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Policy Matters: Between Festivals and the TV Frame

Few events signify a veritable ‘new year’ in the Canadian documentary world than the arrival once again of Hot Docs—providing a kind of compression chamber to review the emergent documentary themes and forms.

When it first began in 1994, Hot Docs primarily showcased Canadian works. With the exception of NFB-supported works or the occasional personal arts council-funded film, most docs were broadcast- driven. The work was often very good, but broadcast-supported nonetheless. And it showed. These films were often shorter than 48 minutes, causing contortions of storytelling that did a disservice to both the filmmakers and their viewers. It wasn’t difficult to sniff out a desperate need to stretch beyond the TV frame.

Hot Docs’ ongoing expansion has naturally involved a leap beyond this frame for a bigger canvas, and by no coincidence, it’s a leap that has pulled programmers from far beyond Canada. This year’s collection, for instance, has films from Europe, Israel, Japan, Sri Lanka, South Africa, and even Malaysia and the Occupied Palestinian Territories— and not surprisingly, almost all of them are features. With lengths from 70 to 203 minutes, audiences will be treated to sprawling, rich immersions in worlds of postmodern ethnographies, in thrillers and investigative personal tales, in laments and elegiac essays and everything else besides. The Canadian Spectrum, however, has very few features, and this fact gives one pause.

Now, I don’t want to fetishize the feature, but who would deny the inherent pleasure of slipping into a deeper, more satisfying grasp of a particular topic or view of the world? And that…takes time. A lot of time, both to view and digest, and an awful lot of time to craft.

Yet, twelve years since that first Hot Docs and still we have no sustained source of support for this larger canvas. Yes, there’s a pilot project with Telefilm and the CBC, but as I’ve noted in a previous column, this is highly compromised (not only because the CBC’s main network has made the independent documentary its own bête noire). It’s also true that the NFB/Documentary Channel has a joint pilot project of their own; but if recent rumours about the CBC vying to purchase the channel outright are true, then we could be facing the absurd situation of a gatekeeper hardly disposed to the contemporary documentary essentially monopolizing a chunk of its formal development.

If we rely solely on broadcasters to pay for features then we’re in a bit of trouble. TVO, The Documentary Channel, and other educational broadcasters across the country will broadcast them, but they don’t really have the money. The History Channel has been supportive in fits and starts; but Life, Discovery, W, CTV, Global, and Vision do not support the kinds of films that find their way to festivals. What we have, then, is a cultural disconnect between the cachet of the auteurist festival film and the minimal to nonexistent mechanisms for funding it in Canada.

Co-productions are the only hope, it seems, but only if our own national funders craft policies that make them easier, not harder. A potential bright spot is Telefilm Canada giving a performance envelope of cash in the feature film fund to feature documentarians who have made money. Great idea, about time and all of that, but even this is a pilot mechanism. In fact, with all the protests by drama producers afoot, who knows if this will even survive? (I could snarkily turn a Yiddish phrase here about how pitiful this is; instead, I’ll just say it’s pitiful.)

Maybe all of this will become moot with the triumph of pod-casting. Meanwhile, our work will continue to shine in spite of a culture of support that is stuck on ‘pilot’.

Barri Cohen is an award-winning independent producer, documentary filmmaker and writer. She is in development with the Documentary Channel on her next film with White Pine Pictures in Toronto.

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