On the DOC Road

40 mins read

“… with the coming of (DOC) began the part of my life you could call my life on the road.”
[ a slight re-wording of Jack Kerouac’s opening lines in his Beat generation classic On The Road ]

DOC, the Documentary Organization of Canada, is enjoying its silver anniversary as a non-profit National Arts Service Organization this year. Born in 1983 as the Canadian Independent Film Caucus (CIFC), DOC is the collective voice of independent and professional media-makers across Canada. It has grown from a handful of concerned filmmakers in Toronto and Montreal into an association with almost 800 working directors, producers, and supporters in eight chapters across Canada. That’s quite a feat, surely worthy of celebration. DOC is not a union but an informal professional arts guild, working in concert with other trade organizations, government and non-government entities, and the private sector—and it is performing a yeoman’s task, quite successfully.

This piece is written in the spirit of Jack Kerouac’s seminal beat novel, ON THE ROAD, which recently celebrated its own gold (50th) anniversary.

Let’s just say my name is Sal “Peter” Paradise. I make non-fiction. I am in St. John’s to teach a workshop. This morning there are queen-sized icebergs in the harbour. They represent the pitfalls and the pratfalls of trying to make creative documentary in this country. I am here to help the film folks form into a little cell of DOC. I come up from Water Street, up those jezusbegotten rotten stairs, up to the Ship Inn, to meet Barbara “Camille” Doran, la doyenne originale of the documentary form in these parts. She’s made films about women who kill their abusive partners, docs about Lucy Maud Montgomery and a giant series about the founding of the Rock. Doran is part of a great community of makers here: the Jones clan, Nigel Markham. They’ve all contributed greatly to the coming of the doc to the Rock.

While I wait for them, my mind starts a-wanderin’. I am on assignment to write about the 25th birthday of DOC. I wanna talk to doc people about how it was and how it is and how it will be. We can take notes and drive across this precious Tom Thompson painting called Canada. We can figure out why documentary is the only original artform ever produced by this country.

We’ll drive along all 8030 kilometres of the “Trans-Can” or “T-Can”, or “la Transcanadienne”—whatever you like to call it wherever you live. You know, eh, the history of the T-Can itself is just like making a documentary in this country. Although the System was approved by an Act of Parliament in 1948, construction only started two years later, and it was still in post-production until 1971. Just like most of my films.

Flash cut to the next morning. As red dawn fuelled our delirium, we jumped into my 1983 Plymouth Valiant, you know it, beautiful turquoise, the one with a slant 6 under the hood. We set out from the Mile One Centre and head clear out across this country called Canada. Down Highway Number One. We doodle up to Gros Morne National Park where we burn a sacrificial offering, a photo of John Grierson in a meadow once inhabited a thousand years ago by Vikings, the original documentary filmmakers. Then it’s 352 klicks to Stephenville to make the Marine Atlantic ferry at Port Aux Basques.

The ferry docks at North Sydney on Cape Breton Island. We deke over to see Neal Livingston, one of the founders of the DOC chapter in Atlantic Canada. Neal is the ultimate model of the independent. From his handmade house in an isolated valley at Black River, he is totally web-connected to the world, running his pro- duction studio. To make ends meet, he also has a maple syrup farm and a low-power energy company investing in hydro and wind. Neal has been making ecological films way before it was logical to do so.

Neal takes me over to Mabou Mines to visit our documentary mentor, the octogenarian Robert Frank, the world’s most important documentary photographer. Swiss born, and sharing time in Cape Breton and New York, Frank’s 1958 photobook, The Americans, has critically influenced our modern documentary age. Robert started making personal doc films in the late 1950s. If you exclude his infamous C***sucker Blues with the early Rolling Stones, Pull my Daisy is Robert’s most famous film. It was narrated by his good friend Jack Kerouac, who was born Jean-Louis Lebris de Kerouac to parents from St.Hubert, Quebec. His master- piece, On the Road, became the defining work of a Beat Generation inspired by jazz, poetry, and drugs.

The next day, we jump into the Valiant again. We are skirting Nova Scotia, leaving behind Halifax and the fifty foot tides of the Bay of Fundy behind.

On the Nova Scotia border, at Sackville, we channel Chuck Lapp, the founding chair of the Atlantic Chapter of the CIFC. For Chuck, the collective and national nature of the organization “was a great boost for people who felt isolated in their own world.” He believes that “documentary film is the exposition of the ideas and social conditions of society…DOC’S main achievement has been to create a national voice for documentary filmmakers.” Though he’s proud of the organization’s accomplishments, Chuck feels that “we need to be a more powerful influence in an industry dominated by those who make the money from our work, the broadcasters, who can draw advertising revenue and subscription fees that are beyond our reach.”

Since its formation in 1995, DOC’s Atlantic Chapter has experienced sustained growth, and not only because of the quality of the DOC parties they throw at the Atlantic Film Festival. Like many long time DOC veterans, Chuck is a keeper of the flame of DOCCIFC history, an important aspect of building an essentially volunteer organization. The preservation of institutional memory ensures that new members joining the organization can be made aware of its roots, its victories, and its struggles.

We drive 532 kilometres across New Brunswick and then on to the Quebec border. Up the river, Montreal is home to one of the great streams of documentary tradition in this country, Quebec, Canada.

In the early 1980s, a handful of Montreal’s independent docmakers started gathering at Irene Angelico’s home office, in what was to become the seed group for the CIFC’s Quebec Chapter. In those days the issue of concern was what role the National Film Board would play with the growing independent film community. Over the years, the Quebec Chapter handful has grown into more than 100 mostly bilingual members. Montreal’s DOC membership have long been involved in the creation of some of Quebec’s other like-minded documentary and film organizations: the Observatoire; RIDM, the international docfest which is a French language analogue to Toronto’s Hot Docs; and various groups and unions. From the very beginning people like Dorothy Henault, Erica Pomeranz, Malcolm Guy, Martin Duckworth, Yanick Letourneau and Kirwan Cox have been instru- mental in creating and sustaining the organization in Quebec. For someone like George Hargrave: “people recognized the value of having a representative organ- ization, and that it made us bigger and stronger.”

It isn’t possible to tell the history of how DOC became a truly national and representative group without mentioning difficulties. In the early 1980s, two more or less autonomous groups had formed in Toronto and Montreal. And while the Toronto clan had created the initiative, the “problem” of Canada remained: the question of how to best represent diversity in a unified, federalist, system. These questions had to be resolved to grow the organization into a national one. Beyond the question of bilingualism, the Montreal group discussed how to reconcile national and regional issues, what kind of emphasis to place on lobbying and policy formation, and also how power sharing can be accomplished in such a diverse and geographically wide-spread country. Thankfully, there were many CIFC members who made the trip up and down the MacDonald-Cartier Freeway, Highway 401, to facilitate dialogue, and forge a common identity. In the end, it was the shared defense of creative, point-of-view or auteur documentary, which resolved the issues. It was recognized that there was force in unity. And seven years after the formation of the CIFC in Toronto, on September 13, 1990, at a meeting on King Street, the actual articles of ‘DOConfederation’ were signed for the National CIFC. I was the so-called secretary. “Champagne, anyone?”

At La Cabane, a bar on Montreal’s Main street, Boulevard St. Laurent, I meet Daniel Cross, the producer and director at EyeSteelFilm. I ask him what his greatest accomplishments have been over his years as a DOC member. Instead of citing the tremendous theatrical and festival success of Up the Yangtze, the Yung Chang feature doc EyeSteel co-produced with the NFB, he tells me that it was: “establishing and operating a kind of YouTube for the disadvantaged, HomelessNation.org and self-distributing a film I made with Roach, Squeegee Punks in Traffic, and the activism around that film.” Daniel thinks “documentary is the National Cinema of English Canada—not drama.” Having said that, he thinks documentary has influenced our culture. “This is why Canadians have a reputation of being fair, balanced, good listeners, peace makers, mediators … all of this is somewhat influenced by our National Cinema of Documentary.”

For Daniel: “One of the main accomplishments of DOC was helping to preserve and reverse cutbacks to The Canadian Independent Film and Video Fund. The ensuing momentum helped influence the creation of doc strands like Witness on the CBC.”

“Reviewing what is on the CBC these days,” he adds, “Perhaps it is actually high time for another DOC call to arms. As for the future: I personally have been working with DOC to get Telefilm to open up the Canadian Feature Film Fund to support Documentary Cinema. Today, all documentary production models in Canada are built around TV, which is so formatted. This is not cinema. So, in actuality, our National Cinema is in decline. To get this done we have to have better distribution of Docs in cinemas. We were forced to self-distribute Up The Yangtze because NO distributor initially felt it was worth their while. In the end, Robin Smith of Kino Smith helped us self-distribute—they were immensely helpful. Perhaps we can build something to more regularly present Canadian Docs in theaters. But despite all this, let’s keep in mind that the video camera is the electric guitar of the new millennium, therefore the potential is limitless.”

Montreal is also the base of the erudite Tom Perlmutter, Film Commissioner and head of the National Film Board of Canada. Tom is someone who emerged from CIFCDOC and documentary culture as a producer in Toronto. When I asked what he thought were DOC’s main accomplishments, he cited several: “Foremost: Survival—no mean feat given a group that was formed and, at its heart, lobbies and promotes non-industrial documentary filmmaking. This means it has existed in the margins (where, in fact, the best artists often are) of mainstream industry. Secondly: most memorably, DOC puts auteur documentary front and centre in all reflections on the industry whether from broadcasters, regulators, funders or industry groups. Its passionate advocacy has ensured that broadcasters created auteur strands and funders earmarked dollars.”

For Tom: “The industry is caught in the digital rev- olution. Whether we like it or not YouTube and Facebook have changed the nature of audiovisual world. What we haven’t fully seen is the new documentary artistic forms that are fully engaged with these kind of multi-faceted, interactive media.”

Leaving Montreal and scooting down the TCH 417 to the Nation’s Capital, we find ourselves in the headquarters of DOC’s newest chapter, Ottawa/Gatineau. Sheila Petzold and Jacques Menard hold the fort as DOC members there. Ottawa has been the scene-and-be-seen locus of more than 20 years of DOC lobbying, pushing forward its members’ ideas about how to make a more sustain- able, economically viable documentary culture in this country. Over the years, there has been constant lobbying against takeovers by media corporations, for new ideas for copyright while demanding due diligence on regulatory policy in appearances before the CRTC. It’s grinding work, because bureaucrats don’t always speak DOC’s language. But it is in these governmental trenches, that DOC wins respect for documentary, and for itself, as it forges its reputation as the one organization which can speak on behalf of a whole nation of docmakers.

We park illegally in the dean’s spot at the University of Ottawa, where we reach DOC supporter David Fewer, Staff Counsel of CIPPIC—the Samuelson-Glushko Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic. He’s a public interest lawyer who works to improve the legal environment in which documentary filmmakers create. David says: “I helped DOC publish a White Paper on copyright policy in 2006 and am helping DOC prepare a ‘Fair Dealing Best Practices’ Guide for Canadian doc- umentary filmmakers. My hope is that these efforts will improve the lot of Canadian documentary makers and make Canada a better place for creative people. In a world of sound bites and two minute YouTube clips, documentaries are one of the few art forms to continue to provide sustained and intelligent analysis of matters of importance to the public interest. Docs are more important today than they’ve ever been. Intellectual property laws are becoming increasingly hostile to downstream creators—those who build on the works of others. DOC needs to remain a voice of reason in debates over these laws, a reminder that intellectual property laws should serve creativity in its many forms, and not blindly pursue a protectionist agenda that polices rather than protects.”

Next morning, I take the Trans-Canada’s southern route, through Peterborough, and do a detour side-jog to Toronto, the spiritual home of DOC. It is worth noting that the actual Trans-Canada does not actually go through Toronto. Perhaps it’s time to lobby for a change so Toronto can join the rest of the country. Toronto has produced more than the lion’s share of great Canadian documentarians. (From Allan King to Ron Mann to Jennifer Baichwal.) A whole cast of DOC characters have built, nurtured, and sustained DOC’s Toronto Chapter and DOC’s National Office from its earliest days with only a dozen or so visionaries in 1983 through to the latest innovations gathered and pushed out today by DOC National’s Lisa Fitzgibbons, the current Executive Director.

The Toronto DOCadre, which now numbers 300 or more, has had many success stories. For one of the earliest founders, Rudy Buttignol: “one of the first successes was an intervention made in 1983 to Francis Fox, minister of Heritage, to have docs included in the new Telefilm Charter. That was the beginning of the broadcast fund, and galvanized the focus on independent documentaries and public policy. DOC forced a real public policy change right then and there and we were on the map.” Toronto also lobbied to get CBC to launch Witness, to support the docs that had received grants from the Ontario Film Development Corporation, and helped convince the provincial educational pubcaster, TVO, to create a doc series, The View From Here.

For John Walker, the role was to remind gatekeepers and others in a position of power exactly how much they had all benefited from the documentary form and were indebted to it as a national treasure. “The documentary tradition is a very wonderful foundation to have as a filmmaker … I saw it as an umbilical cord to the Canadian tradition that could not be cut.”

Another of DOC’s greatest accomplishments came through the singular achievements of Paul Jay (Never-Endum-Referendum; Hitman Hart; CounterSpin: The Real News). Despite original CIFC board opposition, Paul established what was then the organization’s annual documentary festival, Hot Docs, which has now grown, along with Amsterdam’s IDFA, into one of the two most important international docfests on the planet. For Jay: “Hot Docs was a priority, to have a place to raise the profile, not just of the Caucus, but of documentary filmmakers themselves, as well as to provide a place for us to connect to each other.

I remember the earliest incarnations of the Hot Docs Festival ensconced there in small meeting rooms which did double duty as screening rooms. The films were on VHS, shown on TVs propped up on chairs. It was a way of showing ourselves our own films. Thankfully, Hot Docs quickly internationalized and an extremely competent staff of arts managers and world-class programmers took up the leadership. Hot Docs is now an incredibly successful institution, although still with a small umbilical cord attachment to DOC.

Peter Raymont (Shake Hands with the Devil; A Promise to the Dead: The World is Watching) is one of the original founders of the CIFC: “The Caucus really sprang out of a community. Everyone was welcome to join. The more, the better; the more, the stronger; the stronger a lobbying force we would be.” For Raymont: “DOC must deal with establishing an industry norm ‘terms of trade.’

For the long term, DOC can help create a greater profile in the media and with the Canadian public. And it has to develop even closer relations and synchronicities with senior government policy makers, public and private sector broadcasting, film companies and distributors.”

With that in mind, I drive up to Bloor, near the Annex and have a chat with someone whose dedication to documentary I really admire, Michael McMahon, Executive Producer of Primitive Entertainment. Michael is the co-chair of DOC Toronto, a DOC National Board member and co-chair of Hot Docs Board of Directors. For Michael: “I think one of DOC’s biggest accomplishments has been the founding of Hot Docs, which is now a world class event drawing several thousand industry delegates and tens of thousands of moviegoers. A major issue that is still unresolved is an equitable terms of trade agreement with the broadcasting community, and this should be at the forefront of DOC’s advocacy work during the coming years.”

Later I connect with someone I see all over the world on the docroad from China to Australia, Anne Pick, a founding board member of DOC, co-chair for 6 years, and with 10 years of service on DOC Toronto Board. Anne is a woman for all seasons at her company Real to Reel Productions. For Anne, those in the documentary community or documentary world, “are like canaries in the coal mine. We are on the streets in the front-lines and therefore, are harbingers of change, both good and bad. Then we use our skills as storytellers, communicators and activists to engage our communities, audiences, country, the world—and agitate for change. How have we contributed to our culture? We are the messengers who tell the real stories behind the headlines, the rumours, the gossip, the disinformation. We pull back the curtain for the world to see how things really work. Without the collective efforts of the DOC organization, we would not have doc strands on television today. We made a strong case to free-to-air broadcasters way back when and continued the activism through the launch of cable and now digital channels to secure doc ‘territory’ and the independence of independents. In doing so we have helped to create a doc industry and a viable business/career model for passionate, crazy filmmakers.”

“One of DOC’s challenges is to gain respect from our peers in other arts-related organizations who, while working hard to protect their own members and turf, tend to kick us aside and want what we have … but we are tough and don’t kick aside that easily. Along the way I think DOC has also learned to throw a darn good party. As I travel around the world to various events and talk to other documentarians, they are envious of our tight knit community with members that support and share— apparently we are unique. I think that’s because we got into this to make a positive difference and not to be selfish. Perhaps we are also just nice, naive Canadians.”

I hear from a younger voice in the mix. Lalita Krishna is a producer at In Sync Video Productions. For Lalita: “The idea (of DOC) as one voice for a group of diverse opinionated, pompous filmmakers is in itself a contradiction. So, the fact that this organization has survived and grown in 25 years is a huge accomplishment. And the DOC Listserve (of daily online information to members) and the oversubscribed (professional develop- ment) programs are testimony to its need. DOC should be synonymous with Film and TV production in Canada. This is not the case. The organization needs to do a bet- ter job promoting itself to the outside world. We do a great job within and are a huge resource for our mem- bers. As for the documentary form, I have no doubt it will exist—but just not on the platforms we now know.”

Before I pack my bags for the next leg, I visit DOC’s head office on Spadina, and learn that they are adapting to meet the needs of members like Lalita. Its Listserve funnels out daily information. The newly developed online DOCspace, its Facebook-like social networking tool, is fast becoming a community builder. And the DOC National, DOC Toronto and DOCAGORA.org collective initiative DOCAGORA ONTARIO is helping to develop several crossmedia documentaries, using new tools, new forms, new ways of funding and new platforms for socially engaged documentary content.

We drive onto Winnipeg, where there are new DOC formations building on the work and legacy of the Video and Film Co-ops on the Prairies: the Cinematheques, the work of the Norma Baileys, the Guy Maddins. Then it’s on to Calgary. There’s a DOC chapter, which has grown over the years with people like the hardworking Ava Karvonen generously keeping the national organization on a clear track.

In my hotel room in Banff, where I imagine many doc deals and other dreams have been consummated, I connect by video Skype to one of DOC’s new wave docunauts, someone who represents the age to come for DOC. Brett Gaylor is a filmmaker and copyfighter, of unknown geographical provenance, who has been traveling the world making his soon to be released film, The Basement Tapes, about copyleft and copywrite, produced by EyeSteelFilm and the NFB. For him: “DOC’s most important work these days has been the drafting of a ‘Best Practices In Fair Dealing’ document that codifies the use of Fair Dealing under Canadian Copyright law.” But he challenges the organization to expand its vision: “DOC should be in public space and cyberspace. In Ottawa but also Los Angeles, Silicon Valley and Beijing. DOC should be spending at least as much time creating new business models as defending the right of dying ones to exist—attracting audiences around the world, not just here in Canada. DOC can be a proud thorn in the side of those who create bogus legislation, boring movies, and unjust societies.”

Still high from the skypeversation with Brett, the old Valiant and I climb to the highest point on the Trans-Canada, the Kicking Horse Pass on the border between Alberta and British Columbia, elevation 1643 metres. BC is home to some very brave and unusual documentary visions. People like Nettie Wild, Kirk Tougas, and Mark Achbar. It was Gary Marcuse and a few others who established the BC chapter of DOC. For Marcuse, a former national chair, the organization’s national scope “harnessed a lot of energy and created concrete results for the membership.”

A new West Coast arrival, Rudy Buttignol, formerly of TVO, now heads up BC’s Knowledge Network. Rudy was a prime mover of the CIFC’s formation when he was living in Ontario. He told POV: “A bunch of us—Peter Raymont, Barry Greenwald and some others—started getting together informally to talk about issues that were facing us. While we were having our monthly chats, the Canadian government announced that the vehicle for cultural policy was no longer going to be film, it was going to be television. They were going to turn the CFDC (Canadian Film Development Corporation) into Telefilm Canada, and focus on drama. That’s when we got the wake-up call: no children’s programming, no film, no documentary. We looked around the room and realized that we all make documentaries; they comprise an important area of our endeavors, and they’re going to leave us out. So let’s lobby! I remember one day saying, ‘Let’s call ourselves the Canadian Independent Film Caucus.’ I pulled out a three-ring binder, wrote the name down, and we all signed it. I said, ‘everybody give me $10,’ and that was the treasury. We were, suddenly, an independent documentary group, which worked with the public broadcasters and the NFB, but were autonomous of them. We insisted that independents had the right to hold on to their copyright and distribution, to have effective control, as opposed to being people for hire. At that time it was a contentious point for broad- casters and the film boards who’d been used to calling the shots. We came from nowhere, and I think we were an important part of what became the Canadian independent film industry.”

Perhaps one of the most exemplary and hard working contributors to DOC’s success over the years is a former dancer who became one of the country’s best producers. Betsy Carson, among other hats, works with Canada Wild Productions, Face to Face Media, and HR Brody. For Betsy, the main accomplishment of DOC over the last 25 years has been in: “being a voice for the filmmakers and producers who have very limited influence as individuals, but as a collective become stronger (and louder). We need to help our members get their voices heard within the overflow of information and disinformation in all media—to get our works out there via broadcast, internet delivery, phone delivery, iPod delivery and on and on. To do this we need to be heard at terms of trade negotiations, at CRTC hearings, at copyright consultations, at Canadian Television Fund hearings. We also need to share information with each other about alternative forms of funding so that we can continue to survive as documentary makers instead of formulistic broadcast sausage makers.”

As I load the 83 Valiant onto the ferry to Vancouver Island, I take a bit of time for reflection. There’s a lot to be learned from this 8000-kilometre trip.

I have been inspired by those of DOC’s generation D—as in Digital, the younger media citizens on the front lines of global, social, economic and ecological justice, and the next docmedia waves of enterprising, electric artists e-merging in the city-states of Canada They are the future. They help celebrate an unnamed spirit, which I will call the Art of Life, or the Life of Art. The Art of the Real. I identify with that. It’s the shared visions and voices of we, the reality makers, overcoming despair with our user-generated web dreams. We come together, face to interface by opposing, with passion, the colder winds of disembodied, corporate media and their bureaucratic stenographers. Over the 25 years of DOC, many artful acts of reel bravery have taken place. Documentary artists have provoked us and challenged our pre-conceived notions. Sometimes at great personal cost, they have created controversy. At the very least, they have stimulated us into thinking laterally, from other points of view. They have asked us to question our own relationships in, and with, this land we call Canada, and with the world.

Alas, as the ferry docks, I come down to reality and realize that I no longer have any money left, and my credit cards are maxed out. I can’t afford an electric car, and I can’t afford to drive, with the price of gas as it is, so I will be unable to visit all the other hamlets where docs are made and where new DOC members are being born. So finally, I drive to Victoria’s official western terminus of the Trans-Canada Highway.

As the sun sets, I pull out my well-worn paperback copy of Kerouac’s On the Road and read the last few lines: “….. when the sun goes down and I sit on the old broken-down river pier watching the long, long skies …. and sense all that raw land that rolls in one unbelievable bulge over to the West Coast, and all that road going, all the people dreaming in the immensity of it….”

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