuminate the issues the publicly funded Film Board faces as the government and others re-examine its finances and its mission.

Patel's Plasticine animation will be combined with live action shot in India for a short film version of a Buddhist folk tale on death and grieving. His next project is a two-part, full-length animated and live-action documentary on the history and influence of the Kama Sutra, the 4th-Century East Indian work on eroticism.

These are not, Patel concedes, films likely to be financed by a commercial studio, here or in Hollywood. And Patel, who immigrated to Canada from India 22 years ago, adds without condescension that "I don't have the cultural background to draw Bugs Bunny."

But his are the kind of unusual, even esoteric, filmmaker-driven movies that have helped make the National Film Board a worldwide artistic force and innovator for more than 50 years. The question being asked here is, with a cash-strapped Canadian government contemplating major cuts in health care, welfare and higher education, can the country still afford it?

Among the Film Board's more than 100 productions each year are many conventional works that most studios would be happy to have made. For example, there's "Bob's Birthday," a hilarious 12-minute animated short co-produced with Britain's Channel 4 that just earned the Film Board its 60th Academy Award nomination. A win on March 27 would be its 10th Oscar.

Setting the Film Board apart from its commercial counterparts, however, is what "Bob's Birthday" producer David Verrall calls its "ideology" of "artistic sponsorship"--the ethic that the institution exists to fulfill the visions of its filmmakers rather than the demands of the marketplace.

It has resulted in the cutting-edge animation of the late Norman McLaren, in a rich history of documentaries and in such bold feature films as the critically acclaimed television miniseries "The Boys of St. Vincent." "Boys," a co-production with Canadian public television, recorded the Catholic Church cover-up of sexual abuse at a Catholic orphanage and, according to director John N. Smith, never could have been made commercially. "The miracle of the National Film Board is the astonishing level of quality they've maintained over the years," says American critic Leonard Maltin, who last year hosted a special on Film Board animation on the A&E cable network.

Adam Symansky, a veteran producer of documentaries at the Film Board, describes it as "a community of filmmakers who work with each other, feed off each other and compete with each other. . . . You get creativity out of critical mass."

Given the acclaim it has brought Canada and Canadians over the years, the Film Board seems certain to survive in some form, but it is equally certain that more funding cutbacks are coming.

For the fiscal year that begins April 1, the Film Board budget will total nearly $53.6 million, down from almost $57.7 million the year previous. That's less than the $70 million Hollywood spent on "Wyatt Earp," a box-office disappointment. Since 1983, the number of members of the Film Board's staff has dropped from 1,000 to 619, and about 70% of the films now are made by free-lancers under contract. Last fall, the agency announced it no longer will produce feature films, focusing instead on animation and documentaries.

Even after those cuts, a new government review is in the works. "A sense of inevitability has set in," says Barbara Janes, the Film Board's director general of English-language programming, reflecting on the continuing cutbacks. ". . . I just hope they don't keep dragging it (the government review) out, because it's very demoralizing."

However, the Film Board's critics, and even some of its friends, suggest it might benefit from a further shake-up.

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