The National Film Board of Canada: Background information when reading The Agony of Bun O'Keefe

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The Agony of Bun O'Keefe

by Heather Smith

The Agony of Bun O'Keefe by Heather Smith X
The Agony of Bun O'Keefe by Heather Smith
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2017, 224 pages

    Apr 2019, 256 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Rory L. Aronsky
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About this Book

The National Film Board of Canada

This article relates to The Agony of Bun O'Keefe

Print Review

The title of Heather Smith's novel, The Agony of Bun O'Keefe, is inspired by a 27-minute documentary called The Agony of Jimmy Quinlan [see full film below], which was produced by the National Film Board of Canada in 1978. The film chronicles the effort of Quinlan, one of 5,000 people living on the streets in Montreal, to get sober.

For Bun O'Keefe, the protagonist in Smith's novel, The Agony of Jimmy Quinlan provides fortification against a world she does not yet know. She has memorized the documentary script and even the various intonations of the narrator, and repeats bits in moments when she's not sure what to do or how to react – kind of like Jimmy Quinlan trying to face down the world and forge a path of sobriety for himself.

That was, in essence, the purpose of these documentary films; they were created to shed light on the lives of Canadians from many perspectives and situations. When the National Film Board was founded on May 2, 1939, the state of Canadian films was in disrepair. At this time, the Canadian Government Motion Picture Bureau (CGMPB) was the sole producer of films in the country and because of lack of leadership, management and sufficient funding, their films were sparse, of poor quality, and inaccurately depicted Canadians. In fact, their primary purpose was to serve as travelogues seeking to bring wealthy Americans to its lands. The rest of the films showing in Canadian theaters were American made, and Canada and its citizens were depicted simplistically – picturesque and stereotypical.

John Grierson, a filmmaker who had spearheaded the British documentary movement, undertook a comprehensive study of Canadian promotional films in 1938. In May, Grierson submitted his findings, which recommended creating a centralized organization and policy that could promote Canada abroad through its films, and also bring Canadians together at home. In November of the same year, Grierson wrote a bill to create the National Film Board and after debate in the House of Commons, the plan was adopted in March 1939 and given Royal Assent at the beginning of May 1939.

Documentaries were made right away. The National Film Board's first English language film was called The Case of Charlie Gordon, about an unemployed man who finds his place in society with the help of a community organization supported by the federal government. This film began the path to providing socially-conscious documentaries and interactive media that engages communities all across Canada. As of today, the National Film Board boasts a collection of 13,000 titles.

The National Film Board's The Agony of Jimmy Quinlan:

Filed under Music and the Arts

Article by Rory L. Aronsky

This "beyond the book article" relates to The Agony of Bun O'Keefe. It originally ran in October 2017 and has been updated for the April 2019 paperback edition. Go to magazine.

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