Without minimizing the very real consequences of COVID-19 on the film industry, Canadians have long been accustomed to “thinking outside of the movie theatre.” The country’s rich tradition of nontheatrical screening initiatives is in part a tangible reaction to the political economy of the distribution and exhibition sectors that have made theatrical screenings of domestic productions a rare occasion.
The specific conditions of our current pandemic immediately bring to mind one such nontheatrical initiative: the formation of the Royal Canadian Naval Film Society during World War II. Consider, if you will, a cluster of people living in close proximity during a moment of crisis. With limited opportunity for social interaction, and desperate for sources of diversion, they embrace a relatively novel technology of display, flush with brand new content. While this description may seem applicable to many of us flocking to newly emboldened streaming options during a period of prolonged theatrical closures, this is a scenario prefigured in film screening initiatives aboard Canadian naval vessels in WWII.
Moments of crisis often lead to the disruption of standardized practices. Just as major studios have today turned to streaming and VOD for their “prestige product” once destined for theatrical exhibition, those same studios relented to demands, and made available, on the upstart 16mm format, brand new film titles for distribution to wartime forces in 1942. A major beneficiary of this was the Royal Canadian Navy, who had recently launched its own film society, with the purpose of supplying seabound ships.
The images above document these screenings, and would suggest events that were lively, improvised and highly social. In Image 1 we can see these were at times co-ed affairs, while Images 2 and 3 suggest perhaps a higher degree of intimacy than one might assume in a testosterone-rich naval context. We can identify the strategic —and perhaps even ideological—role such activity took on in terms of maintaining troop morale. But at the same time it’s hard not to empathize with the plight of these sailors, and acknowledge the simple pleasures that a movie night affords during a time of isolation and crisis.
Z479 – July 1944. File 12, box 150, 81/520/1000, (Directorate of History and Heritage, Department of National Defence)
L4529 – January 1944. File 17, box 143, 81/520/1000, (Directorate of History and Heritage, Department of National Defence)
L4531 – January 1944. File 17, box 143, 81/520/1000, (Directorate of History and Heritage, Department of National Defence)