Features

Signs of Life

Innovation and new partnerships help Montreal’s Catbird Productions thrive

Lost Rivers (dir. Caroline Bâcle, 2012) / photo by Andrew Emmond

In this hinterland of all things auteur and independent, where the opening ceremonies of the Olympic Games masquerade as cultural spending and travelling herds of Canadian artists are snowbound by funding cuts, it’s encouraging to find resilient life forms that are even thriving in such a challenging climate.

One of the more resilient of the cultural survivors in this bitter winter for Quebec artists is Katarina Soukup, who honed her skills in the frosty climes of the Arctic. For Soukup, president and founder of Catbird Productions, it was a valuable teaching ground: “Life in the Arctic is a hundred times less predictable than it is in the south. If you didn’t accept this and learn to work with it you could really go crazy.”

That acquired sense of adaptability is a trait that is serving this up-and-coming producer well in the present climate, where many indie production houses are struggling. Her latest feature documentary, Lost Rivers, directed by Caroline Bâcle, opened the most recent Planet in Focus environmental film festival, has its U.S. premiere at the highly respected Big Sky Documentary Film Festival and in March opens the Environmental Film Festival in the Nation’s Capital in Washington, D.C., to name only a few.

Lost Rivers is an intriguing look at the underground world of urban sewers and hidden rivers. Sloshing alongside an international subculture of subterranean explorers, known as “drainers,” the audience explores dubious effluent and ancient infrastructures in the underbelly of big cities like Toronto, Montreal, Seoul, London and the ancient Italian town of Brescia. As “eye-opening” (Toronto Sun) and “fascinating” (Toronto Star) as the film itself is, it’s only half of the adventure. An app has been developed alongside the film production that offers the user both a bank of archival material on buried rivers in their city as well as a geo-localising feature to situate themselves physically in relationship to the nearest buried river.

“The first thing people want to know is: ‘Is there one under my house?’” says Soukup. “We wanted people to see their city in a different way or to look at the urban landscape with new eyes.”

Lost Rivers represents a return to her roots in some ways for Soukup. At the end of the ’90s she worked at the Inter-Society for the Electronic Arts (ISEA). It was exciting times for those working in new media but it was all about the technology. With time people have moved beyond the “new toys” mindset and now there’s much more focus on content.

During development on the documentary of Lost Rivers, Soukup was inspired by Irene Cheng and Brett Snyder’s mobile app Museum of the Phantom City, a living archive that allows the user to view and contribute information about locations of innovative architectural projects that have never reached fruition in New York City.

The Lost Rivers smartphone app

Phantom City uses the same geo-localising capacity as Google Maps, a development in online technology that Soukup finds particularly exciting. She also loved the idea of getting away from the stationary keyboard and screen setup, having the user moving around out in the world with their mobile device.

A lot of producers would have handed off the interactive components of Lost Rivers, but Soukup’s strategy was to learn how to do this kind of production as intuitively as she did documentary production. It brought her back to her past M.A. supervisor, Kim Sawchuk, professor in communication studies at Concordia and co-founder of that university’s Mobile Media Lab, to propose a partnership.

There was no production template for this type of pairing of a private enterprise with an institution, but the university’s non-profit status allowed the production to receive both financial and human resources through the Social Science and Humanities Research Council. In today’s world of low-budget crowd-funded projects, finding new collaborations that can assist in accessing new money is critical.

Soukup adds that already knowing Kim Sawchuk was key to making the collaboration work: “When you’re trying to create new formulas and new ways to do things and there’s no road map, trust is a key element.”

Right now the app is about the past and archival history but will soon allow the user to experience rivers in the present sense at specific locations where they are now buried—which manhole cover you can look down into and see or hear the river. Using an interactive soundscape component developed by one of the students in Concordia’s Mobile Media Lab, the user will be able to hear the sound change through their earphones as they “shovel” deeper down towards the running water source beneath them, using their phone as a virtual shovel.

In the works—once the Lost Rivers app software is fully operational this spring—is a collaboration with Concordia’s Mobile Media Lab on a new transmedia project called Burgundy Jazz, which Catbird Productions is producing for Radio-Canada with funding from the Canada Media Fund’s experimental stream. Interestingly, Soukup had no luck selling the project as a conventional documentary but as soon as she moved it into the interactive realm, it took off.

Again using geo-localising, Burgundy Jazz will offer the apps user a walking tour of historic places linked to the development of the once-thriving jazz scene in a Montreal neighbourhood called Little Burgundy. A hotbed for jazz during the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s, this is where icons like Oscar Peterson and Oliver Jones grew up. The user will have access to an augmented reality at certain hotspots on the tour through an interactive soundscape.

Soukup has put together a dynamic team that will see the project offer, in addition to the phone app, a website and an e-book written by Nancy Marrelli of Véhicule Press. Under the guidance of creative director Dominic Turmel and with Jonathan Bélisle as interactive director, the website and app are being built around head creative and overall director David Eng’s mini-documentary web series.

It’s all about team building and collaboration. It’s also very much about doing work that really matters. This life mantra led Soukup in the summer of 2000 from the high-tech world of ISEA to work in post production for Igloolik Isuma Productions and partners Zacharias Kunuk and Norman Cohn, the team behind Atanarjurat: The Fast Runner.

Looking back on the experience, she admits they gave her scary mandates, something that she’s now grateful for because it forced her to learn quickly. When she started producing for them, she had no doc training, but knew intuitively what to do and that documentary was her calling. It was while producing Urban Inuk in 2005 for Isuma that she really got bitten with the documentary bug, but also realized she needed the independence and creative freedom of having her own company.

Tusarnituuq! Nagano in the Land of the Inuit (dir. Félix
Lajeunesse, 2009) / photo by Robert Fréchette, Avataq Cultural Institute

Her chance came while doing a stint as the director of the Nunavik Arts Secretariat at Avataq, the Inuit cultural institute for Nunavik, from 2006 to 2009. She was working on the Montreal Symphony Orchestra’s tour of Nunavik with conductor Kent Nagano and pitched the idea to both parties to do a documentary about it. It was a fantastic opportunity to record two different cultures meeting and interacting, artist to artist, and became Catbird’s first major production, Tusarnituuq! Nagano in the Land of the Inuit, directed by Félix Lajeunesse.

With the current big noise about all things digital and transmedia, it’s challenging to keep one’s head and not get swept up in the hysteria, especially when support for traditional documentary is rapidly disappearing. But while Catbird is to some extent riding the wave of new technology in a very innovative and smart way, its producer has not abandoned the traditional forms of the genre.

In development is a feature documentary, Harry, by new director Laura Rietveld. Set in Quaqtaq, Que., it tells the story of an exceptional man and champion dog musher in that community, Harry Sam Willy Okpik, who lost one leg in a hunting accident. Soukup feels the timing is right: “It’s good to build on things you’ve already done and to reconnect with skills and previous experiences. Working in the Arctic was a life-changing experience and Harry is a very special project so it made me want to go back.” At the recent Below Zero pitch forum at the Tromsø International Film Festival in Norway, the project received a lot of early interest from potential Nordic and Greenland partners.

Due to launch this spring is another traditional long-form documentary by Helene Klodawsky, Last Days of Vaudeville, which explores balancing life as touring musicians and parents with the veteran Montreal indie band Silver Mount Zion. With a licence from Super Channel, sales agent Films Transit International on board and funding from the Canada Media Fund and the Bell Broadcast and New Media Fund, Catbird has put some serious heft behind the veteran filmmaker’s latest.

Klodawsky has worked with a number of producers over the 25-year span of her very respectable career and says that Soukup is one of the best. “She gives a lot of room to directors to explore their approach and find the film they really want to do. From research to post-production, she very creatively finds ways to support the imagination.”

In Last Days of Vaudeville, the film posits the triple whammy of how to be a creative person in today’s world, make a decent living at it and maintain your personal and family life. Soukup points out those are questions that we’re all facing as our existence becomes increasingly precarious and competitive: “Artists are the canaries in the coal mine in terms of finding ways to survive in this world.”

Soukup and I have been sitting in a crowded, noisy social club in Little Italy on Boulevard St-Laurent, an area which seems on its way to becoming the new heart of Montreal’s indie film scene (and yes, a river does run under it). The much-celebrated EyeSteelFilm has set up headquarters in a triplex not far from here and there’s a gang from Quebec film magazine 24 Images sitting at an adjoining table. Right around the corner is the renovated paper factory where Catbird Productions is installed along with three other small up-and-coming production companies, all run by women. Each has a moderately sized glassed-in office adjoining a common reception area.

Sarah Spring, founder and president of Parabola Films, says that it all came together in a very organic way. The other two participants in this informal collective are Karine Dubois of Picbois Productions and Stéphanie Verrier of Productions Flow. What began with checking out each other’s work and pot-luck suppers has now evolved into a highly rewarding mutual exchange and support group.

Spring explains that theirs is a fairly unique situation, with most Indie producers either working alone these days or having to work for larger production companies. Asked about the all-women factor she readily admits “that it has everything to do with its success: the level of maturity, mutual support and not feeling threatened might not happen in another environment. Of course, that we’re all in our 30s probably has a lot to do with it as well.”

Soukup admits this supportive working environment and unique collaborations such as the one with Concordia’s Mobile Media Lab mean she’s in a pretty good place these days. Looking down the road, where does she see Catbird Productions?

Traditional feature docs is something she definitely hopes to keep doing, although doing more interactive media is highly likely, but who knows? The challenge with the latter is still to figure out the business model of how to finance and market it. At the end of the day it’s about diversifying while looking for ways to continue to do meaningful production. “Part of that is to find the right people for each project, people I want to keep working with,” says Soukup, “because you’re only as good as your team.”