Ed Barreveld’s annus miraculous

--and he still needs work!

27 mins read

“As wonderful as the recognition is, I feel a bit like the captain of the Titanic listening to the band playing as the ship is going down,” producer Ed Barreveld remarked not once, but twice—first during TIFF’s Canada Top Ten announcements in their swanky 6th floor Bell Lightbox Malaparte room, where The World Before Her nabbed a coveted spot on the prestigious end-of-the-year film list, and again in the ultra-tony Rosewater Supper Club, where the Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television’s freshly re-booted Canadian Screen Awards press conference unfurled, tossing four nominations in his company’s direction. To my way of thinking, these are mighty strange words to pop out of a producer’s mouth, especially when the aforementioned accolades are just a sampling of a genuinely banner year for his company.

With two internationally acclaimed and award-winning feature documentaries, Herman’s House (dir. Angad Bhalla) and The World Before Her (dir. Nisha Pahuja), plus two successful TV docs for the History Channel, The Real Sherlock Holmes (dir. Min Sook Lee) and The Real Inglorious Bastards (dir. Gary Lang, Barreveld’s Storyline Entertainment has generated product that’s been fêted to such an extent that there really only appears to be one clear trajectory, and it sure doesn’t feel like it’s down into the murky depths of the Titanic’s resting place.

Speaking to Barreveld a few days later at The Tampered Press, a terrific neighourhood café in Toronto, he offered the following elaboration: “Look, Storyline produced four films in the past year that were by anyone’s definition successful.”

“Hey,” I interjected, “certainly within the context of Canada, I’d call them hits.”

“Totally,” he concurs, “they got a lot of press, a lot of attention and great reviews, yet here I am with a development slate, but nothing to follow up with in terms of actively moving forward in production. There’s simply no new work coming in. No financing. There’s nothing there; no commissions for any of my new projects–hence the analogy of the band playing and shuffling the deck chairs while the ship is going down. This, I think, is the state of the industry in Canada. There’s very little interest in one-off theatrical docs–especially within the context of our domestic broadcast market. The number of one-offs they’re interested in financing is dwindling or disappearing completely.

“Using domestic broadcast to kick-start the projects used to generate a good 30- to 50 percent of the budget, but with fewer active sources to tap into and everything taking two-to-three times longer to move forward, I’m going overseas to generate interest and financing and the first big question out of foreign buyers’ mouths is, ‘So, who’s in on the broadcasting end in Canada?’ and I have to try explaining the current climate in Canada to account for this.”

“This” is, frankly, a sorry state of affairs—one that stunts and downright stigmatizes first-rate Canadian documentaries. In fact it’s what producers in any genre or format always face when domestic interest is slow to start, and I can only agree wholeheartedly with Barreveld that “this” is becoming an ever-increasing problem.

One of the things that used to drive me crazy as an independent producer was the catch-22 of Canadian broadcasters and/or distributors occasionally playing this annoying wait-and see game and finding that foreign entities, rightly so, would be forced to play their own wait-and-see game until Canuck broadcast interest loped into the picture. Nowadays, it’s not so occasional—it seems to be par for the course, especially when a number of venues on the domestic front are lazily, and rather cheaply, turning to acquisitions rather than prebuys.

During one of numerous kaffeeklatches with Barreveld, I was compelled to spew up my steadfast tilting-at-windmills belief that for Canadian broadcasters to be involved on the ground floor with fine product (which, more than likely, will be one-offs) is, was and always would be good business.

“I don’t think the majority of Canadian broadcasters are interested in good product,” he responded in his matter-of-fact manner. “They’re just interested in product. They need to get stuff on-air and they don’t really care what it is. The broadcasters, as we used to know them, are few and far between. You’d visit with a domestic commissioning editor and then they’d express how much they loved the project from an artistic standpoint. They’d support the project in a ‘here’s your money’ sort of way. Nowadays a project has to go through a myriad of committees and it’s vetted in a ridiculous number of ways.”

Cornelia Principe, one of the active movers, shakers and primary producers behind The World Before Her, offers, “One-off creative docs are on life support in this country. Our film was challenging on a lot of levels, but especially on the financial end. We knocked on every Canadian broadcast door.” Principe is frank in her realistic assertion that because The World Before Her “was a foreign topic, it was a non-starter.”

This short-sightedness on behalf of Canadian broadcasters drives me even nuttier since The World Before Her is a Canadian perspective on an admittedly extreme foreign situation that affects women in India, but as Principe notes, “it reflects something about women all over the world.”

For my money, it hits closer to home than that. Certainly there have been a myriad events in Canada involving the Indian diaspora that mirror the lives of the women in the film itself. More than that, The World Before Her, using a Canadian perspective on a “foreign” situation, has so much to say even to North American women living within a Western world that’s supposedly at the forefront of women’s rights.

Putting on my old producer’s hat, I’m of the mind that Nisha Pahuja’s acclaimed film probably would have been easier to finance domestically if it had included some parallel Canadian element. That, however, is the wrong way to finance domestic documentary films. It assumes our audiences are too stupid to be moved by an international story told by Canadians that might actually parallel domestic experiences. It’s another case where myopic middlemen (accent on “men”) are making cultural decisions based on their own narrow, unimaginative perspectives.

It is, of course, unfair to tar all broadcasters in Canada with the same brush. Both Barreveld and Principe note that TVO’s Human Edge eventually gave money to The World Before Her, because of the program’s specific appetite for international stories. Alas, TVO and B.C.’s Knowledge Network have very small budgets and other broadcasters in this country need to pick up the slack, which, for now, they have no intention of doing. The administrative corpulence of the CBC is but one example of this lack of support and imagination-free policies. The bureaucrats hiding atop the fortress on Front Street evince a clear distaste for commissioning one-off Canadian documentary pre-buys and prefer spewing out one “reality-styled” piece of garbage after another thanks to the “vision” of previous and current administrations.

Frankly, it’s no wonder someone like Barreveld feels beleaguered, in spite of the great work his company has been responsible for generating. Barreveld acknowledges that both he and many other Canadian filmmakers have “developed within a very subsidized system. In contrast to many American documentary productions, broadcast is not the first place to go. In America, it’s a more entrepreneurial approach where filmmakers will use credit cards, foundations, private money and whatever they need to get the film made.”

While I am always happy to acknowledge my American brothers south of the 49th parallel for an—ahem—entrepreneurial vision, Barreveld and his Storyline team financed both The World Before Her and Herman’s House with relatively small amounts of Canadian money and in fact it took Robin Smith’s visionary company KinoSmith to happily get on board as a theatrical distributor for both films to trigger additional Canadian financing sources. Smith admits his belief in the projects was driven by both quality and commercial viability. He cites Barreveld’s uncanny touch for blending the best of both worlds.

There is, of course, no mistaking that Barreveld has contributed to creating top-flight documentary work by any means necessary. As CEO of Storyline Entertainment, the company he co-founded with Daniel Sekulich and current eOne senior VP of factual programming Michael Kot in 2000, Barreveld has generated a canon of work committed to presenting underrepresented perspectives to the world. When Kot departed in 2003 to take over as a production executive at History Television, Barreveld began in earnest to forge relationships with young, talented filmmakers and producers. Today, his team includes the ace production coordinator (and talented filmmaker in her own right) Shasha Nakhai and Herman’s House producer Lisa Valencia-Svensson who, with Barreveld, collectively contributed to 2012 being a banner year for Storyline Entertainment.

In 2005, Valencia-Svensson was welcomed into the Storyline fold, where she not only performed a myriad of administrative tasks, but was strongly encouraged by Barreveld to produce. And produce she did. Collaborating with director Angad Singh Bhalla, Valencia-Svensson made Herman’s House with Barreveld executive producing under the Storyline umbrella. The film’s harrowing exploration into the nearly 40-year imprisonment in solitary confinement of ex-Black Panther Herman Wallace, one of the most shameful and heinous human rights violations in recent American history, was clearly not an easy sell. Barreveld wholeheartedly lent his support to Valencia-Svensson’s desire to make the film and he even self-financed many of her excursions to do so. Targeting the United States as a potential market, she began chasing financing routes south of the 49th parallel, including foundations, Sundance Institute funding, and participation in the Tribeca All Access programme, the IFP Documentary Lab and the Silverdocs Good Pitch. In a nutshell, she and Barreveld financed a good portion of the film’s budget outside-the-usual-Canadian-financing-box.

Barreveld believes in getting good stories made, but he also believes in the ideas and passion of talented young filmmakers. He begins many of his creative relationships with the filmmakers themselves. “I wanted to work with Nisha [Pahuja] on something and The World Before Her began as a simple conversation. She had a real strong desire to tackle a story about the status of women in India. We talked about the beauty pageant story but after she went to India to do some shooting she discovered the other important story dealing with women and fundamentalism.” The contrasting tales, movingly explored by Pahuja, made The World Before Her an award-winner at Hot Docs 2012 and New York’s prestigious Tribeca Film Festival.

Barreveld’s openness to talent extends to the importance of sometimes having to take a backseat to the actual production once things get rolling. Certainly, Pahuja desperately needed a partner with her in India and Barreveld happily responded to Pahuja’s desire to bring on Cornelia Principe, with whom she already had an established relationship.

“Ed’s a wonderful guy,” says Principe. “Here he is having to hold down the fort, run a production company and all the while having several projects going at once. In spite of this, Ed was always there for me throughout the making of the film.”

Principe relates the alternately appalling and amusing tale of how she was often having trouble, as a woman, getting people to return her telephone calls. “I always needed a man to call India,” she laughs, “and Ed was my man. It worked out very well.”

Ed Barreveld was born in Rotterdam in 1957 and at the age of 23, decided to depart the land of windmills and dikes for the Great White North of Canada. In 1986, he took on a temp secretary position at the National Film Board (NFB), which was quickly followed by two years as the unit administrator of marketing and finally eight years as studio administrator. Within the only genuine studio system in Canada, Barreveld was afforded the unique opportunity to amass the knowledge he needed to eventually become an independent producer.

Silva Basmajian, executive producer of the NFB’s Ontario Centre, fondly recalls Barreveld’s days as the Ontario studio administrator from 1988 to 1996. She cites his qualities as a “benevolent ruler,” conjuring the sweetly well-worn expression “stand-up guy” to describe his approach to both administration and production. “This hasn’t changed one bit from his days at the Board to the documentary mogul he is today,” said Basmajian. While Barreveld bristles at the word “mogul” to describe his passion, there’s few in this industry who would doubt nor deny the exponential gains and impact Barreveld’s little story-engine-that-could has achieved.

Barreveld himself has great memories of his time at the NFB. He describes his many years there as “my film school,” while Basmajian asserts that Barreveld’s producer qualities began at the NFB. “Throughout the up-and-down craziness of production,” she said, “Ed was so even-keeled, so calm, so patient, so supportive that he kept everyone going through the roughest and most tense passages.” Having helmed several works that Barreveld produced, award-winning filmmaker Min Sook Lee concurs heartily with Basmajian’s sentiments. “Ed is unflappable,” says Lee. “When you go into production, things can get hairy: lost visas, it won’t snow when you need it, missed flights, uncooperative subjects…I’ve never seen him lose his cool.”

Once he started working at the NFB, he became exposed to a myriad of filmmakers and craftspeople, learning by watching, interacting and having vital roles to play in marketing, budgeting, development, production and post. He happily remembers that his time at the NFB exposed him to some of the best and brightest in the Canadian film industry at virtually every level. Basmajian clearly recalls the extremely inclusive early-’90s atmosphere in the Ontario studio and cites how Barreveld held a spot around numerous decision tables where he was always solicited for his feedback–not just on practical matters, but also on a creative level. He was a terrific unit administrator on Peter Lynch’s classic Project Grizzly, and Basmajian asserts that this high point during his NFB years led to Barreveld’s co-producing Lynch’s Whale of a Tale years later, after he had transitioned to independence with Storyline.

Barreveld used his time within the NFB’s studio system to soak up what Basmajian terms as the Board’s “core values” towards his eventual goal of producing documentaries with an independent spirit. Basmajian adds one salient detail regarding Barreveld’s attributes as both administrator and producer: “Ed always smoothed things over in desperate situations. When potential darkness and disaster appeared to loom heaviest, he was the one to make everyone believe they could get through anything by pulling out his secret weapon, his absolutely delicious sense of humour.”

For some, the idea of the seemingly straight-laced Barreveld as a cut-up of the highest order might seem bizarre. Min Sook Lee recalls initially thinking Barreveld was “stuffy and uptight” until an NFB staffer assured her: “Oh no! He’s just Dutch.” And indeed, he’s Dutch and funny–the latter sneaking up on you when you least expect it. Barreveld dryly admits, “As the studio administrator I was doing all this paperwork to issue advances and expense claim reimbursements for people going away to these exotic places and all of a sudden, I’m like, ‘Wait a minute! I enjoy travelling, too!’”

Daniel Pellerin, Canada’s ace post-production sound guru, mixed numerous NFB productions (including Project Grizzly) while Barreveld was the Ontario studio administrator. In all those years, they only knew of each other by reputation. When Pellerin was launching a freelance career after 25 years of working his magic in-house at several sound studios, he recalls paying an unannounced visit to the NFB in Barreveld’s final days prior to the launch of Storyline.

“As it turned out,” said Pellerin, “Ed was in his office.” Pellerin popped his head through the open door to say hello and introduce himself. At the time, Barreveld was collaborating with Michael Kot and immediately committed to bringing Pellerin on board what became one of Storyline’s earliest projects. Pellerin and Barreveld have enjoyed a fruitful creative relationship ever since–including The World Before Her and Herman’s House. Barreveld is proud of the fact that many of the great creative craftspeople he either met personally or had approved to work on NFB productions are, like Pellerin, talents he was able to develop closer working relationships with throughout Storyline’s history.

From his side of the equation, Pellerin notes that “Ed enjoys and respects all those he collaborates with and completely trusts those he hires in their capacity as an artist within their craft.” Lee echoes these sentiments about Barreveld’s openness and defines him in terms of “absolute trust,” which, of course, must slice both ways to yield the best fruit of everyone’s labours. Trust in both art and commerce—real trust—often begins with a handshake, and Lee recalls how she and Barreveld literally and “simply shook hands on our first ‘contract’ and our working relationship has been honoured by that handshake over the course of making four docs together in eight years. His commitment to the film and the filmmaker is total.”

Everything ultimately flows from the top and an atmosphere of caring is, in a sense, an absolute demonstration of true power. Given the compassion Storyline films are imbued with, it’s no surprise that Barreveld commands such respect from those he’s closest to on the front lines of making humanist documentary cinema.

As a producer, Barreveld’s chief belief is firmly and simply rooted in the power of his trinity: “I have to like the director, I have to like the story or subject matter and I have to believe the film will work in the marketplace.”

I first met Barreveld in the ’90s when he was at the NFB and I was involved there in an especially challenging co-production. Barreveld held the purse strings and vetted every element of a film’s production. Many administrators in similar positions within the context of other government agencies fit the term “petty bureaucrat” like a glove. Not Ed. He made it his priority to do whatever he had to do to make the lives of the filmmakers at the NFB smooth as silk so they could do what they had to do—create cinema. His answer to everything was: “Hmmm, let me see what I can do.” And DO, he did. (And still, he managed to get those administrative T’s crossed and I’s dotted.)

Now, he’s on the other side of that desk and has been for some time. As far as I’m concerned, payback is required—not just for Barreveld’s sake, but also for that of our industry and the future of documentary production in Canada.

If a guy like Ed Barreveld is the captain aboard a sinking ship, we’re all in trouble.

Cornelia Principe sums up his virtues this way: “It’s all about having good taste,” she asserts, “and a good producer has good taste.”

I agree. If we’re being sucked down into the depths, it’s better to go down with that ship, any day.

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