ARISE, ARISE, O ye great-grandchildren of Grierson, Brittain, and Perrault. THE DOCUMENTARY, the only original Canadian art form that means anything to the rest of the world, is in peril. We’re on the CanDoc deathwatch. The intravenous machines are being unplugged. Its whole life flashes before its Nanookian eyes.
Why? I can only offer a personal view, based on watching a hundred-odd Canadian documentaries and fact-based television shows this year, and on recent comparative travels to the doculands of India, South America, Africa and Europe.
The Prognosis: The CanDoc is belaboured, un-imagined, predictable, stillborn and over-narrated. At best it is good medicine rather than ecstatic drug. The form is determined by public-channel Commissioning Editors bound by myths of news, current affairs and journalism. Commercial ’casters don’t give two beaver pelts about anything. They live in an ethical vacuum, working to better the bottom line for their mother Corps, filling the earth with toxic dox, virtual poison for young minds. Serial documentary and cereal documentary. Time-fillers between advertising blips.
Our pointed view dreams have been kidnapped, transmuted and transformed. Those filmmakers who do not compromise, or who take on impossibly subjective subjects, or are not in the insiders circle of testosterone core companies, are seen as expendable, cantankerous, too risky or too obscure to be funded.
Canadian content is not content. It falters at the feet of our southern icon-generator in Hollywood and New York. Worshipping ego, infamy, money and pride, gossip becomes the major form of currency. Film and TV that actually means something to Canadians, that can express our complex identities, is increasingly left off the grid.
Instead we commission Commissions and studies of Studies to make the paper-crats in India or Sweden jealous. Our systemic inaction leads to individual inaction. Like cyclical seasons of fishing, the doc-maker relies on the cultural incentives of a welfare state bound by fiscal years. Surviving from hand to mouth, mostly between jobs, the average doc-maker either spends years making the films she or he needs to make, or lives off the alms from patronizing patrons, and crumbs from gatekeepers who want to keep it all clean and sanitized and in control.
On a formal level, the tele-doc, which represents 90 percent of the output, is referred to as product, like rare frozen cod fish on a Nova Scotia production line. Aesthetics are subservient to content or message. Documentaries must now be researched in five days, shot in five days and edited in five days.
The Canadian documentary is getting left behind in the dust. Although I discern the same crisis in documentary in England, France and the US, fresh, new tendencies are seen dancing in the documentary cinema of Latin America, China, Africa, India and the Post-Soviet neo-euro States. And renewed views in Finland and Germany.
The Recommendations: Only a few of these ideas need to emerge. All are up for debate:
1. No culture-crat can have anything to do with documentary policy making or funding without having first made a documentary using the same ridiculous eternal infernal Dante’s hell guidelines they would have us practice.
2. Every commissioning editor can only hold their job, like the President of the United States, for four years. They must come from, and return to, the industry or documentary world. They must have made a film before they get the job.
3. All filmmakers must throw away all pretension, and obnoxious personal diuretic drivel and work at least six months a year to alleviate the suffering in this world.
4. Everyone, filmmakers, broadcasters and their funders, before they do another thing, must watch the 100 top documentary films ever made. Half of them will be Canadian. Watch the canon before turning the cannons loose.
5. Use of tripods is compulsory.
6. Television money does not have to trigger funding. An equal number of non-television and television docs have to be produced each year.
7. The Filmmaker is supreme. Not producers, not broadcasters. The Filmmaker.
8. All decision-making bodies must be peer-juried and accurately represent the diverse nature of Canada.
9. There will be a moratorium on the support for big budget fiction film and inane television series, which contribute nothing but empty space to the creative dialogue that is Canada.
10. All the hundreds of millions of dollars wasted each year on fiction will go into socially useful documentary art, next media and television, into emerging voices and into rebuilding the cultural infrastructure. The other half of the money saved can go into education, health and international development.
11. Anything done before should not be done again. The Promise: CanDocs will survive. The documentary heartbeat is regaining strength in the schools, in the new forms of digidoc production, in emerging work from our diverse cultures, in reinvigorated video collectives. It’s up to all of us to create a new image of the docu-nation.