Challenge for Change / Societe Nouvelle: Documents in Participatory Democracy, a project by Jacqueline Hoang Nguyen, and Krista Bell Stewart’s solo exhibition, Seraphine, Seraphine share Mercer Union’s gallery space. These exhibitions are studies of imagined realities; they are exercises in examining the ways that we understand, feel, and express imagined histories, voices, subjects, and images of the past and present. Both examine the transformative power of the film medium.
Research-based artist Jacqueline Hoang Nguyen came across an activist documentary film project produced by the National Film Board of Canada (NFB) between the years of 1967 and 1980 entitled Challenge for Change / Société nouvelle. The mandate of the program was to address universal topics of poverty, environmental degradation, and first nations and women’s issues. Uniquely, the films were participatory documentaries, media created by the people that they featured.
The transformative power of the film medium was realised in this project as Challenge for Change / Société nouvelle made it possible for the public voice to express criticism of the current state of affairs, giving the public voice a new potential to propagate shifts in discourse. An important goal of the NFB program was to maintain transparency and democracy. Knowledge, equipment, methods and production was controlled by the people. Through these utopian films, realities of Canadian multiculturalism and egalitarianism were portrayed and made real in 1967 to 1980.
Nguyen was interested in how this freshly spawned reality was expressed and recorded in the program. She began an examination of the NFB film archives to re-present the film program in her five works in the installation at Mercer Union.
She discovered that the topics of Challenge for Change / Société nouvelle, relevant in 1967, are still unresolved and pertinent topics today and prompts viewers to engage with the past in relationship to the present. Nguyen offers up her selection of films to instigate thinking about the continued romanticization of the imagined realities of true Canadian multiculturalism and egalitarianism. The art unpacks and questions imagination, inviting viewers to think differently about how the films articulate their positivistic ideas.
In 2009, artist Krista Bell Stewart viewed a scripted docu-drama film produced by CBC in 1967 featuring her mother, Seraphine Stewart. The film portrayed Seraphine Stewart as the first Aboriginal woman to become a public health nurse in British Columbia. Prior to this viewing, Krista Bell had no idea of the CBC docu-drama’s existence or her mother’s involvement. She was struck by the fragility of her then 27 year old mother’s voice as she spoke the lines the director had given her so as to construct Seraphine’s imagined voice.
In 2013, Stewart witnessed her mother’s true and emotionally raw personal testimonial to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Vancouver, 2013. Seraphine’s 72 year old voice was steady and resolute as she spoke of experiences, rituals, and traumas from her childhood and early years. The scripted documentary of 1967 holds nothing of Seraphine’s true voice, yet the docu-drama was presented as a whole truth. Her personal testimonial presents Seraphine’s true voice and personal history. At this crossroads, Stewart was inspired to begin her project, Seraphine: Her Own Story (2014).
The weaving action of these two films creates a connection between the past and the present and exposes a personal history left untold by film for 50 years. Viewing these clips side by side, our attention is drawn to the elements of the fictional and imaginary presented in the 1967 docu-drama film, a film style which proclaims true institutional history. Seraphine: Her Own Story (2014) juxtaposes video images of her mother from these two films, one institutional and one personal in content, both institutional in nature. The interlacement of these two stories, and what is almost two separate women despite being the same subject, existing 50 years apart, is emotional and provoking. The project examines the concepts and understandings of truth and fiction when film is used as a mechanism to traverse spaces between truth and fiction.
*Exhibition information: Jacqueline Hoang Nguyen, Challenge for Change /Societe Nouvelle & Krista Bell Stewart’s solo exhibition, Seraphine, Seraphine, March 13 – April 25, 2015, Mercer Union, 1286 Bloor Street West, Toronto. Gallery hours: Tue – Sat 11 – 6 p.m.