Features

Art Attack

Documentary filmmakers struggle to put culture on screens.


Manufactured Landscapes, dir. Jennifer Baichwal (2007)

When Jennifer Baichwal’s feature documentary Manufactured Landscapes opened in New York City in 2007, The New York Times critic Manohla Dargis wrote a love letter to the film. Calling the imagery, captured by cinematographer Peter Mettler, “disturbingly sublime,” Dargis praised Baichwal’s artful capturing of the works of photographer Edward Burtynsky.

Not surprisingly, Baichwal confirms that the memories of that film’s success are sweet. “Everyone, including me, was completely shocked,” she recalls. “It was an anomaly for a documentary about art to do so well. But it proved that there is an audience for such a film, and that they will come to see them.”

But as great as the memories are, Baichwal says there are misconceptions surrounding a success story like Manufactured Landscapes. “People think that once you’ve made some films and had some success, that it becomes easy,” she says, on the phone from her Toronto home where she’s busy packing for a flight out to Sundance. “You know what? It’s every bit as hard now as it was the first time around.”

And in some instances, even harder. Baichwal’s remarks come at a time when many documentary filmmakers and champions of arts-related documentaries say the past few years have seen a serious downturn in opportunities for such films to get made. The past year has seen two key proponents of arts docs, Charlotte Engel and Judy Gladstone, move on from their positions at Bravo!. Both are seen as crucial proponents of arts-themed docs who helped to foster new filmmaking talent and push the form forward.

Judy Gladstone was the long-time executive director at Bravo!FACT. For years, she coordinated a weekly series of shorts entitled Bravo!FACT Presents on the arts channel. The series partnered Bravo! with various distributors and broadcasters, including the NFB, Channel 4, CBC and APTN, and commissioned up-and-coming filmmakers to create films about art and culture. The results were hugely successful, creating vital opportunities for filmmakers and generating press attention and awards; in 2008, the innovative animated doc I Met the Walrus, about a boy’s meeting with John Lennon, captured an Oscar nomination.

“It’s a very difficult time to be a documentary filmmaker generally,” Gladstone acknowledges. “Even compared to about three years ago, it’s changed. The funding has really disappeared. All docs are targeted, but docs that focus on the arts have been hit too, hard. The pendulum has swung very quickly, because it wasn’t so long ago that Canada was a good place to be a documentary filmmaker—there was oodles of money for documentaries. It’s a painful time if you’re a documentary filmmaker now.”

Gladstone says the extreme reversal of fortune has happened for basic, simple reasons. “Networks like CTV had commitments to such programming, but those ran out. Broadcasters have backed off. They’re nervous about taking such risks. If they were making huge amounts of money, great. Now they’ll just put on something that is guaranteed to draw more viewers. Shows like Canada’s Worst Driver and Canada’s Worst Handyman are hits. Facts are facts: those are the shows that drive ratings. TV is a business.”

Charlotte Engel, who worked as a production executive at Bravo! for almost a decade, agrees with Gladstone’s assessment. “Overall, there’s been a decline of documentaries on TV, of all kinds,” she says. “We had a pretty serious decline in audience at Bravo! over the years. God knows, we tried. We tried many different things. People were coming to the channel to watch Law & Order.”

Engel argues that the ability to figure out who your audience is, locate them, and keep attracting them is extremely difficult at the best of times. “There’s a snobbery about TV in the arts community. Many people will go and see a live show or look at art in a gallery but then don’t even own a TV. Unless you can reach the masses, broadcasters will balk at putting it on. So that means Bathroom Divas, or Star Portraits.”

With arts programming, Engel says, “You have niches within niches. You may have people who are interested in music, but they would sit through a documentary on jazz but not one on heavy metal, for example. That makes figuring out what people want to watch that much tougher.”

Engel says that arts docs suffered from the changing nature of TV and its audiences and their habits. “Docs have moved into series. Broadcasters want more of that—series, not one-offs. And reality-TV shows count as documentary programming, at least to broadcasters. A lot of people are angry at Bravo! right now, but TV has changed. A Banksy doc is great. But I don’t want to see Exit Through the Gift Shop on TV with commercial interruptions. Maybe TV isn’t the medium for docs.”

West Wind: The Vision of Tom Thomson, dir. Peter Raymont and Michéle Hozer (2012)

Veteran producer and director Peter Raymont is one arts doc enthusiast who is not singing the blues. “I never give up,” he laughs. “I guess that’s the definition of insane.” In the past five years, Raymont has co-directed and co-produced several docs on the arts, including West Wind: The Vision of Tom Thomson (co-directed with Michèle Hozer) and Winds of Heaven: Emily Carr, Carvers and the Spirits of the Forest, directed by Michael Ostroff. “What this has shown me is that there’s an enormous appetite for art documentaries that is not reflected in the broadcasters’ decisions.”

Raymont attributes much of the declining number of green lights for arts-doc projects as so much negative, “can’t do” thinking. “I’m not as pessimistic as many are. I’m disappointed that Charlotte is no longer at Bravo! and I certainly wish the CBC would do more. But I think the success of these documentaries has a lot to do with how they’re promoted.”

Raymont says that numerous sold-out screenings of the films he has worked on clearly indicates “a massive audience is intrigued by these films. After each screening we always sell out of DVDs of the film they’ve just watched. No interest in these films on TV? Why do I always hear people complaining that there’s nothing on television? Canadians will turn in to PBS to watch documentaries made by Ken Burns that are all about the arts. PBS uses a mix of public and private funding. It can be done. I don’t think it’s all gloom and doom.”

Engel says there’s more interest in arts documentaries on French-language channels in Quebec. She says there are still routes people can take in terms of creating arts themed docs. “You can go the arts council route, though that’s now a tough one too, because that means you can’t use tax credits at the same time. You can stop being a snob and go the series route, and make a show about dancer moms. You can go the French language route, as long as you can also prove your doc has educational value, and then you can sell it to Quebec and Ontario French language broadcasters. Or you can make a performing arts documentary, which the CBC does program—the Elton John ballet special they’re doing, for example. And there are also behind-the-scenes arts docs, like the ones done about Cirque du Soleil productions.”

But Engel’s advice has got to be taken in context: now an independent producer with numerous projects in development, she is steering clear of arts docs herself. “I have to be very strategic,” she reckons. “Unless it’s something I see as having clear potential—it has to be the right project. It has to be really amazing, because it’s going to be a killer to get through. That I know.”

When contacted about changes at Bravo!, Corrie Coe, senior VP of independent production for Bell Media (the new owners of Bravo!), confirmed much of what Engel and Gladstone have to say. “We can’t speak for other broadcasters, but for us, there has been a re-focus at some of our specialty channels, such as Bravo!, on finding and commissioning programming that resonates with large audiences,” Coe explains. “As a private broadcaster, we must program shows that deliver a large number of viewers to advertisers. So, as well as searching for the best stories and creative material, we must also work with television producers to find such programming that is also inclusive and that reaches a broad spectrum of people. Broadcasters and producers need to be in alignment on that goal.”

And Coe argues that putting together a ratings-winning channel is a tricky business: “The other challenge is scheduling. In an increasingly fragmented media universe, one-off, long-form specials are very difficult to schedule with success. Regularly scheduled television series have a better chance of finding an audience, while specials are increasingly being scheduled [for] on-demand and pay platforms.”

But Coe is adamant that the game is far from over: “Despite those challenges, there is no reason arts documentaries can’t work on commercial television. It just means we have to keep trying to find the right projects that engage with broad audiences, and then continue to ensure they are well scheduledand promoted. This is something Bell Media has great success with in other programming genres.”

It’s the age-old art vs. commerce argument, with most documentary filmmakers arguing art loses out. “I think people are going to have to think about their business models,” says Gladstone. “Not everything you program is going to be a huge hit. Take The Globe and Mail, for example: more people read sports than read the op-ed pages, but the op-ed pages are a vital part of the newspaper nonetheless.”

Gladstone says she is heartened by the recent Telefilm shift in gauging precisely what constitutes a successful film. Instead of simple box-office numbers, DVD sales, festival invitations, awards and citations on critical top-10 lists will also be factored in. “This will obviously be a huge help to documentary filmmakers, who don’t always get the box office numbers but do get accolades.”

But Baichwal insists that “the broadcasters are being condescending about their audiences. I’m convinced audiences do appreciate being challenged. Look at HBO or the BBC—if you create something better, they will come. I thought this had been proven already.” Baichwal says assessing everything by how popular it could be while it’s in the idea stage of things is antithetical to great documentary filmmaking about art. “I think that when art is really powerful, it’s usually powerful precisely because it’s marginal. It reflects something other than the dominant culture. It challenges the status quo. It may disagree with a dominant trend or idea. Frankly, we have a federal government right now that has indicated quite clearly that it’s hostile to art. The best hope we have is if the federal government changes and we have leadership that is welcoming to and supportive of art, rather than hostile to it. A friendlier government would mean those attitudes would trickle down. That would help.”

Gladstone says it’s never too late to turn things around. “Look at how quickly the pendulum swung away from arts documentaries and documentaries generally. There’s no reason it can’t swing back again.”

To read more about filmmaker Jennifer Baichwal, read What Would Scrooge Do?

A contributing editor of POV, Matthew Hays has written for The Globe and Mail, The New York Times, The Guardian, VICE, Cineaste, The Walrus and The Daily Beast. He teaches film studies at Marianopolis College and Concordia University. He was on the jury at Hot Docs 2014.

View all articles by Matthew Hays »