An Open Letter to Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly

A Long Read on the State of Canadian Documentary

The Honourable Mélanie Joly
Minister of Canadian Heritage
House of Commons
Ottawa Canada

Dear Minister,

Kevin McMahon

I write in response to your request for information from the arts community about “issues of importance surrounding the creation, discovery and export of Canadian content in a digital world”.

Thank you for this opportunity. I’ve been in the cultural trade for 39 years. I started out pounding a manual typewriter for my university newspaper and now I work in virtual reality, among other forms, for a global audience. In my time there have been several government inquiries into mass media, but I don’t recall a minister soliciting opinions from individual creators. We appreciate it.

I’m no policy analyst, so I can’t say how you might restructure the environment of institutions, subsidies and regulations within which Canada’s screen culture lives. What I can tell you, and hope will be useful, is what it feels like for a creator to try to achieve the goals you’ve set for Canadian culture within that environment today.

From ‘Strengthening Canadian content creation, discovery and export in a digital world’

I put it that way because, if I understand what you and Prime Minister Trudeau have said, your goal is content that brings Canadians together, ‘fosters informed citizens and democratic values’ and showcases our unique worldview abroad, all in the context of the digital revolution. I happen to be in a creative community that explicitly shares those goals – and has had success, in the past, achieving them — so you may find the details of our recent experience instructive, if distressing.

My community is Canada’s documentary makers. I mostly work in English Canada, though sometimes with colleagues from Quebec and various First Nations. We are not your biggest or most powerful constituency, but our art form is one of the most uniquely Canadian.

Canada and Documentary: a short history

Nanook of the North

As I’m sure you know, documentary was invented in Canada. The first real feature doc, Nanook of the North, was filmed in Inukjuak, Quebec and edited in Toronto. The film is contentious for lots of reasons, but still valuable, as docs always are, as a window on to vanished lives. The term ‘documentary’ was coined by John Grierson, a Scot who, at Prime Minister Mackenzie King’s invitation, established the National Film Board of Canada in 1939. The NFB is the only purpose-built, government-supported documentary institution in the world. Its legacy is that virtually every documentary technique, technology and aesthetic school was born in Canada.

Documentary’s DNA was woven by Grierson himself. He called it the “creative treatment of actuality”, but considered it less a form of art than a type of public service. In the early years, he wrote, it was “the sense of a public cause to be served which kept its own people together” and earned the support of government, newspapers and “people of goodwill everywhere”. Grierson believed that a “progressive social intention” is inherent in the form; by looking at the world as it is, documentary prompts us to imagine what it could be. Documentary was popular in Canada during the tough years after World War Two and Grierson thought that was because “in a decade of spiritual weariness it reached out, almost alone among the media, towards the future.” In those days, documentaries were made on 35mm film, which “happened to be the most convenient and most exciting” medium available. But Grierson believed that the documentary idea itself transcended technology. And so it has. Today’s doc makers work with gear he could not have imagined. But our ethos is unchanged.

Documentary and Idealism

Documentarians are true idealists. We have an unshakeable belief that telling the stories of our fellow citizens – funny or sad, lovely or ugly – helps us all understand each other and that makes everyone’s life better. We believe clear reason, honest emotions and a comprehensive assemblage of facts are essential to democratic discourse. We see ourselves as people who stand with the weak, challenge the imperious and try, where we can, to bridge warring factions. Of course, we don’t go around, like goody two-shoes, saying all that. Rather, it’s a worldview we try to seduce you into sharing. Because we like to think that we are artists too.

I know documentary filmmakers all over the world and I’ve never met one who was in it for the money. Nor do we do it for the glory, which comes rarely and never sits easily; a doc maker on a red carpet has all the inherent fabulousness of a Grade 8 boy on graduation day. Our motivation is the social adventure. Documentary gives us access to places and events we would never otherwise witness. We meet an incredible array of people at an astoundingly intimate level. My guess is that only politicians spend as much time as we do sitting in kitchens, listening. Physically it’s an adventure too, though often a harsh one. The excitement of strange landscapes and exotic cultures can be tempered by corrupt officials, mysterious illnesses and unsafe aircraft.

City Out of Time, Colin Low, National Film Board of Canada

Our journalistic cousins share these risks and rewards, but on very different terms. They don’t have our luxury of extensive field work or long formats. We don’t have their income security, company-issued flak jackets or corporate legal protection. When we fall into a pile of trouble, we extricate ourselves. Nonetheless, I know many documentarians — tiny women and nerdy men — who somehow muster the guts to go it alone into war zones or hostile ghettos or the lairs of vicious chieftains.

The reward is our connection with audiences. Documentary is a tool for building community; it is both a megaphone and a gathering place. Most people see our work on TV or online. But the real thrill for us comes in a theatre, or church hall, when we can represent for people the experiences of their community or the invisible forces shaping their lives. It’s immensely satisfying to experience the gratitude of a community – especially a marginalized one – that feels it has been genuinely seen and truthfully depicted. To have the skills to do that for people who, for whatever reasons, can’t do it for themselves, makes you feel like a real hero. If only for a day.

As a tribe of creators, the documentary community is as egalitarian as can be. Because we have no need for sound studios or truckloads of equipment, documentary artists can live anywhere in the country, plying their trade with a few colleagues, a little gear and money for gas. Though individually small in scale, their collective work has had a huge impact on our national struggles for equality. Quebecois doc makers helped their community identify and speak out against English domination. Our legendary indigenous doc directors – and their non-native allies – have, for decades, fought the general indifference to shine a light on Canada’s First Nations. Women’s issues have had a voice through documentary that is unequalled in mass media: women comprise 60 per cent of the Documentary Organization of Canada’s membership and hold nine of the 12 positions on its board.

Richard Cardinal: Cry from a Diary of a Métis Child, Alanis Obomsawin, National Film Board of Canada

The success of Canadian docs today

We also welcome beginners and new immigrants. Just yesterday I met with a young Afghan filmmaker, six weeks landed, who is now being mentored by a Columbian, who also arrived here friendless a few years ago and is now a member of the doc ‘establishment’ (such as it is!). Embracing the creative outsider is one of the more uniquely Canadian aspects of our documentary culture. Every year, at least half the films in the “Canadian Spectrum” at Hot Docs are shot in distant lands by hyphenated Canadians. In the 21st century, every arts community is multicultural, but ours has the exploration of other cultures baked into its genetics.

I’m sure Grierson would be well satisfied with the civic achievements of his offspring. But we’ve also had a level of commercial success that he would not have anticipated. When I joined the community in the 1980s, documentary was still a fringe sub-genre of television and art cinema. Our only measure of accomplishment was social: a taboo broken, a law changed, a civil right accepted. Over the decades, diligence and luck turned docs into a mass market cultural force. In 2006 – our high water mark – there was $460 million worth of documentary production in Canada, mostly by independent creators. Our projects brought in $31 million of foreign investment, comprised 20% of Canadian television shows, employed 10,000 people directly and another 6,000 in spin-off jobs. Canada’s documentary creators, that year, averaged a princely salary of $36,000. But, like I said, we’re not in it for the cash.

Hot Docs Audience Award winner Angry Inuk (Alethea Arnaquq-Baril, 2016)
Courtesy of the NFB

The most striking number from that year is: 50,000. That’s how many people attended Hot Docs in Toronto. Just eight years earlier, that audience had been only 4,000. Hot Docs was created in 1993 by Toronto’s documentary makers, as a dedicated space to share our films amongst ourselves. The city already had strong documentary exhibition at the Toronto International Film Festival, which featured docs long before other major film festivals did. It was TIFF that launched the career of the great American doc maker Michael Moore. The start of Hot Docs showed the enormity of the city’s love of non-fiction: it grew continuously and in 2016, the 11-day event drew more than 210,000 people to 232 films. It’s now the biggest documentary festival in North America, arguably the world’s most influential, and one of Toronto’s signature cultural events. DOXA, in Vancouver, and Rencontres internationales du documentaire de Montreal, are smaller, but they’ve had similar growth.

Aim for the Roses (John Bolton, 2016)
Courtesy of Hot Docs

These festivals welcome thousands of international documentarians, highlighting Canada’s leading role in world documentary. This year, Hot Docs hosted official delegations from 14 countries, including Nigeria and Georgia. That milieu, and the quality of our work, has made Canada a favored partner for documentary coproduction. Many doc makers have strong ties that enable the import of investment and the export of expertise. Toronto’s Blue Ice Group sponsors and mentors documentary makers all over Africa. Interactive documentary pioneer Kat Cizek gives workshops at MIT and collaborates with the New York Times. I’ve recently worked on two enormous productions which were initiated and principally funded by broadcasters from Germany and Japan. Both sought out Canadians to lead their projects because we are experts in their subject – climate change – and because we’re adept at work that’s logistically tough, creatively complex and tailored for multiple platforms. Forgive me if this all sounds unCanadian in its boastfulness, but I’m proud of the fact that, a century after documentary was invented here, Canadians are recognized for excellence in it everywhere.

The cherry on top of our success is the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema. The Art Deco theatre in downtown Toronto – beautifully restored by Blue Ice and the Hot Docs community – is the only cinema in the world devoted to the art of non-fiction. Every night, it shows two or three feature docs. It’s always at least half full with one community or another, drawn by their particular interests or aesthetics. I work near there and, some nights, I take the long way home, just to pass the cinema, see folks lining up and marvel at how far we’ve come.

Canaries in the coal mine

Of course, Minister, our success has only been possible because of the cultural support system that your predecessors – and their colleagues throughout the Western world – built over the last century. In Canada, that system, as you know, is now collapsing into sterility, dysfunction and corruption. The blame is usually put on the shocks of technological and economic change, but that’s only part of the story. What’s more significant is that the relationships among the system’s players — and between us and our audiences — have fallen wildly out of balance. The result for the Canadian documentary community is that we are now gripped by a crisis that threatens to destroy our art form in this country. And that, as I hope to show you, is not hyperbole.

The reason our particular crisis may matter to you – beyond general ministerial compassion — is that it is specifically linked to your cultural goals of social cohesion, democratic reinforcement and the building of brand Canada abroad. I believe the system that produces screen content in Canada has come to loathe those virtues, which you – and most Canadians – believe in and for which documentary traditionally stands. And that makes us the canaries in your coal mine.

Independent Documentaries: the ‘80s ‘til now

When I left my daily newspaper job in 1985, wanting to make documentaries, I dreamt of a sinecure at the NFB or the CBC. It wasn’t a lame ambition. In those days, the institutions cooperated (as they rarely have since), they had staff directors and they did great, ambitious documentary work. To learn the trade, I had to move to England, because there was very little film training here. When I came home, two years later, the dream of having my very own NFB cardigan had been dashed. The Western world had entered a new economic era – call it neo-liberalism, neo-conservatism or hyper-capitalism. There’s many names for it because it’s only now, thanks to journalism and documentary, that we have come to understand that it was an organized movement, working behind a curtain. Those we now call The One Per Cent were pushing governments to dump civil servants and privatize public services. The days of government jobs in Canadian culture were over. My generation was the first to spend our adult lives as freelance creators within a constantly shifting matrix of public and private funding schemes. We were artists but, to survive, we had to learn business. So we put on our pointed boots and studied the ways of commerce.

Hundreds of production companies were born in those days and thousands of people whose formal schooling was in writing, filming or design retrained themselves in the myriad proficiencies required to navigate a maze of government agencies, broadcasters, multinational corporations and international distributors. Our community is now rich in producer/creators with expertise in negotiation, budgeting, accounting, purchasing, management, multiple types of law (labour, tax, libel, copyright, international treaty, etc.) as well as in researching, story evaluation, sourcing, planning, remote logistics, pitching and all the other human, management and technical skills documentary makers must have (before we even get to the arty stuff, like writing and directing). We had to learn, too, the coping skills to deal with the growing crowd of apex predators fighting to dominate the government waterholes. By comparison, we were mere shrews. But we learned to dart lively and it ultimately did us good: three decades on, Canada’s documentary makers are a tough enough bunch.

Monsoon (Sturla Gunnarsson, 2014)

For a long while, we had luck on our side. The late 20th century cable TV proliferation was an unprecedented boon for documentary: all those cable companies signing up families by the millions, all those specialty channels – with different, competing owners — needing 24/7 content – the cheaper, the better – and all overseen by federal regulation that kept subject matters narrow, which, to keep audiences interested, required great originality. It was a formula that, over about 20 years, sparked an explosion of astoundingly good Canadian non-fiction: feature documentaries, doc series and lots of the delightfully inventive factual programming that, then, was the bulk of cable TV. Future media historians will be astonished at the quality of writing and imagery in thousands of factual hours about Canadian history, technology, society, nature and science. Cable TV developed so quickly, and so voraciously consumed shows, that most of this work blossomed briefly and disappeared, like flowers in the desert.

Despite our pointy boots, Canada’s doc makers never lost our sense of public purpose. Documentaries virtually never make a profit, anywhere in the world. They are green spaces for minds otherwise entirely assailed by marketing. That’s understood in the media world and it’s why every democratic country – even the USA — supports documentary as a public good, like parks in cities. Though we did our best, against long odds, to “recoup investment” – as the public-private system required – we assumed, and we insisted, that our public mandate remain unchanged.

Meanwhile, in budget after budget, every federal government, following the orthodoxy of the era, kept squeezing cash out of the public institutions – the NFB and especially the CBC — and giving it to the “independent sector”. As the big private media corps became engorged with cable profits, and started swallowing smaller rivals, the government milked them too, demanding “community benefit funds” that gave creators more funding spigots. We didn’t worry, as documentary makers, about the provenance of any of this money. Nor did we cry for the CBC. As it became increasingly commercial, independent doc makers were spreading the public service mission across the channel spectrum. We saw ourselves – and still see ourselves – as, essentially, freelance civil servants.

The public/private system and how it failed

Now, I don’t know how lobbyists or influence peddlers manage to have government policies broken or bent. (I’d love to do a doc on that – but I’d never get the access!) As creators, we only see the effects when the rules get changed and the diktats published. Over the years, as the public-private system grew, we saw the private slowly but inexorably get the better of the public. In television, for example, Telefilm, a real public agency, gave way to the Canadian Media Fund, a public-private agency, which handed all gatekeeping functions to broadcasters and distributors. The CMF calls this “market validation”, implying reliance on accurate ratings and sharp demographic analysis. The reality is not so scientific.

The “market” to whom producers sell is just a gatekeeper — a regular gal or guy whose taste, mood or departmental directives determine what ends up on TV, cinemas or online (not on YouTube, necessarily, but on the heavily-marketed and coveted Video On Demand services, like Netflix). A show’s success – on any platform – depends on publicity, weather, the day’s news and the moment’s zeitgeist. Anybody who studies film history knows the cinematic truism: “nobody knows nothing”. The purely public media ethos approaches the audience with the assumption that artistic excellence, expressing a true heart, will ultimately succeed. The purely capitalist media ethos approaches the audience knowing one can always raise a crowd with spun sugar, a car crash or porn. And then there is everything in between. But there’s no such thing as validating before the fact. There’s only acting on your assumptions, entering the ring and receiving the judgment of fate. Nevertheless – and despite all the public money poured into the system — the broadcast gatekeepers’ decisions ultimately became the only measure of what is valid.

We creators felt the consequences of always privileging the private over the public in our experience of business conduct, long before it became obvious on TV screens. Almost annually, the federal government issues policies intended to balance the field on which ginormous media corps and small creative companies must play together. But inevitably, as soon as the regulators look away, those policies get quietly bumped off. Take, for example, the tax credit system. The federal government intended production tax credits to be rebates that would enable small creative shops to capitalize and mature. They would free us from the panic of living from show to show, allowing for thoughtful development, production efficiencies, proper marketing and a broad increase in excellence. It was a great plan, for, like, five minutes. Immediately, broadcasters began insisting that producers include tax credits in production budgets. Now, consider how tax credits work: they are earned by small producers, who move mountains of paper to satisfy the persnickety Canada Revenue Agency; the money does not arrive until a year after productions finish (at best); and the resulting interest debt has to be carried by producers, most of whom are too small to have the backing of a bank. So the hundreds of millions of tax dollars that have gone into the credit system have actually further impoverished creators while giving a public subsidy to large media corporations, making it cheaper for them to meet the national content commitments that Canada – like every Western country except America — mandates. And that, in a nutshell, is how it always goes.

The story of Terms of Trade is similar. They, as I’m sure you know, Minister, were a set of fair contract practices that were policed by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission. They were respected only grudgingly and, now, they have been lobbied out of existence, allowing broadcasters to demand terms that would make a Mafia enforcer blush. Program license periods that used to be five, or maybe seven, reasonable years, now measure in decades, effectively giving the media corps control of creators’ copyright. Where once payments were logically spread over the life of a project, beginning when work did, now creators may not be paid until a year — even two years! — after their program is broadcast. The way we are now shaken down for ancillary rights is almost comical in its greed: typically, we must give them not only home viewing and streaming rights, not only retransmission rights, but sometimes even the rights to our original footage, to be sold off as stock. What’s actually worse is that broadcasters now routinely suck up all these rights – presumably to inflate their company’s value – but often do not exploit them. So creators lose money and potential audiences for no good reason at all.

Canada’s documentary makers, as I’ve made clear, are not about the bucks. But it’s hard not to get angry when every move you make to stretch your resources is met with a sucker punch. Our embrace of digital technology is yet another example. Following in a proud tradition, Canada’s doc makers are always first in line to try new gadgets: digital video, desktop editing and digital effects, tiny-format chip cameras, drones, and now, 360 video rigs and virtual reality composition. We heartily embraced the machinery, built a lot of the ancillary technology and invented much of the visual grammar that is shaping the future of interactive art. It’s easy for us to lean into innovative technology because experimentation is part of the documentary routine. But embracing digital technology was also a key economic strategy for us.

With digital tech we could work faster and cheaper. Parts of our work previously done in big labs – like image processing and sound mixing – could be done in our editing rooms. That was no hardship to the labs – they live on commercials and big drama – but it really stretched our meager budgets. And we could use the new tools to get much more out of the footage we gathered. We’ve always had to produce multiple versions of projects, to satisfy different funders. Digital tools helped us push our material further, reshaping it to create, for example, a feature film, TV series and interactive experience, each with its own unique style. We also gained the freedom to independently market our work, which we could never afford before. This is important because Canadian broadcasters usually spend their promotion dollars pushing American shows they have bought rather than Canadian shows they have commissioned. Many of us had websites before big media companies knew what they were. We were shilling on social media from the get-go, which worked well until the whole world learned to bang a drum for its product, service or cat.

We hoped our techno-nerdiness would give us the potential to make better work and a better living. But, it turns out, again, that we were amusingly naïve. When broadcasters saw we could do more with less, they went Walmart on us, slashing our budgets and pocketing the resulting profits themselves. The budget considered acceptable for a documentary in 1995 was at least double what it is today. In many ways, we were prototypes for today’s young digital creators, who are culturally savvy, technically brilliant, economically powerless and endlessly ripped-off in the online world.

Even working twice as hard won’t help creators get a break. Though media companies are all about profit, the public agencies treat profit by creators as a sin. The public-private system expects us to be both shrewd little shrews and virginal vessels of culture. So, for example, there is a small and rigid percentage cap on how much we can earn from a production budget, regardless of its size. Even a documentary maker with a tiny project, who can do 100% of the work, can only be paid for a small part of it.

The Messenger (Su Rynard, 2015)

The final way to get ahead in this trade is to “work your back end”, as they like to say in Hollywood, by selling finished productions to TV and VOD abroad. Canada’s documentary community has many global connections but, practically, dealing with the world’s dozens of markets requires a specialized international distributor. Typically, the small creator giving a film to a distributor is akin to a poor farmer loaning a child laborer to a wandering tinker on the vague promise of a better life. Maybe that distributor wants to work your film or, maybe, like broadcasters that scoop rights they will never use, he’s just padding his stable, intending to sell the lot at a fire sale price. Maybe your film gets pitched, maybe it doesn’t. Either way, given their commissions and expenses, you’re not likely to see the kid again and should not expect checks in the mail. Oh, and if you do get any money, it’s not yours anyway. It’s recoupable by the public-private funds from whence it came. So the only way for a creator to keep cash flowing is to start the next show before the last is finished.

The upshot, Minister, is that, despite the genuine efforts of your policy-writing department, creators remain mere playthings in the talons of Canada’s big media corps. Secondly, taken as a whole, our current system incentivizes making shows, but not actually showing them. That may be the saddest part of working in Canada’s screen culture. So many truly wonderful films, TV shows and online experiences are toiled over for years and years, only to be released with all the forethought and potential of a helium balloon escaping a birthday party.


Era of Crisis

In 2006, most of these challenges already existed, but our community was strong and had the volume to cope with them. Then there was a change of government. That brought in new policies and procedures but also profoundly altered the media business atmosphere – the zeitgeist; the sense of what was reasonable — which rippled outward, transforming our screen culture.

As the smallest players, documentary makers were especially whacked by each policy change: abolishing Terms of Trade, removing broadcast license conditions, allowing corporations to own both the distribution and content and, of course, allowing the mergers which shrunk the broadcast field from many players to a few glass-eyed behemoths.

At its height, around the turn of the century, Canadian broadcasting employed hundreds of people with the authority to invest in programs. Gatekeepers, we call them. I hope, Minister, you do not find the term derogatory; it’s merely short-hand. Gatekeepers can be managers of public funds, NFB producers, executives of agencies like CMF, distribution company buyers, broadcast commissioning editors, or regulatory bureaucrats, like those at CRA, who have nothing to do with creation, but control money, and therefore, content. Generically, to creators, they’re all gatekeepers, guarding the vaults that hold the cash we need to do our job. Specifically, they may be our mentors or partners, saviors, therapists, bullies or tormentors. It all depends on the person and their mission.

Gatekeepers are key figures in the cultural system, yet their role is rarely considered. Their impact on the excellence, originality and profile of what we see on our screens can’t be over-estimated. The truly great gatekeepers combine an impresario’s eye for a strong concept, a patron’s confidence in talent, a shark’s ability to manipulate corporate machinery, a banker’s knack for husbanding cash and a mom’s penchant for keeping impulsive genius coloring between the lines. A truly awful gatekeeper will have the inverse of those traits and will always turn a golden chariot into a broken pumpkin, regardless of its creator’s talent.

The Face of Victory from Primitive Entertainment on Vimeo.

Gatekeepers are constrained by their own talent, of course, but more so by who they believe they serve. Some serve art itself; some the general public; some a tiny slice of audience thought to appeal to advertisers (or, at least, their proxies: the media buyers); some serve their company and some just serve themselves. None, by the way, are expected to serve creators by providing us with work. We all know that’s not their job. Their role, rather, is to make good work happen, when possible, within the confines of their remit.

In my experience, gatekeepers in truly public institutions really do strive to serve the general audience’s interest by backing work innovative enough to capture attention and important enough to reward it. That’s why the NFB has so many Oscars. That said, the go-go cable years produced quite a few private broadcast gatekeepers who had the wisdom and taste of Medici’s. They still had the freedom, in those days, to commission real documentaries and a competitive incentive to demand originality. The post-2006 mergers, and lifting of license terms, shrunk the army of gatekeepers down to a small club and restricted what they were allowed to commission. Behemoths don’t take chances. With many channels in few hands, the smart bottom-line strategy is universal blandness: every can looks different, but they all contain sugared water.

The Bachelor Canada

Reality TV strikes a blow against documentaries

Many critics have noted that the Golden Age of Television drama has mostly passed Canada by. Given the depth of our screen talent, the lost opportunity is shameful. Less noticed is that an era in Canadian documentary that was at least Bronze, maybe even Silver, has been battered nearly to death. If you look at non-fiction on the English Canadian broadcast schedule over the past decade, you see that documentary features disappear, then documentary series disappear and finally factual television – that innocuous, family-friendly staple – disappears too. All of them are replaced by Reality TV. It is now the only non-fiction work that most Canadian broadcasters commission. This is a tragic turn for creators, audiences and also for many fine gatekeepers. Once free to be Medici’s, they have been reduced to bouncers at a Trump casino.

Reality, of course, is the American genre that capitalizes the word to distinguish its content from actual reality. The form has many sub-genres and I won’t bore you with describing them, because I’m sure you know the categories: the fake adventure shows, the rats-in-a-hotbox shows, the phony social experiment shows, the dating shows, the rich-and-nasty-ladies shows, the celebrity-at-home shows, the fake renovation shows, the freak-family shows and so on. Aesthetically, structurally and morally, they are all the same show. Whatever their particular MacGuffin, all are designed to push ordinary people into conflict. Theirs is worldview in which the few ‘winners’ are lauded and the many ‘losers’ are laughed off the set. Broadcasters refer to them as “character-driven” – because the ‘Reality’ label is tainted – and they mean that as in: “that guy sure is one heck of a character”. They also call them “unscripted” which is, for practical purposes, an outright lie.

Reality shows Ice Road Truckers, Duck Dynasty and Cold Water: Atlantic Empire

I have no words appropriate to a letter such as this to express how soul-crushing it is for documentarians to see American-style Reality replace our national art form on Canadian screens. The least of it is the loss of investment, though that has been huge: millions of dollars that previously supported documentaries have been diverted and thousands of creators have gone broke or quit. Worse, from a national viewpoint, is the perversion of a craft and subversion of a mission to which thousands of people have dedicated their lives and to which the nation has given hundreds of millions of dollars.

Reality uses documentary methods – the interviews, the hand-held camera, the situational observation – to do the exact opposite of what authentic documentary does. Where we try to get true actuality, Reality fakes situations and portrays them as true. Where we – knowing the ‘Heisenberg Effect’ — try not to interfere with subjects, Reality turns real human lives into flamboyant schticks. Where we portray even the wicked with dignity, Reality mocks everybody. For documentarians, it’s like having your identity and reputation stolen and used to defraud unsuspecting folks. Reality takes all our knowledge, tools and techniques and uses them for evil.

I don’t use that word lightly. One of the awful aspects of this is that many talented creators have been forced out of documentary and into Reality by the need to feed their families. Universally, in private, they say they hate what they must do. Consider, for example, the Canadian Reality show (based on a foreign format) called Border Security. Civil libertarians complained for years about it humiliating the vulnerable as they cowered before authority. The complaints meant nothing, because Reality TV thrives on that sort of thing. The show was only cancelled when the Canada Border Services Agency recently rescinded cooperation. Reality production companies are full of stories about crews pressuring subjects into dangerous, embarrassing or quarrelsome situations to satisfy an executive’s insistence on “drama”. No real doc maker does such things, because no real doc maker thinks that way. I’m not saying Reality crew members are evil, but nothing good can come of such manipulations.

Most Reality subjects are terribly poor, absurdly rich or remarkably stupid. A few, like the cleverest freaks of the 19th century, have the smarts and nerve to use their notoriety to generate long-term gain. Kat von D parlayed the neon squalor of her tattoo parlor into a make-up line. The hirsute profiles of the fundamentalist jackasses in Duck Dynasty adorn many outdoor products. But Reality’s brief history holds more stories of people emotionally ruined by the shows and even a few who were killed.

I must note that there are actually rules to prevent Reality from qualifying for most Canadian public-private funding. But, as you know, there are always work-arounds. Again, what constrains gatekeepers is not just the rules, but also their sense of who they serve and what is within the bounds of acceptable taste. Until very recently, the mainstream political atmosphere validated unrestrained profit, the promotion of generalized fear and the mocking of losers. For TV execs, Reality is profitably in tune with the times. Gatekeepers now routinely dismiss documentary as “earnest and boring” whereas Reality is “just entertainment!”.

Reality is popular, in a car-crash way, largely because audiences don’t know what they’re seeing. They think it’s real, which makes sense. People who’ve never manipulated camera angles, sound effects or computer graphics can no more perceive their artifice than those who’ve never done a card trick can guess how an Ace got behind their ear. I won’t insult your intelligence, Minister, by spending much time on the “just entertainment” argument. Jugglers are “just entertainment”. We have a century’s worth of cultural, political and psychological study to prove that all electric media shape the sentiments of viewers and the ideology of the era. Reality TV is a product of neo-conservative times. Its specific role is to soothe the terrors of the sliding middle class, assuring us that however scared we are of losing a job or getting blown up, we’re still superior to ‘white trash’ imbeciles and the monstrous rich.

Reality is now reaching its bizarre logical conclusion by dragging real life into what pundits are calling a “post-factual” era, in which the distinction between fiction and fact is irrelevant and all discourse is “just entertainment.” It’s as if nihilistic gun-toting cartoon clowns have leapt out of the screen to attack flesh and blood humans. See Donald Trump. As journalists have pointed out, many supporters of his presidential campaign view it as just another anarchic entertainment. Whatever economic or political context aids Mr. Trump, two facts are undeniable: his fame comes from 14 seasons of his Reality show – The Apprentice – and his hateful, fact-free, bombast personifies the genre’s toxins.

The Apprentice was marketed as a TV ‘format’ – which is a kind of TV show recipe, bought offshore, by imagination-challenged execs. Every country that bought the The Apprentice format substituted a local obnoxious mogul in the Trump role. Except English Canada. Here, the Trump version has been a heavily-promoted staple on Global Television for years. But even more revealing about the state of English Canadian TV is that it was CBC which created the Trump mini-me Kevin O’Leary – who is also a hateful, bombastic, fact-averse, hyper capitalist and, apparently, potential Conservative leader. What could say more about the dominance of American Reality TV on Canadian screens?

The CBC versus Independent Docs

By obvious and traditional criteria, CBC — TV and online — should be the home of documentary in Canada. When I tell Canadians I make docs they reflexively ask: ‘Oh, for the CBC?’ Actually, no. In my case, actually, almost never. Over several decades I’ve made major documentary features and series on many iconic Canadian subjects but none of them for English CBC. I don’t know if their gatekeepers don’t like my ideas or don’t like my face, but I haven’t gotten a gig there since the last Millennium. So please take the following with a grain of salt. I’m either too bitter to be trusted on this subject or free enough to be honest.

English CBC TV has never had a warm relationship with the independent documentary community. That’s understandable, for the historic reasons already mentioned. If my boss took away part of my salary and used it to fund freelancers – as successive governments did to CBC — I’d hate them too. CBC gatekeepers treat independent doc makers like naughty children. The doc community, in turn, has a list of complaints that include the network’s political timidity, editorial interference, homogenized aesthetics and rejection of certain voices, such as documentaries in indigenous languages. But the biggest grievance is that CBC TV simply does not commission enough. The main network buys less than 20 hours of documentary per year which, by the standards of international public broadcasting, is nothing. CBC owns two other networks entirely devoted to non-fiction and they do no better.

However, the network did, previously, support documentaries by its own staff, the greatest example being the vast Canada: A People’s History, broadcast 16 years ago. The English network has attempted nothing so visionary since. Its non-fiction focus, rather, has shifted to Reality format shows. The coup de grâce came two years ago when the corporation killed its documentary department altogether, an act that aroused even Peter Mansbridge to publicly protest. But the move makes sense for a network that has now spent many years and untold millions building its non-fiction brand around an imported Reality show format, called Dragon’s Den, about desperate peons groveling at the feet of multi-millionaires.

Continue reading