Zoe Dirse and Amar Wala Receive DOC Institute Honours

BMO Bank of Montreal’s Kelly Jenkins; BMO-DOC Vanguard Award winner Amar Wala; Rogers Group of Funds’ Robin Mirsky; Rogers-DOC Luminary Award winner Zoe Dirse.


By Pat Mullen

The fifth annual DOC Institute Honours recognized two bold voices in Canadian documentary tonight. The awards, presented at Toronto’s Gladstone Hotel in an event hosted by Candy Palmater, honoured filmmaker Amar Wala with the BMO-DOC Vanguard Award, sponsored and presented by BMO Bank of Montreal, and cinematographer Zoe Dirse with the Rogers-DOC Luminary Award, sponsored and presented by Rogers Group of Funds.

Wala’s feature doc The Secret Trial 5 was a hit at Hot Docs 2014 with its chilling tale of five men living in Canada who were arrested by the government through the obscure use of “security certificates,” a facet of Canadian law that allows the government to detain and deport foreign nationals. The BMO-DOC Vanguard Award spotlights an emerging or mid-career filmmaker whose work and innovation leads the field for a new generation of filmmakers. In addition to the feature documentary, Wala has directed several short docs and TV episodic documentaries tackling social issues in Canada. “This industry is a tough one,” said Wala, speaking with POV by phone ahead of the ceremony. “Sometimes it’s hard to know whether you’re just treading water or moving forward, but when your peers recognize your body of work and your contribution to the community of documentary, that’s pretty special.” The BMO-DOC Vanguard Award provides Wala with approximately $47,000 in support, cash-awards, and in-kind services.

Dirse, a prolific cinematographer whose credits include canonical docs like Forbidden Love: The Unashamed Stories of Lesbian Lives and Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance, echoes Wala’s sentiment. “It’s an amazing honour,” wrote Dirse in an email to POV. “I have to say I was not expecting it – but then, why not? It feels terrific to be in the lofty company of the people who have received the award before me.” The Rogers-DOC Luminary Award recognizes Dirse as a member of the documentary community who has made a significant commitment towards supporting and fostering Canada’s non-fiction filmmakers. Previous recipients include filmmaker Daniel Cross, Hot Docs president Chris MacDonald, POV editor Marc Glassman, and visual researcher Elizabeth Klinck. The honour for Dirse recognizes the oft-unsung efforts of creative crewmembers beyond the director, producer, or writer credits. “DOP’s are crucial in telling the story and crafting the vision,” writes Dirse.

Reflecting upon their respective films, Wala and Dirse speak humbly of the impact of their documentaries that inspired audiences and the jury. “I think it created some awareness and it’s now being taught in schools,” notes Wala of The Secret Trial 5. The director adds that the documentary has been especially useful for Sophie Harkat, whose husband Mohamed Harkat is one of The Secret Trial 5’s subjects. “The film is now a tool that she can hand to people to say this is the history of this issue,” says Wala, adding that documentaries like The Secret Trial 5 are valuable texts for advocacy groups to inform the public.

Dirse cites the ground-breaking Studio D documentary Forbidden Love as a key work from her filmography of which she is especially proud. “It was created for such impact for change,” writes Dirse. “It was created with such enlightenment and choices for change – social, political, artistic change.”

Both Wala and Dirse are also active voices for diversity and inclusion in Canada’s film industry, making the DOC Institute Honours relevant distinctions to contribute to the ongoing conversation for funders, producers, and decision makers to expand the talent pool. “My work tends to focus on a racialized people in Canada who are facing some form of injustice,” says Wala. “Canada is such an incredible place to live in, but we historically have trouble talking about some of the deeper problems within our society. Documentary is a great way to put those ideas to the forefront and challenge us to do better.”

Wala adds that change is needed to put these stories on bigger screens and in front of more audiences. “I would like to see the larger institutions and funding bodies put proper resources into the hands of emerging, particularly racialized filmmakers,” says Wala. “As we focus on making sure that more diverse filmmakers get to make films, we also have to ensure that they’re not being relegated to smaller budgets and films with zero marketing budgets.”

When asked what it was like to see director of photography Rachel Morrison (Mudbound) make history as the first woman to be nominated for the Best Cinematography Oscar this year, Dirse writes that it was a recognition long overdue. “It was fantastic to see Rachel Morrison, but it was also a long time coming since women have been doing this for a long time,” notes Dirse. “It was fantastic for a woman to be considered and nominated so that young women coming up can see it as a possibility. I did too when I was young.” Dirse adds that recognition for women cinematographers remains an ongoing issue.

When asked about the advice for future vanguards and luminaries in the documentary field, Wala and Dirse encourage a mix of pragmatism and passion. Wala says that having a sound financial footing is key with part time or contract work to support the financial pressures of the field. “There’s been a trend historically that asks documentary filmmakers to work for free or work on internships without any money,” says Wala. “The problem with that is that it immediately starts to eliminate people who come from lower socioeconomic backgrounds.”

Dirse echoes that it takes commitment. “Always follow your passion. If you’re committed to doing this job, whatever it may be — sound recordist, lighting, cinematography, or director — whatever it is, stick to it.”