Home to not only the National Film Board of Canada but four major universities, Montreal was a fitting choice for this year’s international Visible Evidence conference. Peripatetic by nature, and now in its 12th year, Visible Evidence aims to bring together academics and documentary/media practitioners to foster critical discussions on current scholarly thought and the role of mediated audio- visual practice as “witness and voice of social reality.” With over 45 panels and workshops, along with numerous screenings over a five-day stretch, the conference, organized by Marty Allor and Tom Waugh, made for a highly informative and engaging experience.
What became immediately apparent was an overarching, urgent interest in the ‘socially engaged documentary,’ in this era when corporate and state run media have forsaken whatever critical perspective they may have had previously. One of Visible Evidence’s workshops focused on the burgeoning media collective movement. While there is nothing particularly novel about artist collectives working within the documentary format (one panelist delivered a revealing talk about the Video Freaks from the 1960s), there is something distinctive about this particular new wave of communal filmmaking: its ties to the anti- globalisation movement. Montreal based collectives Volatile Works and Les Lucioles had members in attendance at the workshop and explained how, although the filmmaking interests of their respective members are eclectic and diverse, the genesis for much of what they do evolved from a sympathy with the ideals of this broad-based socio-political movement.
The flipside to globalisation however is the cultural exchange of documentary filmmaking that has emerged on a greater scale than ever before, facilitated by both technological advances and what might be perceived as a growing world-wide interest in the form itself. While documentary filmmaking has arguably wrestled with insular tendencies, we are now seeing a more widespread global flow of documentary films, both through traditional means of distribution as well as newer web-based formats.
Visible Evidence revealed a tendency among documentary filmmakers to embrace new technologies in the dissemination of their films and the vital discourse surrounding them. Montreal- based filmmaker Daniel Cross, known for his films S.P.I.T. (2002) and The Street (1997), spoke about his latest ongoing initiative, the Homeless Street Archive. This project aims to bring awareness to the national tragedy of homelessness in Canada, and to “bridge the gap” between those on the streets and the general public. Through short introductory films, mixed with personal blogs (“web logs” for the uninitiated), homeless people from across the nation are brought into dialogue with one another and with anyone who wishes to interact through the site.
In a similarly innovative, web-based initiative, filmmakers Liz Miller and Katrina Cizek have designed, as an outgrowth of Visible Evidence, the Doc- Democracy Collective. The project is essentially a forum for the international community of filmmakers and scholars to blog about current issues pertaining to documentary filmmaking, particularly as it relates to the concept of democracy.
Yet despite the growing use of the Internet and its potential for interactivity, there is an obvious hesitancy among many documentary filmmakers to abandon the traditional methods of filmmaking and established channels of distribution and broadcast. Issues of access are very much on the minds of filmmakers, both those working with new media and the ones practicing in traditional forms. While streaming from the Internet solves certain problems of distribution, it opens up entirely new ones, especially in countries not as ‘connected’ as Canada. Keynote speaker and acclaimed Indian filmmaker Anand Patwardhan was one of many documentarians to express some concern about the fragmenting tendency of the Internet, as well as its limited access in many parts of the world. These are the sorts of problems documentary filmmakers need to address and the Doc- Democracy Collective website provides a venue for such a debate to occur.
Perhaps the greatest threats facing politically engaged documentary practice today, however, are the contentious and frequently intertwined issues of funding and censorship (which includes, as Patwardhan noted, its “more insidious sibling: self-censorship”). Whether it’s Bombay or Vancouver, for many filmmakers working within socially and politically charged arenas, shooting and editing their films is (far too) often the easiest part of the process. Assuring some sort of significant audience for a film inevitably means having to negotiate the troubled path of funding, censorship and distribution. For documentaries, television has often been pursued as an alternative route to screenings. But the problems posed by theatrical distribution are not always so readily alleviated by the broadcasting sector. This system also has its share of hurdles, many of them insurmountable, as was made abundantly clear by many of the practitioners present.
Toronto-based filmmaker Ali Kazimi, whose magnificent Continuous Journey (2004) was screened at the conference, spoke at length about the difficulties and frustrations involved in securing funding for documentary films in Canada. While smaller grants are relatively reasonably available, larger funding is often tied to deals with broadcasters, which often leads to content debates. Making unwanted cuts is sometimes what is required for films to air. And make no mistake: this editing is rarely solely for purposes of time restriction. As Vancouver filmmaker Nettie Wild (director of FIX) pronounced, “the 43 minute version is more than a length, it’s a visual language.”
In his fascinating talk, Anand Patwardhan addressed similar issues related to censorship in his native India. He has been engaged in legal battles for years and continues to fight, to ensure that his films get seen. His 2002 film War and Peace, which opened the conference, has yet to be shown in India. Although heated and drawn out, his court battles have largely been successful. Past films of his that were originally not allowed to air, were eventually broadcast on the basis of both the public’s right to see them and his own right (in terms) of freedom of speech. Patwardhan proudly claims to have never agreed to significantly cut any of his films.
Here in Canada, filmmakers are pursuing creative means of distributing and exhibiting their films. Unable to secure a nation-wide theatrical distribution deal for FIX: The Story of an Addicted City (2003) about the battle for safe-injection sites in Vancouver’s downtown Eastside, Nettie Wild blew her film up to 35mm and traveled with an entourage (“the junkie, the Christian and the Mayor”) across the country, screening it in theatres packed with enthusiastic audiences, eager for discussion. Daniel Cross enacted a full-on DIY publicity campaign for his film S.P.I.T.: Squeegee Punks in Traffic, including a punk rock soundtrack. Kazimi’s Continuous Journey, although successful in obtaining a broadcast deal, was cut down to an hour and effectively buried in the television schedule. However, he has had tremendous success on the festival circuit, as have Wild and Cross. All three filmmakers have made their films available for sale on their respective websites.
So while there may be a “new paradigm” of documentary filmmaking emerging, as historian Charles Musser pronounced in the conference’s opening plenary, it is one that is soundly rooted in tradition and history. Whether it’s the employment of new technology to tell old stories, such as Kazimi’s use of ‘animated photography’ to recount the tragic story of the ill-fated Komagata Maru in 1914, or innovative uses of older technology, such as Mike Covell’s stunning Mutual Conversations 1979-2005 (2005), in which the filmmaker is effectively interviewed by a projected version of himself 25 years younger, the interplay of technology and technique is unquestionably at the forefront of a great deal of documentary practice today. Equally prominent is an emphasis on the shifting relationships between the global and the local. Filmmakers continue to wrestle with local conditions, both in terms of subject matter and systems of funding and distribution, while simultaneously engaging in a global cultural forum facilitated by a growing interest in the documentary format and the tremendous opportunities for interactivity provided by the Internet.
The 2006 Visible Evidence Conference is scheduled for Brazil.