A Walk in the Forests

Super Channel’s financial problems disrupt Canada’s ecosystem of doc production

18 mins read

“For over 1,000 years, the Japanese have been coming to their forests to do what they call ‘forest bathing’”

Several months after watching the documentary Call of the Forest: The Forgotten Wisdom of the Trees (2016), I was hiking a mountain trail when a sequence from the film suddenly began playing back in my head. It was the smell of the forest. Sunbeams on the mossy bark of tree trunks. The crunch of needles and branches underfoot. The film had made an impression and I was pleased to have it replay in my mind as I walked the trail.

Call of the Forest is the latest documentary by Winnipeg director Jeff McKay and producer Merit Jensen-Carr. Beautifully shot, it explores humanity’s relationship with trees and the wisdom we can learn from them. Author and scientist Diana Beresford-Kroeger is our guide as she takes us through forests around the world, articulating her research.

I never realised that there is such a thing as “forest bathing,” what the Japanese call their walks in the forest for health benefits. As Beresford-Kroeger explains in the film, the natural aerosols released by the trees while walking through a forest have a therapeutic effect on us: “Trees create many of the chemicals used in the manufacture of approximately 60 percent of our medicines…Limonene is an anti-cancer compound, the pinenes are antibiotic compounds, and what they are doing…is telling me to relax, as my immune system is being boosted.”

While the film is important for how it shows the fragility of trees, it also serves as an alarming tale of the documentary filmmaking experience in Canada in the face of inconsistent broadcaster regulations, demonstrated by the current troubles with Super Channel.

“It will start with a shovel and an acorn—and we might just change the world.”

Jeff McKay and Merit Jensen-Carr took five years to make Call of the Forest, a passion project for both of them. I took my family to see the film and as we were leaving the theatre, my 12-year-old daughter said she wanted to get a copy of Diana Beresford-Kroeger’s book. To me this is a great example of what docs are supposed to do: provide entertainment while leaving us thinking about the topic and intrigued to discover more.

One of the unique aspects of the film compared to other environmental docs is the tone. It is not a doom, gloom and guilt story. Jeff McKay explains, “I knew I wanted to remove the idea of making a fear-driven film. I am sick of those films. I wanted to make a positive story and show the beauty. I wanted people to fall in love with trees and the forests.”

While the documentary is a wake-up call for the preservation of our forests, it also gives an example of positive work being done to create more trees. There is a movement in Japan to create microforests in the urban environment. There are activists in B.C. that are cleaning up rivers and streams of deadfall to allow for healthy forests and waterways.

Making documentaries is a lot like planting trees: both seem to take forever to reach maturity. We have plenty of ideas—seeds that are planted. Some develop. They need tending, water, sun and fertiliser. In some regions it seems trees grow more easily, but we can’t dismiss the potential of other regions where they grow more slowly. We hear a lot about documentaries coming from Toronto, but they grow just as well in places like Winnipeg, or more remote regions like Igloolik. In our era, resilience is needed everywhere.

McKay and Jensen-Carr demonstrate the ingenuity essential to facing the current realities of documentary filmmaking. Call of the Forest was a project that demanded a creative approach to funding; besides broadcasters, they accessed alternative resources such as grants from U.S. foundations. They brought in partners like the Suzuki Foundation, Nature Conservancy and Canadian Geographic. They are self-distributing the feature film along with a companion interactive tree planting website. Screenings across the country are supplemented by the attendance of Diana Beresford-Kroger as a guest speaker, panel discussions, urban forest walks and coordinating special tree planting events.

“ The trees are part of a chain or a cycle, a feeding cycle, which feeds everything.”

Winnipeg has a population of over 650,000 people and approximately eight million trees. It has the largest urban elm forest in North America. Perhaps influenced by the City Beautiful movement that captivated America at the turn of the 20th century, Winnipeg went on a tree-planting boom to coincide with the growth of the city. Trees lined the boulevards, and with time they formed a canopy down the streets of my neighbourhood. Much like the deliberate actions of city planners to plant trees on the prairie, strategic decisions by individuals and governments create local film cultures. These grow through non-profits, schools, venues, festivals, publications, broadcasting strands and grant opportunities. The community made up of filmmakers, administrators and audiences is an ecosystem.

I’ve noticed changes to my street over the last couple of decades. The odd tree is taken down because of old age or disease. Then another. One day after school, my daughter discovered that the giant elm on the boulevard in front of our house had a fresh orange spot sprayed on the trunk. It was a sad day for our family. Individual trees are fragile. Disease can spread from tree to tree, and whole forests are affected. Documentary filmmaking is a finite resource as well, and the story of the making of Call of the Forest provides striking parallels.

The million-dollar budget of Call of the Forest was assembled from POV (the PBS series), Super ChannelTVOKnowledge, iChannel and private donations. But this funding would prove tenuous. Super Channel disclaimed the film last June after filing for bankruptcy protection. When iChannel ceased operation, the gap in funding grew to $102,000.

The impact of Super Channel’s bankruptcy protection reached across the country, affecting over 50 projects. Vanessa Dylyn of Toronto based Matter of Fact Media was stuck as well when Super Channel backed out of their funding commitment. The Super Channel agreement required producers like her to interim finance their productions, without the normal draw-downs for production. Dylyn suggests that Super Channel has been permitted to operate by the CRTC and Canadian Media Fund (CMF) “outside of standard ‘terms of trade’ in this industry—more specifically, under conditions that exploit producers: they have producers sign contracts where the producer self-finances or finds interim-financing for the film and delivers it to Super Channel (SC) before SC pays a penny. This is akin to a worker building a house for a client for two years and only getting paid upon the completion of the house! Except the client decides not to pay.” Despite the financial setback, Dylyn’s project is currently in post and will premiere at a prestigious festival this summer.

The story of Super Channel and the Canadian documentary community is one of disrupted balance. Dylyn explains that producers “create work for a whole industry ecosystem—for the creative team, production team, people who are paid to oversee our film—from the CMF to broadcast staff—lawyers, accountants—ALL ARE PAID. The creator of the work is paid last, and in this case is not paid at all and driven into debt.”

It isn’t a stretch to see the comparisons between the ecosystem of the documentary film industry and that of trees, forests and the environment. When one aspect of an interconnected system is taken advantage of by one party, it has a dramatic effect on the whole. When we simply take tree after tree from the forest without thought to their role in climate, we set things up for disaster. The interconnectedness of things needs to be respected. The solution is found in the regulation of harvesting, planting and preservation. In terms of documentary filmmaking in Canada, institutions like the CMF, Telefilm, and CAVCO (Canadian Audio-Visual Certification Office) are meant to support and preserve our fragile ecosystem. But what happens when the rules are not applied in ways meant to sustain a tree, or the forest as a whole?

Merit Jensen-Carr elaborates: “Super Channel has built a sizeable CMF envelope based on the commitments it made to independent filmmakers. It is still spending that envelope and it defaulted on most of those agreements. CMF would never allow a producer to renege on a commitment they had funded in this way. A producer would either have to pay it back or be denied future funding. Yet Super Channel is allowed to continue business as usual. I am sorry to see that Super Channel is in financial trouble, but it doesn’t justify their actions and the fact that they are putting 50 companies across Canada in financial jeopardy so they can continue business.”

To add insult to injury, Super Channel has just announced their bid to purchase the Canadian rights to a sport channel associated with the American Legends Football League. Dylyn explains “To help finance this, the Allard family, owners of Super Channel, are bankrupting small independent producers like myself. This speaks to the fragility of our film funding systems and the vulnerability of small companies such as mine. I was stiffed for close to 95K and I am now in debt. After owing the small independent sector over 45 million, they are allowed to turn around and buy a sport channel and continue to operate.”

Adds Jensen-Carr, “Documentary producers create, in many cases, content aimed at the good of all Canadians. If we want documentary filmmaking in this country to survive and thrive, we need to find a better business model, one that is less vulnerable and more sustainable.”

“When these dominant trees are removed from a forest, the integrity, health and the quality of a forest is significantly diminished.”

As Call of the Forest explains, our forests are fragile. It is hard to imagine, but only 5% of the old-growth forests still exist today. One example of the transformation of a landscape is that of Ireland, where in the past the island country had around 80% tree cover, while today it has around 10%. What happens when we harvest trees without care of the consequences and have limited policies to ensure a forest’s protection? A more striking example from the film: “It happened on the Erimo Peninsula on the northern island of Hokkaido. Japanese settlers clear-cut the native forests to create farmland. But with the trees gone, the rich humus layer created by the forest was gradually blown away by the constant high winds. The land became a barren desert.”

Hearing about the desert on the Erimo Peninsula of Japan reminds me of other fragile aspects of film production that are affected by government policies. With fewer and fewer documentary strands available, resources are scarce. Perhaps the Saskatchewan film community is a lot like the Erimo Peninsula of Japan since their film tax credits were cancelled several years ago. From what I hear from filmmakers that moved to Manitoba from Saskatchewan, the government policy decision has threatened to make that province a cinematic wasteland. Decisions by broadcasters like Super Channel, under the approval of the CMF, have consequences on our ecosystem too.

“An intact forest is an act of peace.”

Call of the Forest ends with the example of the boreal forest, a crucial ring of trees that sits like a crown on the northern hemisphere. In this forest we find the industrialised Tar Sands juxtaposed with efforts to create nature preserves. As the film explains, First Nations community groups in Manitoba are proposing a land preserve called “Pimachiowin Aki, ‘the land that gives life,’ as a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site to ensure mindful protection of both their culture and of these lands into the future.”

The boreal forest is made up of hardy trees that can withstand the harsh environment of the Canadian North. Can we say the same thing for Canada’s documentary filmmaking community? Despite the funding challenges, we are a country of resilient and innovative filmmakers practicing our national art form. Our long filmmaking history in Canada is a credit to both policies and opportunities, but there are always risks, as is clear in the analogy of clear-cutting in Hokkaido, Japan. We are still a country influenced by policies and regionalism. Sudden shocks have great effects. The 50 film projects affected by Super Channel’s bankruptcy protection represent a forest at risk. For some of these filmmakers, like Jeff McKay, their ingenuity allowed them to survive the shock. Merit Jensen-Carr summarised their position, “while it’s an underdog story, we are finding our way out of this crisis by looking for alternative funding, figuring out a new hybrid distribution strategy and of course we are hoping for a few good international sales.”

Audiences are responding well to Call of the Forest. The Winnipeg screening at the Cinematheque broke their 25-year box-office record. In Ottawa, shows were sold out, with people lined up down the street. Screenings continue in arthouse theatres across the country. A few weeks after I had taken my daughter to see the film at the Cinematheque in Winnipeg, she decided that her grade-seven science-fair project would be on the changes to tree populations over time. She began her research to find out more. The seed planted by Call of the Forest had taken root.

Diana’s Bioplan from Treespeak Films on Vimeo.

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