Interview with NINA BEVERIDGE - Canadian Filmmaker, Daughter of James Beveridge
1) How did your father, documentary film pioneer James Beveridge, start working in the area of documentary cinema?
Dad was a big fan of cinema starting from when he was a young boy, when he went almost every weekend to watch the movies. He then pursued a degree in journalism at the University of British Columbia after which he decided to write a thesis on the history of documentary film. He went overseas to London and was searching around for subjects to interview. He was not having much luck getting the interview subjects he wanted, he was having a very difficult time. He ran out of his stipend and became quite desperate, thinking ‘I have to go back home now without completing my research!’ But then he was finally able to connect with John Grierson, who was working for the GPO (General Post Office) Documentary Film Unit. Grierson and my father met and had a lengthy interview with many drinks and they really connected. Grierson said “Forget the thesis!” and placed my father at the GPO on a film production training program for three months to learn about the nuts and bolts of documentary filmmaking. While Dad was at the GPO, Canada joined the Second World War. Grierson dispatched my father to Ottawa to assist with the set up of the National Film Board of Canada (NFB) as a Canadian propaganda film unit in support of the Allied war effort. It was fortuitous timing for my father. During the early days of the NFB in WW2, Grierson was Film Commissioner, and my father acted as his right hand man, in a creative capacity and as an Executive Producer.
2) Your father contributed to the creation of the National Film Board of Canada with John Grierson. In what ways did his vision for the documentary film influence your father over his career?
John Grierson’s effect on my father was profound, who basically lived by Grierson’s principles throughout his documentary career. At the NFB, Grierson had two primary motivations. One was to produce propaganda films for the government of Canada in support of the war effort, which was very clever because this provided Grierson a unique opportunity to establish a Film Board that had full carte blanche from the government. Grierson was wise because he knew that in this way the NFB would flourish with minimum government intervention and solid financial support. He was able to actually legislate the NFB right into the laws of Canada with The National Film Act. The NFB is here to stay because it was written into our federal laws. The other motivation that Grierson had was to use documentary as a tool to mirror Canada to Canadians. Documentary films about Canada provided Canadians with a tool for self-reflection, to learn about and to understand themselves as a nation. In that sense it was a tool for nation building. Canada was a very young country at the time of World War II. The war had a huge significance on the development of the country and the NFB played a significant part in this development. Documentary films were effective communication tools, circulating through church basements and community centres across the country. Canadians were able to use these films as a discussion platform to reflect and learn more about their own and other Canadian communities. We have a multi-national country, so these films were intended to explore that cultural kaleidescope. The propaganda films and newsreels were shown prior to the main feature film in commercial movie theatres. That was a distribution technique that my father later brought to the Films Division of India.
3) Can you also tell more about his socio-political commitments, affiliations, aspirations and how that impacted his documentary filmmaking?
Dad’s documentary filmmaking style shifted with the technology and times. My father grew up in fairly priveleged circumstances, though he was orphaned very young, and that perhaps made him a more independent thinker than he would have been otherwise. Initially, at the NFB, he produced traditional documentaries that were typical of the time (now considered very “old school”), which included a 3rd person narrative and an essay-style format which was heavily scripted. When I studied these films, I was amazed by their quality, they were very thorough, well-written and beautifully shot. They are very formal, with an objective “Voice-of-God” narration.
The NFB’s documentary style shifted in the 1960s with the vérité film movement. I think that was inspiring to my father, but his primary goal at the Indian Films Division in the 1950’s was to use documentary as a creative propaganda tool. His plan for India, with the Burma-Shell unit, was to introduce Indians to one another across the country via documentary film, as a form of nation building, because it was such a vast country with a huge array of cultures, religions and languages.
My father and mother created their own production company in the 1960s. The films they made independently were very different. In the 1960s, they made four films that were part of a series called ‘The Music of North India’. These were very poetic, “naturalistic” films, less scripted, with lots of atmospheric sound and imagery, and indicated a shift in my father’s filmmaking approach. He was friendly with, and an admirer of the films of Ingmar Bergman and I could see this sensibility in his film direction. Then he made a film in 1975 called ‘Hands’ which was sponsored by Mobil Oil Company. He spent a year in Japan making this film which was about the National Living Treasures of Japan (Japan’s master craftsmen over 100 years old). He completely abandoned the use of narration and it created a huge split with his funders. He insisted on completing the film his way, with an austere sound track using “Noh” music and song, no narration, and a mix of natural sounds including those of the artists making their crafts. It is a beautiful film. ‘Hands’ reflected how his style of documentary filmmaking completely transitioned over the course of his career.
4) His first assignment in India was with the Burma-Shell company from 1954 to 1958. Can you tell more about this particular period in your father's career?
Prior to that, he was stationed in London with the NFB to establish their European distribution unit, but he missed filmmaking. At that time, UNESCO was being established and through my father’s contacts there, he heard about the Burmah-Shell opportunity in India. He and my mom and their baby Alex moved to Bombay in 1954. Dad planned to use documentary film for the purpose of ‘nation building’. He employed the same techniques at FD as he developed at the NFB with Grierson, and in India they began to play the Burmah-Shell documentary reels before the main film in commercial movie theatres. There was apparently a hue and cry from the audiences who did not want to be forced to watch these documentaries, but eventually they became accustomed to watching them.
On a creative front, it was quite fascinating for my father because the Bollywood film industry was extremely sophisticated and well established. He was excited to bring 16 millimeter filmmaking to India. There were amazing artisans in Bombay: directors, cinematographers, sound recordists and others that were already very established in the industry. Dad was excited to bring small format filmmaking to India and to work with such talented teams of filmmakers. Also, the idea of tapping into the vast potential of real human stories India had to offer (as opposed to fiction), really excited him.
Both my parents were inspired by being able to be participate in the shaping of a young democracy, in a country so vast and substantial. It was an idealistic period in India and that inspiration carried them forward for the rest of their lives to pursue a certain vision, not just making films, but setting up schools, teaching and educating others how to use film to promote social change. One of the things that my dad did during that period was to consult regarding the establishment of the Poona Film Institute. I found it interesting to learn that it was originally established to promote documentary filmmaking and to foster the documentary industry. However the program was sequestered by the commercial demands of Bollywood and re-directed towards channeling a workforce into that industry. Decades later in the late 1980s-early 1990s, my parents were instrumental partners in the development and creation of the Jamia Millia Islamia Mass Communication Research Centre. In a way, the MCRC was the culmination of Dad’s work, beginning in the 1950’s with Burma-Shell, it was a continuous path.
5) Why did the production of Burma-Shell documentary films stop after only 4 years?
I heard that there was a backlash from the Indian business community over some of the Burmah-Shell industrial films. They felt the films with their wide distribution gave unfair advantage to specific business entities, but I don’t know much more about it. My father was more involved in the cultural films that the Burmah-Shell unit made and those were the films that I had access to. There was a specific timeframe for the duration and sponsorship of the Burmah-Shell project, I do not believe it was not intended to be permanent. It was a sponsorship arrangement, where Burma-Shell came in with funding for a set period of time and then it the program ended.
6) How much was your father professionally associated with the Films Division of India and other private production companies in India during those 4 years?
He was embedded full time at FD in the role of Executive Producer with the Burma-Shell Film Unit. His involvement with other commercial filmmakers included making many prominent contacts in the commercial film industry and endeavouring to engage talented filmmakers in the Burmah-Shell project. He never worked directly for the commercial film industry. He was friendly with directors such as Satyajit Ray and Shyam Benegal, and there was a certain type of filmmaker he connected with, those who wanted to experiment beyond the Bollywood paradigm and tell different kinds of stories with other narrative forms. He was friendly with and supportive of those individuals and they shared many discussions and ideas. He did have a brief cameo role on a Satyajit Ray film, but I think he did it just for fun.
7) How many films did he produce over those 4 years and how were the topics selected?
I always heard there were 40 films, but we came up with a list of 37. Although my father was the Executive Producer, I think he had credits in about 15 of the films. Sadly, some of the films have disappeared so it is hard to verify credits. When we were shooting at the FD in November 2004, they were going through a huge undertaking to refurbish their massive film archives. They were going through the collection and digitizing it but they were not able to retrieve their entire inventory of films. It appears that the Burmah-Shell films that were missing were the industrial films. My father re-cut the more culturally focussed Burmah-Shell films for a TV series he produced for the CBC in Canada in the early 60’s. That series is archived in Canada’s National Archives, which is very expensive to access so we could not afford to use them when we were making our film “The Idealist – James Beveridge, Film Guru”.
8) During these 4 years, he became a mentor to several Indian documentary filmmakers, who later made a significant contribution to Indian documentary cinema, including Fali Billimoria and others. Can you tell more about his influence on young Indian filmmakers?
He became an educator with a deep love of filmmaking. Everyone I spoke to who was his student or collaborator would agree, whether they were Indian, Canadian, American or other. I think that his greatest characteristic was that he loved to help people and share his passion for filmmaking. He had a gift for language and was a very entertaining and funny storyteller, and he brought his passion for film and encyclopaedic knowledge of film history to every discussion or lecture he ever had with anyone about film. He believed that it was his duty to share the benefits of his education and knowledge of film with others and was generous with his knowledge. This was what drove him in his work practice, to always support and assist others in their own creative works and endeavours, particularly with film.
9) Could you describe his work method as a documentary filmmaker?
Sadly, his children were not able to accompany him to his shoots, so I have no first hand experience. What I learned is that he was extremely organised, he always had his scripts fully written and researched before he shot any film. He would make index cards and block out every shot. He was a thoroughly prepared filmmaker. I imagine his sense of humour and his gift of language came in handy during his shoots. In many of his films he was credited as the executive producer but not the director. Nevertheless he always loved the creative process, in his early years he did everything (producer, director, editor) at the NFB. When he was in India with Burma-Shell, he was an executive producer and worked at the policy, business and administration level. I don’t know exactly how many of the shoots he physically went to. I think that later on, he and my mother set up their own production company so that he could go out into the field and direct, to engage fully in the filmmaking process. During the Burma-Shell period, in all the pictures I collected from that time, I did not see many photos of him on location. I assume that most of the time, he was “in the office”, planning with the creative teams, overseeing the post-production, and doing the business work of an Executive Producer. I know that throughout his career he worked hard to stay abreast of the latest techniques, both creative and technical.
10) He also came back to India in the late 1960s to work for the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting. What was his mission then?
At this time he was officially listed as Film Consultant for Films Division from 1967-69, but I believe he was primarily consulting with the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting regarding the massive undertaking of planning the future implementation of television in India. Eventually this evolved to SITE (Satellite Instructional Television Experiment). In 1975, when I visited him in Poona, I had the opportunity to go into the field with him during one of his SITE excursions. India was using a Russian satellite for the broadcast testing phase and the SITE team were spot testing narrative approaches to educational content in different villages. Dad was working with SITE to conduct the tests to develop effective narrative techniques. They were trying to determine the best means to really engage rural Indians in the educational content. I think the most successful narrator they used was an elderly, grandmother-like storyteller. There was absolute engagement from the audience at the field trial I attended, the whole village came out to watch TV! This is what I observed when I attended a field trial with him. It was a grand social experiment because people from all castes, both genders, everybody, would come out to watch television, there would be hundreds of people there. They would then discuss the characters on the television. Dad was participating in the process, trying to determine the best modes of educational programming, what would resonate the best with the villagers, specially the farmers.
11) During his time in India in the 1950s and 1960s, he contributed to the India Documentary magazine and was regularly quoted in Films Division's publications. To which extent would you say his films contributed to change the understanding of the documentary film in India over this period?
I am sure his contribution was significant, even though he was a Canadian. That said, Dad was influential during that period because of his passionate and genuine commitment to the cause of bringing documentary film to India for educational purposes and to promote social change. He always shared his knowledge generously. That is what motivated me to make the film about him, to capture that genuine passion. I wanted to put the stories and accolades from his many friends and admirers into a concrete reality. My father was always moving so fast, he was not a guy that sat around and waited to collect an award for his work. He was kind of old school and modest in that way. He didn’t stick around long enough to enjoy the recognition, he just did his thing and then moved on to the next great venture. That was my dad. But I know he was deeply engaged and quite influential during that 50s and 60s in the early Indian documentary movement.
12) How much were his Burma-Shell films aligned with or different from the official purpose of Indian documentaries as a tool for nation building and development?
He became very political later on when he sat up the North Carolina Film Board in the 1960s. With Burmah-Shell, he was very focused on exploring and promoting cultural tolerance. But he was also a good bureaucrat, probably he learned that from Grierson. John Grierson knew that in Canada, if he could serve the government agenda that the NFB was set up to fulfill well, he could also take things a step further. He was able to build a long lasting film institute, by setting out two objectives: one was the propagandist servitude; the other one was the creative exploration of documentary as a tool for social change, which is what impassioned most filmmakers at the NFB. But they all knew they had to serve the WW2 propaganda machine. My dad approached the FD/Burmah-Shell project with a similar view, he utilized all the positive aspects of what the Burma-Shell project allowed him to do, guiding and collaborating with Indian filmmakers to craft and share their stories with other Indians. Literally, in such a vast country, there was a lot to learn, a lot to share. I think that was his purpose, also to foster creative exploration, it was not just propaganda, he was working with amazingly talented people, getting them to like small format filmmaking, getting them to explore narrative forms beyond the Bollywood paradigm and to reflect upon their own culture and tell their own stories. So, there was plenty of opportunity there, in that space, despite the government mandate and oversight.
13) What do you know about the reception of your father's films by the Indian audience back then?
I have heard that many filmmakers who grew up during that period enjoyed the documentaries. But I also heard that these films were resented by some audiences because they were being forced to watch them after paying to watch a Bollywood film. The most blatantly self promotional documentaries were the ones that focused on promoting Shell and the oil industry. At a time where TV advertising did not yet exist in India, I imagine being forced to watch a half-hour commercial after paying to see an entertaining film, would not make audiences happy. I am sure my father understood this, but it was a means to an end for him, and those films had to be made and seen in order to support other beautiful films such as “A Himalayan Tapestry” or “The Goddess Comes Home”.
In the 1960s, the Music of North India series was commissioned by the New York State Board of Education to air on PBS, and my parents made them through their company James Beveridge Associates. These were the first documentaries about Indian music to come to the West, and they were quite successful. Maybe they were broadcast in India, but I do not think so.
When you asked earlier about the ‘SITE’ television experiment, I remembered the many conversations I heard about SITE around the dinner table. The internal discussion my parents were involved in was regarding the pros and cons of government sponsorship vs. advertising sponsorship of TV. My parents were fearful about what the impact would be on the masses once advertising hit television in India, because there was a huge agrarian ‘underclass’ who would not be able to afford the products they saw promoted. My parents were really concerned about creating social turmoil and dissent. They wanted to bring television as an educational tool to the Indian masses, but wanted to avoid what they considered to be the corrupt influence of advertising.
14) Did members of your family or any other organization kept personal papers, photographs or memorabilia of your father's days in India?
We were very fortunate because my father founded the film faculty at York University here in Toronto, and York also offers an Archival Studies Program. So, we donated all my parent’s photographs, work files, prints and recordings to York University and the York U. archivists refurbished and sorted all the materials. The materials are all available in their library and anyone can access the Fonds. When I was making the film about my father, we went there on Day One of the shoot to open up the files, which are quite extensive with almost 40 boxes! It is interesting to note that there were no work notes about the Burma-Shell period in the Fonds, though there were lots of letters. The work notes must have been kept in the Shell office or else FD, because we don’t have any in the Fonds, but there are hundreds of photos and lots of letters from that period, we literally had chests full of them. It was overwhelming, as both my parents passed away within 14 months of one another, and I had not realized that they had saved all so many papers and photos. The material is not digitized but I can send you a link to the Fonds, they are well-documented.
15) You are a filmmaker yourself and in 2005, you released a documentary film about your father, 'The Idealist'. Can you explain the choice of title and describe this film project?
I chose this title about my father, but by the end of the film I thought maybe I was the idealist! The title references my father’s idealistic pursuits - creating education for all, his pure love of film and filmmaking, the idealism and optimism that he maintained right throughout his filmmaking career, he always celebrated the human spirit and looked at the positive side of humanity. He always focused on the positive aspects of the human nature rather than the negative. He pursued his ideals and did not pay attention to the collateral damage he may have left along the way. He was very driven by the ideal of documentary filmmaking and the benefits of documentary as a tool for education and for social change. So, that was the motivation for the title.
When the National Film Board’s 50th anniversary happened in 1989, as my parents were both NFB pioneers (they met there in the 1940’s), they attended the celebration in Montreal. After the event, I remember my mother coming home and she was terribly upset because there had been a rewriting, or a rephrasing, of the history of the early days at the NFB and my father’s role had been minimized. That moment was a personal lesson for me on the authenticity of ‘history’ as it is taught. I knew someone should document my parent’s story, though at the time I did not know it would be me!
It was challenging to put a proper sequence together of all the projects my father worked on throughout his career. At times I found it hard to believe, there was one point in his career when he was working in three countries at the same time on substantial jobs. How did he actually do this? He was a Professor of Film at NYU in New York City from 1968-72, he was the Film Consultant for Films Division in India from 1967-69, and in 1969 he was the founding Chair of Canada’s first Department of Cinema at York University in Toronto. How could he even physically do that? My film was about me going out on a fact finding mission, trying to make sense of all his accomplishments in documentary film and film education and putting his history down for the record.
16) By the end of the film production, did some grey areas remain?
Yes and it was a bit frustrating. Biography films don’t get commissioned much here in Canada so I was commissioned to make a personal “POV” film that explored my father’s relationships and personal life. It was challenging to get down to the root of his personal relationships. His remaining living friends thought his professional accomplishments were what mattered and that is the information they were willing to share with me. The other thing that I encountered was a variance in the narrative, between what his colleagues told me and what the official history states, about the early days of the National Film Board of Canada and how it evolved. Then in India, many of the Burmah-Shell films and records had disappeared. A lot of the films also disappeared from the North Carolina State Film Board which Dad established and ran from 1962 – 1965 during North Carolina’s integration years. It was challenging, yet interesting, to experience the temporariness of filmmaking in history. Even though you produce a physical print or tape, you think it will last but it doesn’t last long unless you invest in it. It is actually even worse now in the digital age, you have to work very hard to archive, store and retain film for the record. But my production team did what we could and gathered what we could. If it had been a longer project timeline, we probably would have gathered more. But you have to work within the framework of time and budget constraints.
17) The film seems to be as much about your mother, Margaret Beveridge. What can you tell about her contribution to documentary filmmaking, and more specifically in India?
I was so happy that my mother wove her way into the film, so very organically. She was a talented editor and producer and became Editor-In-Chief at the NFB in the 1940’s. In India during the Burmah-Shell days she had her three young children to bring up (my brother Nick and I were born in Bombay). She was an incredible hostess, extremely warm and very intelligent. She had a lot to do with putting the people together that my father worked with. When I looked through her address book, all those great names from the early days were there, Shyam Benegal, Clement Baptista, Jean Bhownagary, Fali Billimoria, Anand Patwardan and many more. They were good friends. My mom worked very strategically to put different people together at her parties and she significantly contributed to my father’s success. She facilitated the discussions and the outreach and the networking he needed. That is a big part of what she did in Bombay and then later when she moved back to New Delhi, after the kids had grown up. Both my parents fell in love with India when they first moved there in the 50s, and they were hooked for life. I don’t think Mom ever wanted to leave. It was hard for her in the subsequent years after the Burmah-Shell project ended to have to stay at home in Canada and the US to bring up the kids while my father kept returning to India to work on different projects. She edited all the James Beveridge Associates films and edited for other companies as well, in her 16mm lab at home, while Dad would travel to direct and shoot. She essentially produced and edited all of their films from home. I think it was very hard for her to swallow always being cast in the support role, but she did it with grace. I observed that she was a major force behind the establishment of the Jamia Millia Islamia Mass Communication Research Centre. She participated actively in the research phase and collaborated closely with Anwar Jamal Kidwai, then the vice-chancellor of Jamia Millia Islamia, and my father. She was a strong force behind the endeavor in development, construction and implementation of the MCRC and she poured her heart and soul into that project.
18) What does your mother's experience say about the role of women in documentary cinema and in Indian documentary cinema more particularly?
I imagine that in India the filmmaking industry is still very male dominated with the majority of production roles being male and that it would have been really tough for women to be out in the field producing films in the 1980s. So, for my mother, the Jamia Millia Islamia Mass Communication Research Centre (MCRC) gave her a huge opportunity to mentor and to work with young female filmmakers. Many bright and talented young women have graduated from that program and they loved my mom in those early MCRC days. She was very much a mentor. She and my father were both very engaged with their students. They loved their students and their students loved them back. Those were very personal and meaningful relationships that they had.
In India, there are an abundance of very smart young women so I don’t think Mom had difficulty finding talented young women to mentor, and I think her early female students were driven to prove themselves. Mom did whatever she could to help them and would fiercely support their endeavours. She also encouraged them to tackle difficult topics, such as domestic abuse and gender intolerance. She was very proud of her female students.
19) Did you have a chance to screen your film in India and if so, how was it received by the Indian audience?
“The Idealist” played at the International Mumbai Film Festival but it has not been seen by many people in India. I would love to go and screen the film at MCRC, but the opportunity has not yet arisen. They do have a copy of the film in their library.
The DVD of ‘The Idealist: James Beveridge Film Guru’ as well as the series on Indian music can be purchased on the Beevision website:
- Dr. Camille Deprez (2015)