Policy Matters: Greetings from Planet TIFF

Canada’s most prestigious international festival chose shockingly few Can-docs. Why?

6 mins read

T’is the season for the glamorous chaos of the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). The red carpets, adulation and juiced-up entertainment press are just some of the perks reserved for the very few, among whom are a handful of documentary filmmakers selected to premiere their work in the Real to Reel programme, which this year promises to captivate large audiences. Sarah Palin? Bring it on! Comic con fans? Line up! Jessica Yu (hark, a woman!), Morgan Spurlock and Alex Gibney have been invited, while the always juicy novelty of feature filmmakers like Cameron Crowe and Wim Wenders premiering docs will be head to head with long-standing masters like Frederick Wiseman.

Canadian films in the past had been well represented at TIFF. This year? Save for Surviving Progress and Léa Pool’s Pink Ribbons Inc., they will be shockingly hard to find. While announcements continue to be made about new additions, as of this writing the field is barren indeed of Canadian work. Now, one could be forgiven for believing there’s a secret deal at play: ‘You, TIFF, go after the international docs; we, Hot Docs, will take the Canadians in the spring.’ But Hot Docs’s executive director Chris McDonald firmly refutes this, telling POV, “There is certainly no such arrangement—secret or otherwise—over the showcasing of Canadian documentaries. Never was, never will be.”

So one is left to ponder what strange world we’re in as festivalgoers and filmmakers, where Canadians are essentially shut out, while the prolific output of Gibney and Spurlock constitute a “trend,” according to programmer Thom Powers, who told Realscreen that these guys “are really stepping on the gas,” with Gibney alone pulling a “hat trick” in 2011 with premieres at Sundance (The Magic Trip), Tribeca (Catching Hell), and now Toronto (The Last Gladiators).

Hat trick? Really? Let’s compare conditions: In Canada, the independent documentary is on life support, underfunded and all but abandoned by its traditional support systems. Meanwhile, Gibney, who has passed a threshold of success, now doesn’t need to spend a year or two going broke developing a story idea before his next film’s release. He’s likely got a crack team behind him who can. His much-deserved success, in America and internationally, has created conditions where he’s got carte blanche to explore stories and gain access very quickly. This is one way in which the ‘market’ of documentary success should indeed function, where success breeds success, to put it prosaically.

Spurlock is likely in a similar situation, as is Jessica Yu (whose documentary this year sounds very much like the underrated and gorgeous award-winning documentary Water on the Table from Canadian Liz Marshall). These folks have good relationships with broadcasters like HBO or distributors who can offer up healthy budgets and marketing savvy. Can’t imagine PBS, for instance, after a near 40-year relationship with Wiseman, turning the verité master’s ‘next project’ down.

Unfortunately, in Canada, we don’t have the distribution power to really push our docs into that competitive market place in features, nor do we have a longstanding culture of collaboration between filmmakers and broadcasters. Bravo!, for instance, is slated to give viewers more reality TV and less straight-up documentary; CBC is very loyal to anything royal, harbouring no great allegiance to filmmakers. TVOntario and BC Knowledge Network do nurture independent doc story-telling but their resources are puny.

It should be noted that all Canadian submissions to TIFF are screened by a Canadian committee—docs and all. If deemed TIFF worthy, docs then get funnelled to the Real to Reel or other programmes. It’s likely the doc programmer doesn’t get a chance to see the rejected Canadian work. It does beg the question whether a perfect storm has brewed, where a depleted pool of films has met a seemingly feeble commitment to the genre from Canadian programmers.

There will be a one-day documentary conference during TIFF, and one can only hope it will see challengers prepared to take on the idea of a trend in the context of this perfect storm. The success of three or four filmmakers does not a trend make, and if you think it does, you must ask for whom (a few guys), under what conditions (after Oscars and feature film successes) and where (the USA). There should be challengers prepared to shed light on another planet (Canada)—on whose terra ferma the whole shebang is hosted.

Barri Cohen is an award-winning producer, writer, and director. She co-produced Phyllis Ellis’ Toxic Beauty (2019) and is currently completing a feature documentary for the Documentary Channel.

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