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The Dangling Conversation

How public funding has fallen out of tune with the needs of point-of-view doc-makers

Punk Band Les 22s in MTL Punk (dirs. Erik Cimon and Alain Cliche, 2011)

Like a poem poorly written
We are verses out of rhythm
Couplets out of rhyme
In syncopated time.
—Simon and Garfunkel, “The Dangling Conversation”

Documentaries, particularly one-off POV (point-of-view) media, contribute toward a healthy public sphere. Yet there appears to be a fundamental disconnect between the various public bodies empowered to fund documentaries in Canada. Independent documentary filmmakers are finding it harder and harder to get their films financed. As part one of a two-part series, this article will strive to reveal whether two specific entities involved in the funding of documentary in Canada—the Canada Council for the Arts and the Canada Media Fund —have come to be ruled by nobility or by capability (to borrow from Jürgen Habermas’ notion of the public sphere. Habermas’ concept of the public sphere may usefully be summarized as being a product of democracy, which can be enhanced by activists who use media to aid the general populace). These two funding entities in particular were selected since their administration continues to be a matter of concern for Canadian documentary filmmakers. Please note: the Department of Canadian Heritage and the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) both declined to be interviewed for this series.

Canada Council for the Arts
In 2010, Montreal-based documentary producer Frederic Bohbot of Bunbury Films became involved in a documentary project with a director who had previously received development funding from the Canada Council for the Arts. In order to retain the Canada Council funding, Bohbot was required to sign an agreement indicating that the director would retain full editorial control of the documentary. Although Bohbot recognised that such an agreement contradicted expectations from the involved broadcaster and provincial funder SODEC (Société de développement des entreprises culturelles) that he as producer would in fact retain full control of the project, signing the agreement did allow the documentary to retain Canada Council funding and to move forward to completion.

Shortly after, Yanick Létourneau of Périphéria Productions, also of Montreal, became similarly involved with a documentary, MTL Punk. Quebec filmmakers Érik Cimon and Alain Cliche had previously secured Canada Council funding for the documentary and presented a “very rough edit” to Létourneau. “There were a few days of shooting left, a lot of editing to be done and a lot of archival footage to be bought,” notes Létourneau. “I took on the project as a producer and I was able to obtain pre-sales from Canal D and documentary.” Along with provincial funding and tax credits, Létourneau assembled what he regarded as an “OK budget.” However, when Cimon filed his final report with the Canada Council after the project was completed, things went awry. As recounted by Létourneau, Cimon “was told they [the Canada Council] couldn’t accept it because there was a producer involved and therefore he had lost his creative control and he had lost the rights to the film.” As far as simply signing the same document that Bohbot had signed a year earlier when the documentary that he was involved with ran into creative control trouble at the Canada Council, this was no longer enough to remedy the situation, according to Létourneau. “We had a letter from Canal D saying that they [the filmmakers] had complete editorial control. I shared producer credits with the filmmaker and another producer. The three of us would receive a third of all revenues after reimbursement to the investors. Both filmmakers had complete creative and editorial control. There was nothing against [it in] the actual [Canada Council] guidelines.”

As part of a CBC Radio One Montreal interview aired in January 2012 while Cimon and Létourneau were in the midst of dealing with the Canada Council over MTL Punk, program officer Paul Thinel from the Canada Council maintained that Cimon “gave up the rights over his work” when he took the documentary to Létourneau. When pressed by the CBC Radio reporter on how this was the case even after Cimon had numerous documents confirming that he maintained creative control, Thinel advised that Létourneau’s company had the rights to MTL Punk and could in turn apply for tax credits to SODEC and to Telefilm Canada and that this was not allowed.

When asked to clarify for this article the decision-making process used to assess documentary funding eligibility, Youssef El Jai, head, Media Arts section of the Canada Council for the Arts, noted by e-mail that “decisions about which projects will receive funding are made by peer assessment committees and are based on the assessment criteria published in our program guidelines.”

In the end, Létourneau was required to make Cimon a shareholder of his company in order for the Canada Council to release the final funding drawdown for MTL Punk. Even this solution was something that Létourneau stumbled upon himself. According to Létourneau, “there’s nothing about this [shareholder solution] written anywhere in the guidelines. It was trial and error and spending a lot of time wondering what to do, with no help whatsoever from the Canada Council.” What really concerns Létourneau is the shift in how Canada Council approaches documentary production. “[The Canada Council is] forgetting that filmmaking is a collective endeavour. It’s not the work of one person. It’s everybody collaborating together to make a piece of art. They’re forgetting that we are their ally. They’re going against their own mandate as a federal institution beholden to supporting artists. It’s a catch-22. You shoot yourself in the foot if you get their funding.”

As to the Canada Council’s recently enforced rigid approach to documentary film ownership, Daniel Cross, president of Montreal’s EyeSteelFilm, notes that “there’s some insensitivity happening as far as respecting or understanding how documentary filmmakers are able to finance projects and how important it is to have an Arts Council grant, especially in the seeding of it and building your first rough assembly to a point that perhaps you can go and find international finance.” Cross uses the example of his documentary The Street to illustrate how the Canada Council’s support for docs has shifted. “I shot for eight years, edited for three years and finally got it out there. That film was made with the help of many different agencies, and one of them was the Canada Council. Today, it wouldn’t be eligible,” he notes. Around year three or four of the project, CFCF (then a loose CTV affiliate station) gave Cross’s documentary some funding with the requirement that it would air on the channel at some point. As Cross explains, “Today, if you got that letter from them [CFCF], the Canada Council [would] say that you’ve lost editorial control of your film and you’re no longer eligible for [Arts Council funding]. They’re going to go, ‘Whoa, you’ve used our money and this guy’s money and you’re not in good standing [with us].’” Cross is clearly disappointed in this shift. “It’s sad. There’s a long tradition of the Arts Council being involved in such important, major documentary projects that are so clearly artist-driven projects.”

For Lisa Fitzgibbons, director of the Documentary Organisation of Canada (DOC), “we are seeing a crisis of the one-off [film]” in terms of Canadian documentary funding. Fitzgibbons says that while “there used to be a time where the Canada Council would collaborate or acknowledge the strange creature that documentary is, I find it has become very intransigent on some of its admissibility requirements.” Whereas documentaries used to be funded by the Canada Council for the Arts and then go on to be aired by television broadcasters in Canada, according to Fitzgibbons, such funding combinations are “no longer in the cards,” in part because “the Canada Council has made it exceedingly difficult for artists to access the funding.”

Canada Media Fund (CMF)
Valerie Creighton, president and CEO of the Canada Media Fund (CMF), notes that since 2010, the CMF has funded approximately 760 documentary projects in English and French. However, Creighton recognizes “a decline in the amount of broadcast interest in one-off POV docs.” Indicating that this decline was the catalyst for the creation of the CMF’s special POV fund to begin with, Creighton admits that “the results of that programme have not been as stellar as we would have liked.” As explained by Creighton, “I often have documentary producers call me up and say, ‘Look, I’m Canadian. My project is 10 out of 10 [CAVCO—Canadian Audio-Visual Certification Office—points]. I’ve got two European broadcasters in the mix. It’s clearly got market interest. I can’t get a Canadian broadcaster. Why am I not eligible for the CMF?’” Presenting a scenario that is cruelly the exact opposite of the eligibility requirement issue encountered when dealing with the Canada Council for the Arts, a documentary filmmaker must have a Canadian television broadcaster attached to their one-off project in order to apply to the CMF. “Whether you like it or not,” says Creighton, “the view is that the broadcaster is the proxy for an audience.” For her, this is “still a better decision-making process than having bureaucrats do it or people who are not connected to the market.”

According to Daniel Cross, documentary producers who have successfully applied for CMF POV funding have had trouble actually receiving the funds. “[Documentary filmmakers] were having a very hard time getting a broadcast licence commission that was a high enough percentage to actually release the money from the Canada Media Fund. The filmmaker had the money, had the film, but couldn’t get the right percentages.” Creighton acknowledges that broadcast triggers are “structurally part of the problem” in terms of CMF funding of POV documentaries. “If we lower the point where the fund gets triggered, the concern in the documentary community is that the project can’t be up to the quality and level that it should be. And then it won’t get an audience and what good does that do for anybody?”

As Creighton notes, the core issue that the CMF is facing in terms of Canadian documentary is that “when the market demonstrates that they haven’t got the full voracity or appetite for a certain kind of documentary [such as] one-off POV, then what do we have to do to respond to that?” One of the options listed by Creighton is the CMF could “let it go…we don’t fund it [POV documentary].” Another option noted by Creighton is that the CMF “find a way to make sure it happens; we look to other models around the world to give us some intelligence and help us with that.” In terms of the possibility of a complete teardown of the Canadian documentary funding structure, Creighton says that while she “wouldn’t be the expert on that,” she does think “we’re maybe getting close to that. It’s time to do something.”

In addition to the lack of a television broadcast licence being a barrier to triggering CMF funding, even if a documentary does successfully receive a CMF contribution, this can also translate into producers being off-side with other domestic funding entities. While Vancouver-based documentary filmmaker and recent one-off documentary Canada Screen Award recipient Sheona McDonald of Dimestore Productions feels “lucky to even be able to make publicly funded—government agency–funded—projects,” she does note that “it is hard to get all the [funding] pieces together.” For example, “BC Film Development won’t work on development if the CMF is involved in the same phase” of a documentary, says McDonald.

Rethinking Canadian Documentary Funding
In light of existing funding restrictions encountered by independent Canadian documentary producers at entities including the Canada Council for the Arts and the Canada Media Fund, Daniel Cross notes that pitching sessions like the Hot Docs Forum have been key to the string of successful one-off POV documentaries coming out of Montreal’s EyeSteelFilm. This year, EyeSteelFilm will be pitching two documentaries at the Hot Docs Forum. One of them, titled Chameleon, is set in Ghana and is “about an investigative reporter there who uncovers wrong-doing,” says Cross. The other is a story of José “Pepe” Mujica, the president of Uruguay, who was once a political prisoner. “The object of going to [the Hot Docs Forum] is to suck up all the money that you can get from the people that have a lot of [it],” notes Cross. However, Cross asks whether this is really the best approach for the Canadian documentary community as a whole. “What is the next step to really laying down a financing model so that an appropriate amount of films can get made at a realistic, respectable budget and there can be regional representation in that wheel and it’s a sustainable model?” Cross wonders.

In the meantime, Canadian POV docmakers are simply trying to survive in 2013. In terms of how Sheona McDonald is able to continue making her one-off docs, she cites “taking other jobs” and “having a husband who does jobs from time to time.” As McDonald notes, “if it was just me trying to live in Vancouver and make [one-off]documentaries, I couldn’t survive.” Similarly, Frederic Bohbot notes that the way he has been able to continue making his one-off documentaries in Montreal is by keeping his overhead low and by not buying a house. What is the net result of this funding squeeze for McDonald, Bohbot and others on the state of Canadian documentary production? As articulated by DOC’s Lisa Fitzgibbons, it is “getting so hard to make these documentaries” in the first place that it is having the effect of “marginalizing public discourse” across the Canadian public sphere. If this is indeed the case, might a possible fix to documentary’s weakening role within the structuring of the public sphere be, as Habermas himself once pondered, to bring forth a new “public body of organized private individuals [to] take the place of the now-defunct public body of private individuals”? Part two of this series will attempt to tackle this question.

Steven James May is a PhD candidate (ABD) in Communications & Culture at Ryerson and York universities in Toronto. His goal with “The Dangling Conversation” series is to assess whether government institutions have come to be ruled by nobility or by capability (to borrow from Jürgen Habermas’ notion of the public sphere) with respect to the public funding of Canadian independent documentary productions Find May on Twitter at @stevenjmay.

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