Nisha Pahuja and Anita Lee are the recipients of this year’s DOC Institute Honours. The awards were announced tonight at the DOC Institute’s annual party, which returned to an in-person event at Hotel Echo in Toronto. Magician and community advocate Julie Eng served as host.
Pahuja received the DOC Vanguard Award, which recognizes an emerging to mid-career filmmaker whose work displays a keen artistic sensibility and visionary approach to doc form. Lee, meanwhile, was honoured with the Rogers-DOC Luminary Award, which is presented to an individual who has made a significant contribution to Canada’s film community through their leadership and creative spirit. Both selections were unanimous.
“It was unexpected,” Pahuja told POV about the DOC Institute Honours. “I’ve been working in the doc space for so long, and when you spend as much time in the editing room as I did for my last film, it’s encouraging to hear the impact of a film.” Pahuja’s most recent documentary To Kill a Tiger, executive produced by Lee, was named one as part of Canada’s Top Ten festival earlier today honouring the best films of 2022.
“Anita really champions people,” says Pahuja. “She never came into the editing room and asked us ‘what’s going on?’” To Kill a Tiger follows a family’s fight for justice when a young woman holds her assailants accountable for a violent rape. The doc grew out of another project that Pahuja had in production and was shaped in the editing room. The film won the Amplify Voices Award for Best Canadian Feature at TIFF this year.
“The thing about Anita is her creativity,” adds Pahuja. “She really understands story—the mechanics, the things one needs, which is especially critical with verité docs, and she has excellent insight into what may or may not be working. We always looked forward to her watching our various cuts.”
“We really understood what an important story it was and the stakes that were involved in getting that film out in the world,” adds Lee. “It was enveloped in a lot of trust between Nisha and her subject.”
A Commitment to Social Issues and Strong Characters
Pahuja previously directed the acclaimed 2012 feature documentary The World Before Her, which examined polarized gender roles in India by contrasting participants in the Miss World India pageant and Durga Vahini, the women’s wing of the Hindu militant fundamentalist movement. The film won prizes at the Tribeca Film Festival and Hot Docs, was named included in Canada’s Top Ten, and nominated for an Emmy. She also directed the feature Bollywood Bound (2002) and the mini-series Diamond Road. Both were nominated for Gemini Awards.
DOC Institute co-chair Lalita Krishna cited Pahuja’s commitment to socio-political p.o.v. docs and strong protagonists as signatures of her work. “She tackles tough subjects with the tenacity, vigour and vision that is the hallmark of a true Vanguard winner,” said Krishna in a statement.
When asked about the roles that DOC and the DOC Institute play in her career, Pahuja cites the organization’s advocacy as key. “The fact that they have a group of people standing up for the industry and fighting for us is valuable,” notes Pahuja. “As filmmakers, we don’t always have the time or tools to do it ourselves.”
Advocacy and Community-Building
Lee herself is an advocate for filmmakers, which is evident in her new role as Chief Programming Officer at TIFF following 15 years with the National Film Board of Canada and long-time work with Toronto’s Reel Asian Film Festival, of which she is the founder. “So much of the work I’m doing is continuation of things and some things are entirely new,” Lee tells POV. “That’s refreshing and giving me new challenges.”
Lee’s time with the NFB’s Ontario Studio features several works that rank among the Board’s best. Among the films of which she’s proudest, Lee cites Sarah Polley’s shape-shifting essay about family, truth and memory, Stories We Tell (2012); Tiffany Hsiung’s powerful look at South Korean “comfort women” seeking reparations in The Apology (2016); and Yung Chang’s bracing portrait of independent journalist Robert Fisk, This Is Not a Movie (2019). “Being a producer and an executive producer are fluid positions in which you can implicate yourself depending on your areas of interest or who you are,” observes Lee.
She also points to Randall Okita’s interactive work The Book of Distance as an example of innovation during her time with the NFB. “That interactive VR experience was one of the first to really embrace narrative and new technologies, but it also had a strong social statement that placed it very much in the documentary realm,” notes Lee.
In her role with TIFF, Lee aims to expand TIFF’s presence and relationship with its audience year-round at the Lightbox, as well as create space for untapped audiences. “I’m interested in looking at what TIFF does as mission,” says Lee. “What is that space in terms of artists, industry, and filmmakers and creating a more cohesive strategy to leverage our strengths and create new opportunities within the community.”
Renewal and Resurgence
As the DOC Institute Honours celebrate the leaders making a positive impact on the industry, Pahuja and Lee acknowledge that it’s a tough time for filmmakers in an ever-changing field. “You need a really strong will and you have to really want to tell stories,” says Pahuja when asked what advice she’d give emerging filmmakers. She also suggests developing sound business practices early while honing one’s craft. “The creative impulses might come first, but don’t neglect the parts of a production that you need to learn to have an impact.”
Lee adds that filmmakers might want to harness the new energy in non-fiction cinema for artists and audiences alike. “There’s this misconception that fiction is a creative storytelling space and, somehow, documentary is less so. I would argue that’s not the case at all. For filmmakers who want to represent the world they live in and have both social impact and artistic impact, it’s a great time to explore areas of renewal and resurgence in storytelling.”