Encounter the Rencontres

29 mins read

THE RENCONTRES INTERNATIONALES DU DOCUMENTAIRES DE MONTREAL (RIDM) may have the longest and most tongue-twisting name in Canadian festival history. I should know. I used to host a Montreal radio show and I would cross my fingers every time I had to say that 17-syllable title. Definitely not as snappy as Hot Docs, but then a former philosophy professor from France created RIDM. And how many other Canadian film events can make the claim to fame that one of their founders is Vice Regal Consort?

On Aug 4, the day I planned to begin working on this article, I opened my morning paper to learn that Michaëlle Jean had been named the next Governor General of Canada, and as a result, researching this story suddenly got a lot more complicated. What’s the connection? Michaëlle Jean is married to Jean-Daniel Lafond, the founder and past president of RIDM.

Over the following days and weeks, the initial brouhaha over Lafond’s political affiliations grew into a major federal dust-up, and I found myself on bended knee, pleading with press secretaries to set up an interview with the Vice Regal Consort designate. I certainly couldn’t write about the Rencontres without talking to its founding president.

Jean-Daniel Lafond, age 61, is originally from France where he was a philosophy professor and writer. He arrived in Quebec in 1974, and eventually began making documentary films. “I didn’t know I was going into film-making. I made one film. And I thought that was the end of it…(But) there was that one film I wanted to make, then another, then another, then another. And if that’s what being a filmmaker is, then I’m a filmmaker. But my ambition was never to make films.” That first film, about Pierre Perrault, poet, filmmaker, and champion of Quebec’s rural history, traditions and people, was nominated for a Genie award in 1987. “I made Les traces du rêve without any money, in a dim corridor of the National Film Board…No one was interested in this film. I didn’t realize that I was taking on a person who no one wanted to hear about any more, who was no longer fashionable, and yet people became almost jealous of me when I actually made the film.”

He followed with other documentaries, several of them award-winning, all dealing with the question of culture and identity including Tropique nord (1994) about being black in Quebec (which features Michaëlle Jean) and La Liberté en colère (1994) in which, 30 years after the fact, former members of the FLQ (Front de Libération du Québec) talk about their revolutionary aspirations. Lafond made films on Haiti (Haiti dans tous mes rêves won best political film award at Hot Docs in 1996), on Iran, and on Quebecois cultural personalities. His most recent, Le cabinet du Dr Ferron, which won a Gemini in 2004, is about the doctor, writer, and founder of the Rhinoceros Party Jacques Ferron.

In creating RIDM, Lafond claims he was simply channeling energy that already existed. In the early ’90s, documentary filmmakers were holding events showing their films to other documentarians which he describes as “family affairs.” “We were a closed group. We needed to break it up because that kind of solidarity, where you are both the players and the spectators, can’t last; it wears thin.” At that time Jean-Daniel Lafond belonged to a group of filmmakers engaged in battle with broadcasters and film-funding agencies to gain recognition for the documentary cause. As he puts it, “…to defend a creative movement essential in a democratic society, to raise the profile of documentary film, to open up to the public and prove that there is an audience for documentary film, that it meets a need for the public and for society, that there is a desire to liberate speech and vision.”

These filmmakers formed Urgence documentaire, an ad hoc lobby group that included Lafond, Michel Moreau, Richard Elson, Erica Pomerance (yes, we’re related), Janine Gagné, Sophie Bissonnette, Sylvie van Brabant and last, but not least, Yvan Patry, all representatives of film groups and professional associations in Quebec. In their campaign to secure increased funding for point-of-view documentary, and television slots to feature those films, they went to Radio-Canada and lobbied, unsuccessfully, for a high-profile program like the CBC’s Witness. They developed a scheme for a 10-part anthology documentary series to run on both Radio-Canada and CBC, dealing with issues of identity that would appeal to a Canadian public. Radio-Canada responded that most of the documentary projects they received were “nombriliste” (navel- gazing), and not prime-time material. The national broadcaster, côté français, made it clear it was looking for commercial sponsors and ratings, not sensitive, issue- oriented films.

The filmmakers came away frustrated, and out of their frustration came the Rencontres. Jean-Daniel Lafond and Yvan Patry (who has since died) decided there was a need for an event where people could come out to watch the very best in documentaries, which one never saw on television, and to debate issues surrounding those films. The Rencontres was born as a collective effort with high ideals. “I have a few basic values. Freedom of speech, creative freedom, respect for the works of the authors, tolerance of different ideas, openness to others irrespective of colour or nationality. The Rencontres is all that,” explains Lafond.

It was a lofty vision that scraped by on a shoe-string budget. In those first years almost everything was done on a voluntary basis, including programming films. A committee of volunteers screened the documentaries and rated them using a point system, deciding as a group what would get shown or not. In the first year, director Albanie Morin was the only salaried employee.

From the beginning, RIDM was meant to be more than a festival, hence the name. Rencontres means “encounters.” Lafond admits that people didn’t find the name particularly “…refined or sexy. Nevertheless, for me, the fact that there were encounters among filmmakers, with films, with the public, young and not so young…I was interested in the festive aspect of it—it became more and more convivial. At first we said, ‘Well, documentary film has to be serious, deep, and gloomy.’ But no, the Rencontres became something we looked forward to, that was fun, made us feel good, and gave us the energy to keep going.”

There may have been a party atmosphere but the content of many of the films and the events they inspired was often sobering; debates were scheduled bearing titles such as “Justice: Vengeance or the quest for truth,” “Images, Ethics and Repercussions,” “Stolen Childhood: Violence, Poverty and War,” “Between two lenses: SQUAT! and the Activist Documentary,” “Journalists and documentary filmmakers: The same battles?” There were panels on Africa and South America, forums on funding, distribution, documentaries at the box office, how to reach new audiences, and tributes to great documentary filmmakers. In 2001, the RIDM paid homage to the late Canadian filmmaker Frank Cole whose filmic face-off with death involved a 7,100 kilometer trek across the Sahara desert; in 2003, it was to British filmmaker Kim Longinotto who works with all-female crews to portray strong women on screen; and French war photographer and filmmaker Patrice Chauvel who has had countless close shaves with death in the line of duty. And there were master classes and workshops on the filmmaking craft: documentary and lightweight technology, high-definition production, the documentary novel, and more. The Carte blanche events gave eminent programmers from other festivals the opportunity to select and screen films on a chosen theme.

To defray costs, foreign consulates sometimes paid the way for filmmakers from abroad, and in true volunteer spirit, local filmmakers billeted artists who’d come to show their films or take part in a debate. Over the years, the number of screenings increased, the festival’s profile grew and press coverage got better and better. But funding didn’t necessarily follow. In 2001, the Rencontres came to a crisis. There were concerns about the director, Albanie Morin, and her role as principal fundraiser. The feeling was that the festival was getting too big and going too fast for her style of leadership. Some members of the board of directors were close friends of hers and it was a painful time for them. In the end there was a parting of the ways. Marie-Anne Raulet, a member of the board and active on the programming committee, came on staff as director, taking charge of administration, hiring, fund-raising and managing relationships with broadcasters and funding agencies.

The festival was still being programmed in an ad hoc way. Jocelyn Clark was paid a small honorarium for the job, while continuing to make her own films. In 2003, the position of programmer was officially created when Bernard Boulad was brought on board, at first co-programming with Jocelyn, then taking on the task full-time. Jean-Daniel Lafond looks back on those first years of creating and running the Rencontres: “The first year we had 4,000 spectators; people we’d never seen before joined us for the debates, people much younger than us. Over the eight years (of RIDM’s existence) we’ve gone beyond the 10,000-spectator mark. Not too bad for a genre that is cursed, boring, uninteresting and old hat! We had to dust off a few cobwebs. Now documentary film has re-established its pedigree, and the television channels have to fill all those slots in their schedules…But the fight isn’t over yet. We’ve kept the Rencontres going by the sweat of our brows. And we haven’t reached documentary nirvana yet, far from it!”

Jean-Daniel Lafond passed the torch to a new president, Philippe Baylaucq, in 2005. He says eight years in the job was long enough, and he had no intention of becoming the “Papa Doc” of documentary film. He’s chosen to move on now, when things are going well at the Rencontres. “The highlights for me were the 6th and 7th editions. They measured up to the dream I had…the program presented the values I was talking about—the moral tone, the ethics of tolerance, openness, freedom of speech. The debates were extraordinary and there was the fun and festive aspect of it.” Ever the philosopher, he quotes Nietzsche: “‘Thinking begins early in the morning, but it must be joyous.’ I wanted an event that was generous and not full of resentment, because in this business there’s a lot of bitterness—people who say ‘I can’t make the films I want to make.’ …During the 6th and 7th editions there were no more traces of bitterness. It was very joyous. The people on the team seemed happy to have put out all that energy…And there were all those volunteers, young people from all over…who weren’t paid a penny…who came for the intellectual fireworks. It was wonderful.”

What’s next for the philosopher- filmmaker now that the Rencontres has moved into its next phase and he’s moved into Rideau Hall? Lafond says that he’ll keep on making films. “That’s my profession. It’s the only way I can earn my living. I don’t have a salary. I’m the Governor General’s husband, but that’s not a job.” What he intends to do in his new position in Ottawa is be himself, not change his discourse, and maintain his freedom to think and create. (Now there’s an idea for a documentary: follow the militant, point-of-view filmmaker, now Vice Regal Consort, as he accompanies the Governor General, making official appearances and entertaining dignitaries!)

The Rencontres’ new president, Philippe Baylaucq, grew up bilingual in Montreal, with an English-Canadian mother and a French father. His training in the fine arts prior to going into filmmaking is obvious from his films. He’s made documentaries about the painters Marcel Baril and André Bieler (his grandfather), and films on dance. Lodela (1996), an awe-inspiring, lyrical exploration in black and white of the human body in motion and in space—he calls it experimental dance fiction—won 11 international awards.

Philippe Baylaucq has had held several positions in film organizations over the years, including the presidency of the Association des réalisateurs et réalisatrices du Québec (ARRQ) from 1996-2000, with Jean-Daniel Lafond as vice-president. He claims to enjoy these leadership positions because, as a filmmaker, one spends a lot of time alone and this is a way to work with people and keep in touch with what’s going on in documentary film.

But his interest in the Rencontres also connects with his own introduction to film, in high school and college. “At the Cegep (college) level, I had an art teacher named Barrie McLean who was once a filmmaker at the Film Board…(He) would show us films and documentaries. That was my first realization of just how much documentary is a form of traveling, a form of opening up your mind to what the globe is, the global community, and what the league of nations and cultures is all about…The more young people I see at the festival, the happier I am.”

Philippe Baylaucq has great admiration for what Jean-Daniel Lafond and his colleagues accomplished in keeping the Rencontres afloat for seven years. “It’s enormous. You know what the scene is like with the festivals in MontreaI. It’s a bit of a panier de crabes as we say in French (meaning ‘they’re always at each other’s throats’). (At RIDM) there were two issues: how do you justify the creation of the festival in the first place? How do you position the festival vis-à-vis Hot Docs? (And you have to understand that several of the people that were there at the onset of Hot Docs were there at onset of RIDM). The issue there was to begin to exist, to continue to exist in the short term—three, four years and then put out a signal that we’re here to stay. Those are the three stages that you do in the first seven-year run, and that requires being extremely creative and resourceful…And it’s not easy because the funding sources change, you’re not always working with the same people because you can’t always pay them as much as you’d like to, so they go to other places…It’s really a juggling act.”

This juggling act requires a lot of sacrifice on the part of the people involved, as well as some “imaginative resource managing,” as Philippe Baylaucq puts it. But now he intends to solidify the structure and put more reliable financing in place. “We have to get major sponsors and constant government funding so that the internal structures of the organization are not constantly reinvented each year. That’s the poutine (meaning ‘the bread and butter of it’).”

Currently RIDM’s budget is $465,000, which Baylaucq says doesn’t compare to a festival like Hot Docs. “There isn’t a rivalry. If anything I’d like for us…to work together in a complementary fashion…Hot Docs has got a base for corporate sponsorship that is far more developed than ours and that’s to do, to a certain extent, with the fundamental difference between Montreal and Toronto…The reality is that the culture of supporting events here doesn’t necessarily follow. The economic powerhouse is in Toronto…Philanthropy in Quebec is growing but it’s never growing fast enough…Artistic events like ours are mushrooming far faster than the money can be found to make them grow faster…But the issue of private funding the way they have it in Toronto, at this point it’s still two worlds, alas.

Of course, he admits, corporations tend to shy away from funding an event that screens blatantly militant, point-of- view movies—though the Rencontres does shows other kinds of films too: what Baylaucq calls, “…more poetic, lifestyle documentaries.” In any case he’s not planning to make any radical changes in the programming choices at RIDM. “The vocation remains somewhat the same, programming so that we’re showing films we’d like to be able to see on TV but we don’t often get the chance to…That we’d like to see on the big screen but for all kinds of reasons that doesn’t happen very much anymore…(screening) films that answer to a thirst within the population which wants to get solid information about things, and is getting less and less on TV, certainly in public broadcasting…
“There is editorial policy at the national broadcaster level that there are always two sides to a story, and I think people get weary of that…The thing about a (point-of-view) documentary: it will broach a subject, explore it in depth, and sign the perspective. You can agree with it or you can disagree with it, but at least it means that perspective has been thoroughly investigated…The author has given her- or himself the time to really research the subject, to do the travelling, to do the paperwork, and to give it a form…and that’s where you get closer to the difference between reportage and art…Art takes time, art is about layers; I think that author-driven films are about throwing the net quite wide…The average viewer is really underestimated; I think people are much smarter than television programmers think they are. They need those kinds of vitamins that you get in a film that’s been done over two, three, four, sometimes six, years.”

According to Baylaucq, Télé-Québec, whose funding and mandate is constantly in jeopardy and seems to shift from season to season, has still managed to “…always come through. They’ve been constant in their support of documentary, and clearer in their policy vis-à-vis author-driven documentary and, as a result, their support of our festival is in line with their general production policy. Radio-Canada supports our festival but— and you can quote me on this—we’re still searching for their editorial position on author-driven documentary and we’ve been searching for it for many years…There’s this whole issue…vis-à-vis author-driven documentary versus in- depth reportage, where do you draw the line?” And that’s after seven editions of the Rencontres and years of lobbying the broadcasters. No wonder the new president sounds as skeptical as the out- going one.

With three major festivals vying for films and audiences—The World Film Festival, the New Montreal Film Fest, (a recent and ambitious arrival) and the Festival du nouveau cinéma et des nouveaux médias de Montréal (FCMM)— the big issue for RIDM is how to stay afloat and competitive. It has alliances with Les Rendez-vous du cinema québecois (an event devoted solely to films made in Quebec) and with Hot Docs in Toronto, but the FCMM in particular has courted documentaries away from the Rencontres. Regarding this competitive atmosphere Philippe Baylaucq says, “We obviously have to do some hop-scotching to make sure we aren’t affected…we’ve got to make the right moves, I think…In broad terms, co-existence is possible…”

And he points out RIDM’s one big advantage: “Documentary filmmakers may choose to have a highlighted film in a festival that is dedicated to documentary…versus being a low-key event in a large-scale mixed festival. We bank a lot on that. The other thing that we bank on is the fact that when we invite our documentary filmmakers, we combine their presence with workshops…with master classes and issues connected to their film. We bring in the community or a group that would have things to say on the subjects and issues brought up in their film. So there’s a much more interactive set of activities and that’s really what makes us distinct— that’s a loaded word in Canada!—that’s what makes us different, distinctive!”

Since its inception, the Rencontres has been more than a film festival; it’s also been a central command for lobbying and debating issues in documentary film. The Rencontres has commissioned studies, a quantitative one in 2000 to prove the viability of documentary film, that it creates jobs and pulls in audiences; and a qualitative one in 2002 to examine the content of documentary film and exactly who was showing what. They brought broadcasters, funders and producers to the table to discuss the results of the study and convened filmmakers from across the country who raised questions on issues of funding and visibility for documentary film. Partly because of those efforts, a fund for feature documentary now exists at Telefilm Canada. Another product of those endeavours is L’Observatoire canadien du documentaire (the Documentary Research Network) of which Jean-Daniel Lafond is also a co-founder and past president and which has become, with DOC, a central hub for reflection, discussion, and lobbying for documentary film. That gives the Rencontres the freedom to concentrate on bringing together issue- oriented, experimental, point-of-view documentaries, the filmmakers, and their audience. And of course, to take on new challenges.

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