Nova Scotia Archives

Margaret Perry: A Life in Film

Margaret Perry and the Nova Scotia Film Bureau

These promotional films were produced by Margaret Perry between 1945-69, in her role as the head of the Nova Scotia Government’s film unit. These short films, shot on 16mm Kodachrome and Ektachrome film stock, depict the Province as a tourist destination, a natural environment, a site of industrial, agricultural and artistic production, as well as a complex site of cultural heritage. Aimed at educating Nova Scotians about themselves and promoting the Province within Canada and around the world, the collection is useful today as a record that articulates and documents “ways of seeing” Nova Scotia that reflects government policies, lived-experiences and practices, as well as located perspectives and narratives that were dominant at the time. Watching these films prompts questions about what kinds of representations are present and absent in this government-sponsored archive of post war Nova Scotia.

While these films are technically “government” productions, they also reflect the artistic vision of Margaret Perry, the filmmaker and producer who, as head of Nova Scotia’s film bureau, had a hand in all aspects of their production.

Before 1945 when Margaret Perry started up the film unit of the Nova Scotia Information Service, Nova Scotia commissioned outside production companies to produce its promotional films. With Perry’s arrival, not only did she become one of Canada’s most important early film bureaucrats, but also one of its most prolific early filmmakers. Over the course of her career, Perry made more than 50 films for the province’s film unit, often researching and writing the scripts herself, shooting and editing the films, as well as supervising post-production. While all of Perry’s films feature a male “voice-of-god” narrator, her films reflect her distinctive perspectives and aesthetic voice.

Films in this collection take on a wide range of topics related to tourism, aspects of the province’s heritage and culture, its industrial and agricultural development, as well the unique aspects of its natural environment. The films were shown at tourism and trade shows as well as in schools, and eventually, on TV. Many of the films are instructional and explanatory in nature, demonstrating how things work, and providing explanations of why things are the way they are. Because Perry was mainly shooting on her own, often in remote locations, most of the films are shot outdoors, making use of available natural light. Some of the films’ topics were suggested to Perry by various government departments, and some reflect Perry’s own interests. The result is a collection of films that reflects government interests and initiatives, as well as those of a progressive, white settler-filmmaker, who was deeply curious, interested in nature and the outdoors, people’s labour and how things are made, community cooperation, and day-to-day aspects of everyday life. As a result, as well as being an archival collection, these films are also archival in nature since they document aspects of everyday life in Nova Scotia that others at the time did not think was important or worth paying attention to.

Exploring this collection of films together showcases Margaret Perry’s commitment to exploring the everyday lives of many Nova Scotians. Her commitment to curiosity and documentation, while contending with the authorial voice and ideas about progress and responsibility are at the heart of this collection. Key questions to consider when viewing the collection include: What can we learn from these films today? What kinds of themes, objects, and aesthetics define Perry’s view of the Province as well as the Province’s view of itself?

Margaret Perry’s first film-related job was as a rural circuit projectionist in New Brunswick. From 1940-1942, Perry would receive shipments of films from the National Film Board and drive around the province with a 16mm projector and speaker to show the films and lead discussions about them at community gatherings in schools and church halls.

Perry’s MP, Leonard O’Brien, saw one of her early films created as a personal project, and told National Film Board Commissioner John Grierson Board about Perry. Grierson invited Perry to come to Ottawa and from 1942-1945, she worked at the NFB as the only employee from Atlantic Canada in a variety of capacities, including as one of the board’s first two women cinematographers.

Extracted from the interpretive exhibit “Back From Beyond” curated by Dr. Carla Taunton and Dr. Jennifer VanderBurgh



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