Mentorship Blues

Geringas explores the NFB and CBC’s mentorship in documentary filmmaking for contemporary filmmakers

The original NFB building on John Street in Ottawa (1941-1955)

I spent more than ten years in the TV business before making my first documentary. I worked as a researcher, a segment producer and a writer, doing everything except what I really wanted to do.

Acquiring a mentor turned things around for me. I was well into my thirties when I decided to take advantage of the Ontario Media Development Corporation’s [OMDC] Documentary Calling Card program. I came up with a project but was floundering when Barry Greenwald stepped in. Greenwald is a filmmaker I’d become good friends with over the years, who’d given me sage advice many times. This time was no different. He found me a producer (the program took applications only from producer- director teams), and kicked my butt until I finished the proposal. Over the next year, Greenwald spent many hours on the phone with producer Rosalie Bellefontaine and me, came to the editing room whenever we needed him, and generally made sure we made the best film we could make.

Watching other aspiring filmmakers struggle with their first films, I started to wonder, “Why can’t everyone have a mentor?” There are many programs out there for “emerging” filmmakers, from fellowships to go to Hot Docs, to internships, to the biggest of them all, the NFB’s Reel Diversity program, which gives filmmakers of colour a substantial budget to make a first film. But few of them—including, sadly, the NFB—really take creative mentorship seriously. This is unfortunate not just for the filmmakers left to struggle on their own, but for the documentary community as a whole.

It wasn’t always this way. What Barry Greenwald gave me when I was working on my film had been handed down to him at the National Film Board, back when the NFB still had resources.

Greenwald arrived at the NFB’s brand-new Toronto studio in 1981, with a film-school diploma and an award-winning student short under his belt. It was a good time to be starting a career as a documentary filmmaker. The NFB had recently by Eric Geringas opened offices across the country and sent some of its most experienced people to run them. These veteran filmmakers were ready to recruit and mentor young people. Within a year, Greenwald was working on his first documentary, Taxi!, greenlit by NFB executive producer Arthur Hammond.

“The mentorship was a subtle process,” says Greenwald. “Hammond’s style of filmmaking was very different from what [editor] Murray [Battle] and I were creating, but he was sensitive to how we were shaping the documentary, and he was challenging us to make a better film. When you have the opportunity to have a decent budget, there’s really no excuse not to push the envelope. It should be something different; it should be really, really good filmmaking. That to me is mentorship. You could call it ‘producorial’ support, but in fact it was a generation of filmmakers passing on to us the challenge and art of documentary filmmaking.”

Hammond surrounded Greenwald and his youthful peers with the best talent available. John Spotton and John Kramer arrived in Toronto to take up producer posts. Kramer knew a thing or two about mentorship. Shortly after chancing into an editing job at the NFB in Montreal, he met Donald Brittain, and worked closely with him for five years, first as his editor, and then as co-director of the masterpiece on writer Malcolm Lowry, Volcano.

“Mentorship is a very particular thing,” says Kramer. “It’s not teaching, it’s not apprenticeship— it’s more intimate and personal. There’s that dimension of someone taking you under their wing. Brittain never set out to teach me anything; it was just part of the work. Kramer took what Brittain gave him, and started to pass it on to the young filmmakers at the Toronto studio.

Eric Geringas, photo: Prem Sooriyakumar

“It wasn’t anything formal. Nobody said ‘you’re coming on as an apprentice filmmaker,’” says Greenwald. “It was real-world filmmaking, not a school. With Kramer and Hammond and Spotton, you could talk about ideas. You could talk about the challenges that you were having with the film. That was one of the tangibles of having these guys around.”

Through the 1980s, the NFB continued its tradition of training and mentoring filmmakers. Justine Pimlott was one of 26 young women plucked from across Canada for a program organized by Studio D as part of the International Youth Year. The women were paid a salary, organized into filmmaking teams, and given intensive training. For six months, they had the run of the NFB’s studios in Montreal, to learn, play with equipment, and figure out how to tell their stories.

“I suddenly had access to this huge environment where I could see that I could become a documentary filmmaker,” Pimlott recalls. “In the mid-80s, you’d go to the cafeteria and there’s Lea Pool and Denys Arcand. Donald Brittain was in the mixing theatre and he would invite you to sit there. That was like a master class you could partake in just because you happened to be there that day.”

Barry Greenwald, photo: Mark Irwin

After six months, the participants not only had a film under their belt, they had established filmmakers on their side, who looked after them and made sure they got work. Remarkably, almost 25 years later, most of these women are still working in the industry. Pimlott became a top sound recordist, and now produces and directs documentaries in Toronto.

The International Youth Year program was perhaps the apogee of mentorship in Canadian documentary film. Since then, two things have happened. In the mid-1990s, the NFB was reduced to a pale shadow of itself, its budget cut by 30 per cent, its staff by half. And at the same time a huge TV industry was born, fueled by the emergence of specialty channels. Suddenly it wasn’t so difficult to get work in television. But it sure wasn’t easy to learn how to make films.

It took some time for the film community to figure out how to deal with these changes. Industry associations and funding agencies decided that the main problem was a lack of producing skills, and set out to teach people how to sell their projects and raise money. Programs started popping up all over to send people to the Banff Television Festival and various international markets, to fund minimum-wage producing internships, and, in general, to teach the tricks needed to produce a film.

Dana Inkster, photo: Brad Wrobleski;

The best of these programs was the OMDC’s Documentary Calling Card, which at least acknowledged that a good film needs a producer and a director, and made mentorship a mandatory part of the experience.

The NFB took a few years to re-invent itself, and by the turn of the century came up with a series of training programs for “emerging” filmmakers. There is Momentum, a competitive program that puts a few dozen people through a series of workshops, then asks them to submit proposals for short films and selects a handful of these for production. And then there’s Reel Diversity, the NFB’s flagship program for new voices. Filmmakers of colour are brought in to develop their films, and then three are chosen for a full NFB produc- tion with a budget of around $200,000.

But a funny thing happened at the NFB in the course of all this. Much of the organization forgot about mentorship. Today, NFB producers have massive workloads and little time to spend on the kind of creative mentoring that used to take place. And the formal programs for new filmmakers barely recognize that mentorship is about more than just hiring an experienced editor.

John Kramer, photo courtesy National Film Board of Canada

When Monika Delmos was chosen to make a Reel Diversity film in 2006, she quickly discovered that she was on her own. “Reel Diversity is not designed as a mentorship program; it’s baptism by fire. The producers have so many projects to work on, they can’t spend time with individual directors. Basically I was going around and finding people who had made films and asking them questions.” When she asked her producer for a mentor, she was told there was no money available to hire one.

Monika is a friend of mine, and I watched her struggle to figure out how to make her complicated film Adult Overnight, about teenaged refugees who come to Canada by themselves. I wished for her that she could have the kind of experience I’d had with my much smaller film, or that Dana Inkster was having in Alberta, with another Reel Diversity project.

At the NFB’s Edmonton studio, the attitude was different. When Inkster ran into access problems on her film 24 Days in Brooks, producer Bonnie Thompson found some money to hire Barry Greenwald to help. For 16 months, he acted as a mentor for Inkster, both during the shoot and in the long editing process.

“He just saved me and gave me confidence,” she says. “There were so many voices [at the NFB], with so many opinions about where the film should go. Barry was a consistent voice saying ‘Your instincts are good.’

“I felt very fortunate that Bonnie offered to include Barry. She and I didn’t see eye to eye on a lot of things, but she had the courage to include someone who was impartial. I just felt so supported. And Barry also understood the constraints of working with the Film Board. I don’t know what that production would have been like if he hadn’t been included.”

The contrast is striking. The Edmonton studio seems to have more of a private-sector attitude: once you’ve decided to go ahead with a project, do whatever it takes to make it as good as it can possibly be.

And indeed, it’s in the private sector that I found the best example of the kind of mentorship the NFB used to offer. Daniel Cross made his first film, The Street: A Film with the Homeless, in the late 1980s, with little bits of grant money and unofficial support from many people at the NFB’s Montreal studio. Today he’s a film professor at Concordia, and head of a busy production company, EyeSteelFilm, which has become well known for taking chances on rookie filmmakers.

Daniel Cross, photo: Mila Aung

EyeSteelFilm’s biggest success so far is Up the Yangtze, 28-year-old Yung Chang’s first feature documentary. The NFB co-pro has had a successful theatrical run across Canada, and is now playing in the US. Cross has also produced two films by former street punk Eric “Roach” Denis, and has a number of projects in production or development by young directors who first came into his office as interns.

Cross hires interns through the producer internship program run by the Canadian Film and Television Producers’ Association (CFTPA), but looks for aspiring filmmakers rather than administrators. “One of the things we always look for is, do they have a creative agenda?” he says. “The CFTPA program means we can pay people, so it doesn’t feel exploitive. And the interns want to come, because we always make a part of the internship the development of their own work.”

The result is a burgeoning studio full of 20-something filmmakers, some working on their own projects, some on other people’s. “Everyone finds themselves with downtime,” Cross says. “Someone could wait tables for a year and a half while they wait for the next grant, or they could be part of a team, helping get another project going.”

Sounds a bit like the old NFB, if with lower pay and no job security.

So how can we re-create this model in today’s production climate?

Step #1 is to make it a priority. Two years ago, the NFB’s Ontario Centre took over the management of the Documentary Calling Card program, and instead of strengthening the mentorship aspect, dropped the volunteer mentor from the program.

Tom Perlmutter, photo: Monique Dykstra

“The feeling behind that was, we do have producers here,” says executive producer Silva Basmajian. “The formal notion of mentors was dropped, but the notion of seasoned professionals [being involved with the film] was there.” All I can say to that is that, despite the support of NFB producer Peter Starr, making my Calling Card film would have been a far greater struggle without a mentor.

Step #2 is to assign a dollar value to mentorship. There are no more staff filmmakers at the NFB—or anywhere else for that matter.

“The mentors need to be paid something,” says Cross. “I get to do it more because I get paid full time as a teacher.”

For independent filmmakers, even the most generous, time is money. Instead of funding endless “market mentorships,” expensive trips to the Banff Festival and the like, why not spend the money on helping new directors make better films?

And indeed, today there is finally reason for optimism: the NFB is finally returning to its roots. With former independent producer Tom Perlmutter at the helm, the Film Board seems to have rediscovered its role as an organization that develops artists. At this year’s Hot Docs festival, Perlmutter announced a new partnership with the Canadian Film Centre: a mentorship program to help mid-career directors develop theatrical documentaries.

I asked Perlmutter how the new program came about, and what he wrote to me in an e-mail was strikingly similar to what independent filmmakers had been telling me as I worked on this article.

John Grierson, photo courtesy National Film Board of Canada

“Mentorship is central to the NFB’s strategy about creative leadership and being a creative organization,” Perlmutter wrote. “At the heart of it is a notion of master artists and apprentices. It is about a relationship that … is anchored in practice. This is not about the classroom or formal education; this is what happens when artists engage with each other in the making of work. Think of the workshop of the Renaissance artist. The apprentice is not necessarily a beginner … and, in fact, the mentorship relationship works best when it is dynamic and the ‘master’ exchanges with the ‘apprentice.’”

It’s great to know that mentorship is returning to the NFB on a formal basis. Perhaps it will spread from the high-profile feature program to all Film Board productions, so that its halls will once again buzz with creative exchange, and new filmmakers will no longer be left to figure everything out for themselves.

“For those of us who have mentored filmmakers, it’s the beauty of returning the gift that we received all those years ago,” says Greenwald.

The gift that Donald Brittain and Arthur Hammond gave the generation that followed them goes all the way back to John Grierson and the beginnings of the documentary form. Those who received it are ready to pass it on.

“There’s nothing more we want to do than to help new talent get better. And actualize their talent, and keep the cinematic language alive,” says Cross. “To follow the traditions that made Canadian documentary famous.”