Framing the Past through the lens of the Present By Gillian Evans

in Guest Articles/Newsreels by

The War Amps Society’s Migration of the Canadian Army Newsreels.

 By Gillian Evans

May16, 2011

The Canadian Army Newsreels, produced by the War Amps Society in 2010 with assistance from original members of the Canadian Army Film & Photo Unit and Library and Archives Canada, are a series of 106 separate original newsreels capturing Canada’s involvement in World War Two. The newsreels have been transferred to a series of six DVD’s, featuring approximately 18 newsreels per DVD with a total of 1200 minutes of footage. The newsreels, originally created and produced by the Canadian Army Film and Photo Unit throughout the course of the War, feature captivating footage shot by soldiers who also served as members of this specialized unit with post production taking place in Merton Park Studios in London.[1]

Established in 1941 and disbanding in 1945, the Canadian Army Film and Photo Unit was a sub-division of the Canadian Army Public Relations Branch. The Unit began small and at its height it contained 50 cine cameramen and 25 still photographers.[2] The Unit was developed in response to the Government’s desire to capture a record of Canada’s involvement in the War which could be used to promote Canada both domestically and abroad. However, the production of these newsreels also served to train and inform troops, with the additional benefit of boosting morale and providing an insight into the experiences of other Canadian soldiers. The newsreels were intended for viewing by army personell and were not released publicly. However, certain stills and segments had been adapted to publicly released newsreels produced by the National Film Board.[3]

The viewer is treated to the newsreels as they would have appeared to the personell viewing them originally. Each edition is presented in the orginal order that it would have been released and begins with the iconic opening introduction of a maple leaf, the official symbol of the Canadian Army Film and Photo Unit. Many of the editions feature training demonstrations, troops practicing operations, troop inspections, official visits from senior military officials and awards and recognition ceremonies. There is little deliberate attempt on the part of the producers to adapt or try to improve the quality of the original imagery or sound. Rather, the War Amps Society allows the newsreels to speak for themselves, demonstrating as little intervention over the archival integrity of the material as possible.

Although the content of the newsreels remains largely untouched, this DVD production is not simply a reproduction of archival footage to a new format. Rather, The Canadian Army Newsreels has been framed through the lens of the present with a different producer and a different intended audience. As Janna Jones has identified; contemporary representations of archival footage do more than open a window into the past, they also serve as a record in themselves documenting how we perceive the past and the value we attribute to it.[4] In this case, the DVD production forms part of The War Amps Society’s Military Heritage series and the broader campaign titled Never Again! which aims to inform younger generations of the consequences of war. This objective is clearly evident from the one contemporary feature that marks the newsreels; the War Amps’ trademarked symbol of a gun resting diagonally with a soldier’s helmet placed on top. The symbol, which was used during World War Two to temporarily mark the graves of fallen soldiers, is the visual representation used for the ‘Never Again’ campaign.[5] The Canadian Army Newsreels also serve a unique role as a bastian of Canadian history, subsequently conjouring notions of national pride, remembrance and respect. This is particularly evident in the introductory sequence featuring archival photographs and ceremonial music on each individual DVD.

As a result of allowing the newsreels to speak for themselves, the War Amps Society does not reflect on the new meaning it is attributing to this archival footage and as such it provides little background information behind the newsreels’ original context of creation. The lack of contextual information and critical reflection accompanying the DVD set could lead researchers to become confused as to the purpose and intent behind each edition that was released. One such example comes from an edition titled Casualty Clearing Station, which is described in the booklet as a depiction of the operations of a CCS. However, the edition is not an objective capture of reality but rather a purposefully constructed positive representation of the operations of a CCS.[6]

On the other hand, this production has managed to celebrate Canada’s wartime accomplishments and pay homage to those who had been involved. The Canadian Army Newsreels is successful in increasing and expanding on the accessibility of this valued resource. This is not only possible through the commercial release of the the DVD, enabling it to have a presence on the coffee tables of all Canadian households, but also through the sophisticated DVD menu layout and accompanying descriptions booklet which facilitates enhanced searching, ultimately aiding researchers in finding specific editions and topics within the totality of the 6 DVD set. Additionally, the migration of the material to a contemporary format ensures its ongoing preservation for some time into the future. Essentially, The Canadian Army Newsreels succeeds in bringing history to life and contributes towards ensuring the ongoing access to and preservation of what is no doubt a vital piece of Canadian history.

[1] “Army Newsreel Goes Weekly” (Newsreel No. 49.1). War Amps Society. 2010. The War Amps Presents the Canadian Army Newsreels (Filmed and Produced by the Canadian Army Film and Photo Unit).

[2] Dudley Peter. 2010. ‘War Amps Releases Newsreels‘ Published on the Canadian Film and Photo Unit website (November 2010): (Last accessed February 5th 2011).

[3] Bergeron, Rosemary. 2008. ‘A History of the Newsreel in Canada: A Struggle for Screen Time’ in The Moving Image (April 2008) Vol. 7 No. 2 pp. 25 -54.

[4] Jones, Janna. 2004. ‘Confronting the Past in the Archival Film and the Contemporary Documentary’ in The Moving Image. Vol. 4, No. 2 Fall 2004 pp. 1-21.

[5] War Amps Society. Canada’s Military Heritage Series. (Last accessed February 9th 2011.) http://www.waramps.ca/military/home.html

[6] Casualty Clearing Station. (Newsreel No. 4.3). War Amps Society. 2010. The War Amps Presents the Canadian Army Newsreels (Filmed and Produced by the Canadian Army Film and Photo Unit).

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