Focus on Festivals

Canada at Cannes: Documentary in the Time of COVID

Four filmmaking teams share their stories ahead of Cannes’ Marché du Film

Julia Ivanova’s Pipeline in Paradise is one of four Canadian films participating in the Docs in Progress showcase at Cannes’ Marché du Film


As the film industry logs on to the first virtual edition of the Marché du Film at the Cannes Film Festival, filmmakers are in an unprecedented situation. For the four teams of filmmakers pitching at the Docs in Progress Canadian Showcase, presented by Telefilm Canada in partnership with Forum RIDM and in collaboration with Hot Docs, the event will test of the industry’s optimism or cautiousness about the future of filmgoing. Despite being in different stages of production and post-production when the COVID-19 pandemic transformed the industry, the filmmakers are united in the uncertainty they face while navigating their films’ futures.

The Dawnsayer director Paul Marc Kell

For Paul Marc Kell, at the Marché with The Dawnsayer, the past months inspired a return to the drawing board. His film, which ironically profiles eccentric Canuck Bruce Beach who built a bomb shelter in 1985 to protect himself from Doomsday prophecies, was among the official selections announced by Hot Docs in April. However, when Hot Docs followed other events and pivoted to an online festival, Kell reassessed the value of completing the later stages of post-production in time for a virtual debut. .

“It would have been my world premiere and in order for me to get the film ready in time for Hot Docs, all of my ducks would have had to be in a row,” says Kell, speaking from Vancouver. “With the composers, the [sound] mix and the color correction to be done, it wasn’t possible once COVID hit because everybody’s life was turned upside down.”

Aisling Chin-Yee and Chase Joynt, meanwhile, were in the later stages of editing their film No Ordinary Man when COVID interrupted work plans. The documentary is about the life and legacy of jazz musician Billy Tipton. Since his death in 1989, the most enduring story about Tipton’s life was that he was a woman passing as a man in pursuit of a career in music. Chin-Yee and Joynt’s film invites several trans artists to reimagine collectively Tipton’s story. However, with principle photography completed, Chin-Yee says the transition to work-at-home was relatively seamless aside from the odd lag in the transfer of materials.

Aisling Chin-Yee, director of No Ordinary Man

No Ordinary Man director Chase Joynt

“I have an edit suite that’s centralised to the post production house Real By Fake, but it’s set up in my home already,” says the director. “I already have a functioning edit bay.”

“We were able to socially isolate and get together at a distance in Montreal to take the film across one of the many finish lines,” adds Joynt. “It’s always a creative and somewhat precarious endeavor to be working on films remotely, but we found a sweet spot with a shared language and enough patience to get us through.” The filmmakers, like Kell, say the period of isolation simply demanded focus, as well as proper communication with teammates through Zoom calls or conferences.

Nicolas Lévesque, whose feature Les libres was developed under Telefilm’s Talent to Watch program, says that he and producer/cinematographer Jean-Philippe Archibald consider themselves lucky. Shooting for their film, which observes a factory in which inmates transitioned from prison life to the work routines of the outside world, wrapped last fall and they completed editing in January. “Only the image [correction] was left to be done during the COVID [quarantine], so it was easy for us to finish the film quietly and slowly,” says Lévesque. The film expands upon an aesthetic and subject that Lévesque and Archibald first encountered in the NFB short Interview with a Free Man, which observes the interview process for inmates preparing for rehabilitation.

The director adds that his team got an early lead on editing due to the nature of their production. “In May 2019, I spent a week with the editor watching footage. After that, we did the other half of the shooting—I never worked with an editor in the middle of a project.” By keeping on top of the production and integrating elements of post into the creative vision, Les libres, like No Ordinary Man, had a manageable transition to work-from-home post-production.

Les libres (The Free Ones)


For Julia Ivanova, however, the onset of COVID shaped the evolution of her film Pipeline in Paradise. What happens after the world re-opens will determine her ending. The film observes the clash between environmentalists and pro-economy groups over the Trans Mountain Pipeline in British Columbia and Alberta, but sees the outbreak of COVID-19 level the playing field as shutdowns leave uncertain futures for the oil industry and eco-activists alike.

“I was in Red Deer, Alberta, filming members of the pro-economy group United We Roll,” explains Ivanova. “They were an older couple and were watching TV, and there were reports about the quarantines on the cruise ship in Japan.” While being interrupted mid-shoot, Pipeline in Paradise puts audiences in the space in which major events like the Wet’suwet’en rail blockades were overwhelmed by the news of COVID.

Pipeline in Paradise


Since Ivanova shoots her films herself, she was able to document the closure of parks and public spaces in Vancouver to capture visuals of the lockdown, and do interviews with a subject while they both wore masks until she felt it was no longer safe to film. When restrictions lift, Ivanova will ask the deeper questions about how the ideological divides sharpened by the pipeline transform post-COVID. “That brings us to the questions about the demand for this pipeline in general after the pandemic ends,” says Ivanova, “and whether, philosophically, people will rethink the idea of increased oil production in general.”

While COVID added a new dimension to Pipeline in Paradise, Ivanova isn’t the only one of the filmmakers at Docs in Progress whose film changed with COVID. Kell says that once he skipped Hot Docs’ virtual festival, the lockdown made him look at the film anew. “I’ve completely restructured the film. I think I was rushing to get it ready for Hot Docs,” observes Kell. “With three months and no festivals, I was able to sit down, watch the film with clean eyes and realize that I was not as close to finishing it as I had wanted to be.” Kell says the disrupted festival circuit proved a blessing in disguise. “It’s allowed me to time to make the film a much better film.”

The Dawnsayer


Kell adds that he has been working closely with festival strategist and former Hot Docs programmer Sean Farnel to navigate the submission process for a circuit full of question marks. “We both came to the conclusion to hold off until the fall and see what happens,” says Kell. “We bought ourselves some time and removed the pressure to get things done quickly.” With the new cut of The Dawnsayer, Kell says he’s seeing renewed interest from programmers who watched the previous version and weren’t sure if it was ready. Similarly, forgoing an online premiere keeps the window open for festivals that inevitably need to be more selective with slots and seats at a premium.

Chin-Yee and Joynt also expect to be pragmatic about the future for No Ordinary Man as they saw the effects of COVID intervene in the releases of their current projects. Joynt’s short film Framing Agnes (directed with Kristen Schilt and developed under Telefilm’s Talent to Watch) was a selection at March’s Ann Arbor Film Festival, which was among the first wave of festivals to innovate with online screenings while others were forced to cancel. “I participated as much as possible and it was fascinating to be in the belly of the beast with the programmers as they were trying to usher filmmakers, projects, audiences into these new forms,” says Joynt. The festival offered screenings freely and included filmmaker Q&As that have become a Zoomed-in staple of events to follow.

Chin-Yee, on the other hand, was in the midst of releasing her dramatic feature The Rest of Us starring Heather Graham and Sophie Nélisse when coronavirus forced cinemas to close. The film was scheduled to open theatrically on March 20 but shifted to a June 16 digital release in Canada. “There was no foreseeable future for anybody going back into theaters anytime soon, so we decided to get the movie to audiences while they’re in their homes,” says Chin-Yee. “We all like having a theatrical release, so it’s a bit of a disappointment, but there are more important things happening in the world right now.”

Nicolas Lévesque, director of Les libres

Les libres producer and cinematographer Jean-Philippe Archibald

The Canucks at Cannes seem to agree that the disruption to the theatrical marketplace does not spell the death of cinema. The return of moviegoing will be a slow rollout, but the filmmakers anticipate an appetite for the shared experience after months of isolation. “There is always a degree of danger that the beer or food you order can be contaminated,” says Ivanova, “but I think that the nature of humans is to long for the past. People will return to doing things they liked and I think that going to the movies, on a date or on a rainy night, will become a longing for many people. Some people will be satisfied with sitting at home and watching online, but not always.”

However, others worry that the nostalgic nature of moviegoing could put documentaries at a disadvantage. “Theatres are closed and are reopening slowly, but I’m not sure if an auteur film like Les libres would find its place easily, anyway,” says Jean-Philippe Archibald. “We’re looking at other options to make sure the film is seen by the most people possible.” Archibald and Lévesque anticipate that a festival run followed by broadcast distribution might be more realistic, especially since they have a broadcaster attached (CBC/Radio-Canada) with its own schedule to keep and can only wait so long with production virtually at a standstill nationwide. “A film festival is more likely [than a theatrical release],” adds Lévesque. “Even if they’re online, it’s still good to have selections.”

Kell echoes their sentiments, but wonders if the shift to virtual marketplaces could put at a disadvantage projects without showy profiles. “I think people are less likely to believe in a film made by a little independent filmmaker who self-financed a documentary and spent years toiling over it to get it to this point of presentation,” says Kell. “They’re going to go with something that Leonardo DiCaprio executive produced or has a star like Kiefer Sutherland on voiceover.”

Ivanova says that the test for her project is to keep it relevant while editing a film that’s been in production since 2014. “The challenge is to stay current with the pace of news and the focus changing from one issue to another during COVID-19,” explains Ivanova. “First we have COVID-19 and now we have the issue of Black Lives Matter taking over the news, and [Swedish activist] Greta Thunberg recently said that if people could tackle climate change the way they acted quickly and decisively when COVID started, the world could change.” Whether they deal with COVID explicitly through their productions or implicitly through the lens through which they were completed, the four Canadian teams demonstrate how the pandemic has brought a time for greater reflection and awareness as quarantined individuals take notice and action in unprecedented ways.

No Ordinary Man


“One of the things about working in this situation where feelings and emotions are heightened is that you want to be working on something meaningful,” says Chin-Yee. “You’re faced with asking questions like, ‘What kind of filmmaker am I? What kind of artist am I?’ Luckily, I think we were always working on a very meaningful project.”

Particularly as the Black Lives Matter movement amplifies conversation about representation and more reports emerge about the COVID-19 disproportionately effecting marginalised communities, a film’s relevance has never been more, well, relevant. “One question that drives No Ordinary Man is who gets to be the speaking subject of a history of a community, of a personal story,” says Joynt. “The stakes for who gets to tell what kind of story when, how, and why are so relevant and urgent in our current political context.”

Pipeline in Paradise director Julia Ivanova

The filmmakers also agree that their concerns are not so much about the futures of their films at the market, but their next projects. “I have some elderly subjects in my film and I haven’t resumed filming with them,” says Ivanova. While Vancouver’s service production industry has been devastated by the freeze on foreign projects that provide work for many filmmakers in the city, Ivanova admits that the independent nature of her work affords some flexibility. “I will keep in touch with the subjects and wait until they feel comfortable being filmed,” says Ivanova. “We will most likely film outside at first until they feel comfortable inviting me in their house.” Masks and hand sanitizer will obviously offer a layer of safety, but bring their own pressures.

“Documentary work in general has much smaller budgets,” adds Chin-Yee, “so being able to be COVID ready will strain independent film budgets.” Entering the lives of subjects, rather than enclosed sets, also brings risks and liabilities. “If we’re working with people in their everyday lives, we’ll wear masks, but we’re not expecting the subjects to wear masks in front of the camera,” says Chin-Yee. “The responsibilities and ethical considerations that go into documentary aren’t protected by guilds and unions.”

Lévesque, who previously profiled with Archibald a Mumbai trainer to the stars in Rich in Bollywood, adds that international shoots might be off the table for the immediate future due to increased costs and considerations for transportation. Perhaps staying at home might inspire more stories from home, he speculates. “I always loved the idea of going out in the world and bringing stories here, but I also feel better finding the stories around me and sharing them worldwide.”

Pat Mullen is POV’s Online Co-editor, etc. He holds a Master’s in Film Studies from Carleton University where his research focused on adaptation and Canadian cinema. Pat has also contributed to outlets including The Canadian Encyclopedia, Paste, That Shelf, Sharp, Complex and ran the former blog Cinemablographer. He is a member of the Toronto Film Critics Association and the Online Film Critics Society. You can reach him at @cinemablogrpher

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