There is a mental health crisis among documentary filmmakers, notes a report released this week by the Documentary Organization of Canada (DOC). DocuMentality: A Report on Mental Health in the Canadian Documentary Sector, conducted through the filmmaker-based group DocuMentality and funded by the Canada Media Fund, draws upon seven focus groups that considered the responses of filmmakers who identified respectively as Black, Muslim, and Racialized; Indigenous; 2SLGBTQIA+; creators living with disability; women and non-binary; mixed Francophone; and mixed Anglophone. The report addresses aspects of documentary filmmaking such as work scarcity and precariousness, barriers to accessing funding, burnout, lack of childcare, and the mental toll that comes with constant engagement with engaging with the traumas of others and the responsibility entailed in telling such stories in public platforms. In some cases, filmmakers reported experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) due to exposure to mentally taxing material, often repeatedly.
The report, which was presented by in an engaged session at Hot Docs on May 3 with DOC executive director Sarah Spring and Malikkah Rollins, DocuMentality co-founder and director of industry & education at DOC NYC, shared that filmmakers feel an overwhelming sense of isolation and hopelessness as if stranded at the edge of a cliff or dangling precariously over the edge. (The session stressed this aspect by showing two pictures with which filmmakers in the focus groups overwhelmingly identified as the most relatable snapshots for documentary filmmaking.)
A Sense of Isolation and Despair
Spring and Rollins noted that respondents share a sense of despair when it comes to securing financing. Filmmakers feel anxiety when trying to navigate barriers or, worse, that they rise losing their voices when they try to adapt their projects to ensure successful funding. This concern is compounded for filmmakers from traditionally marginalized groups as they risk erasing the very sense of authentic storytelling that funders demand and the lived experience that informs their work.
Other factors noted in the Canadian context include geographic disparity. With production largely centered in Toronto, Vancouver, and Montreal, and with most major festivals and networking events happening in those same urban centres, filmmakers who live and work outside prohibitively expensive metropolises face additional barriers to access. Moreover, Spring noted, efforts to include regional representation often stop at tokenist gestures. This results in one filmmaker or filmmaking team carrying the burden of representing their community at the expense of their peers, and without the support of like-minded, familiar colleagues.
Canadian funders, Spring observed, also have relatively little turnover among key decision makers. This means that funding choices carry over time in a relatively small ecosystem and that the people greenlighting projects generally do not understand the diverse range of communities and experiences reflected in ideas, proposals, and audience demographics.
The report also highlighted the mental toll that comes with a lack of mentorship. Emerging and early career filmmakers rarely know which questions to ask in order to increase their chances for success, and factors related to the above often compound their access to mentors or opportunities to ask questions. Moreover, the relative smallness of the Canadian field poses additional challenges for filmmakers who encounter the “epidemic” of bullying, racism, and sexism that perverts power dynamics.
DocuMentality offers solutions to address the mental health challenges that documentary filmmakers face. Among the suggestions noted is the inclusion of budget lines for therapy and support. Spring noted that the revised budget recently introduced by Telefilm Canada now includes such lines. This development indicates that funders, who were also consulted, recognize the problem and the need to address it, although there’s obviously more to do. (Outside the Canadian context, one can see efforts to address mental health care like in this year’s Hot Docs selection You Were My First Boyfriend, which credits an on-set therapist. The credit was a notable talking point during the film’s post-screening Q&A.)
Other advisories noted in the presentation include developing roadmaps that filmmakers can use for reference to relieve anxiety and navigate challenging situations. Funding for child care also reduces a filmmaker’s need to choose between work and family—or the choice to even have a family at all, which Spring and Rollins noted was a concern filmmakers stressed across focus groups. Similarly, productions and festivals are recommended to introduce greater flexibility to allow for mental health breaks for filmmakers and audiences alike. Rollins added that Sheffield DocFest will introduce sharing circles in which audiences can collectively talk through what they’ve experienced. Focus groups on ethical best practices, meanwhile, will be happening in New York over the summer.
DOC will be holding an additional town hall for industry peers who were not in attendance at the Hot Docs panel. That event will happen via Zoom at a later date.
The full report is available at DOCorg.ca.