Homeland Insecurity: Kathleen Shannon’s Working Mothers

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Adam Cook is a programmer and editor for MUBI and contributes film criticism to various publications including Cinema Scope, Film Comment, Cineaste, and Filmmaker Magazine.

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Image credit: The National Film Board of Canada

Operating within the narrow margin afforded to it, The National Film Board of Canada has produced a considerable number of the country’s most impressive films and filmmakers, particularly throughout the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, when several bold initiatives yielded technologically progressive and socially engaged films. Many of these fell under the umbrella of the Challenge for Change program, which ran from 1967-1980 and bore such notable projects as Colin Low’s Fogo Island films and the work of The Indian Film Crew. The experimental nature of this broad program produced mixed results, all of them fascinating if not successful. While it largely went and continues to go unnoticed, it is one of the most unusual and innovative periods in Canadian cinema, even more so when considering the socio-critical films produced were government funded. Much like how Canadian filmmaking seems to exist between the cracks of the film history, women navigating the patriarchal bureaucracy of the industry were often overlooked. Kathleen Shannon is an example of such. The most prolific editor for the NFB, Shannon had been with the Board since the mid-1950s and had begun to push the idea of a wider focus within Challenge for Change, both for female filmmakers and issues. This led to the genesis of Working Mothers and, subsequently Studio D, both of which endeavoured to make films for women, by women.

Working Mothers is a series of eleven individual short films produced by Kathleen Shannon and Len Chatwin between 1974 and 1975, most of which are directed by Shannon herself. Predominantly utilizing one-on-one interviews, this structure places the focus on each individual mother and her concerns. Notably, three films deviate from this model: the first short, It’s Not Enough, which acts as a sort of survey; the sixth instalment, entitled “…and They Lived Happily Ever After”—in which a group of girls and married women discuss marriage and motherhood, as well as the influence of media on both; and a little-seen animated short. Although a handful of interviews with different women can in no way claim to be a comprehensive look at the spectrum of working mothers in Canada, it cleverly demonstrates the opposite to be the case, emphasizing the differences in concerns and circumstances along with the similarities. The series does make an effort to view women in various placements in Canada’s social strata, with attention paid to single and married mothers, mothers of different ethnicities, and mothers from the lower and middle classes.

Joy, the first subject, from Mothers Are People, is a well-educated Jamaican émigré who works as a biologist and struggles to afford daycare for her children. Cathy, the subject of Tiger on a Tight Leash, has a higher level of financial security than Joy and other subjects in the series. Cathy is the head of a University department married to a professor of architecture. Yet she also struggles with the unreliability of daycare, despite being able to afford a babysitter, and often finds herself without anyone she can count on in a moment’s notice due to a lack of infrastructure. Shannon cleverly includes a sequence in which Cathy and her family have a leisurely day out picnicking and boating—the sort of quality time other subjects in the series are not able to have. However, it is not a jab so much as a contextual detail, as Shannon’s investment is not limited to the underprivileged but concerned with the broader socioeconomic inequality that beleaguers Canadian women. While the statistics are out of date, the principles remain relevant as women still face lower salaries, fewer opportunities, and less adequate representation in the media.

Would I Ever Like to Work is the most difficult of the films to watch. Joan is a single mother of seven living on welfare who is not able to work because she can’t afford daycare. Abused by her ex-husband, and clearly emotionally exhausted, she confesses she’s not a good mother and that’s she’s short-tempered and unfair to her children. Shot mostly within Joan’s shambolic kitchen, as she feebly tries to tend to her offspring, Shannon doesn’t try to put any optimistic spin on what is clearly an unhappy home, and symptomatically so. Here we see how the unfair relegation of Joan as a prisoner of domestic space translates into inadequate treatment of children who will likely also face difficult futures with limited choices. Of course, this is a consequence of poverty, but this poverty is largely due to the unfair circumstances forced on Joan, who laments that she was unable to continue her education.

At first glance, the interactive documentary mode of Working Mothers might seem unremarkable, but the specific settings of each interview are used to characterize and contextualize both the woman on screen as well as a facet of Canadian living. Primarily shot within domestic space and the workplace—the split domain of the working mother—we only catch glimpses of the outside, and even then we see only an extension of the constrictive limits on the subjects’ lives: the farm where one woman works when she gets home from her job, the commuting space between work and home. Watching the films in a row, one begins to get sick of the wallpaper, the furniture, and the kitchen tables, which reveal the oppressive force that the home can take on when it’s something one is bound to unwillingly. But nearly all of the women Shannon introduces us to are not worn down or defeated but articulate and steadfast. They understand their situation, and the unfairness of the outdated societal rulebook authored by men.

Individually, the films of the Working Mothers series have unique value, but it is as a whole that they work most effectively, not just because of their scope but also because of how they strengthen each other. In particular, Our Dear Sisters, the final and most moving instalment of the series, ties together all of the preceding films in a beautiful way. The film features Alanis Obomsawin as its subject, the Abenaki filmmaker who would eventually emerge as one of the NFB’s greatest talents, directing acclaimed documentaries like Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance (1993). This on-camera encounter with Obomsawin is entirely serendipitous, having preceded her success as a filmmaker. The most refreshingly positive film in the series, it captures the loving and radiant nature of Obomsawin as she discusses how, as a travelling performer, she manages being a mother. “Nobody’s going to tell me what I can do or not do and who I am,” she says. Obomsawin’s assertively defiant approach to life and motherhood acts as one of the series’ closing remarks, an utterance of female independence. Shannon crosscuts the conversation with footage from an Aboriginal festival where Obomsawin performs, commanding the attention of a crowd. The film shifts into pure celebration as we see images of people dancing as Obomsawin describes how a tribe can only operate through equality and mutual respect, providing an example for society to follow. Insert shots of women’s faces at the festival, which begin to blend with this jovial scene, giving way to a shot of women on stage singing “Bright Morning Stars” (which includes the lyrics, “oh, where are our dear sisters”). With the music carrying over, Shannon then cuts to shots of each of the women from the series, a call to arms and an ecstatic gesture of collective power and agency.

The success of Working Mothers led to the creation of Studio D, the very first publicly funded women’s film studio, not just in Canada, but the world. However, even Studio D received second-rate treatment, so under-funded that Shannon, along with cofounders, Yuki Yoshida and Margaret Pettigrew, struggled to get it off the ground. Even with such adversity, the Studio managed to produce well over one hundred films between 1974 and 1996, when it was dissolved. Shannon left the board in 1987, though she would continue to work as a filmmaker until her retirement in 1992.

Although Studio D is in many ways the most successful initiative born out of the Challenge for Change, having lasted over fifteen years beyond the program’s demise, it still faced a premature conclusion. The need for a feminist-mandated cinema within Canada’s cultural landscape did not and has not dwindled, and although the world seen through the lens of Working Mothers doesn’t exactly mirror contemporary Canadian life, many womens’ concerns remain the same. The dissolution of the studio is itself a serious issue, the Board having foolishly deemed it no longer necessary. In Working Mothers, Shannon helped create a model for films concerned with women’s issues from the point of view of female filmmakers—it remains the NFB’s most essential challenge for change.


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