Ontario: From Boom Town to Regent Park

Our doc history region by region

16 mins read

The title of a 2007 documentary says it all: Let’s All Hate Toronto. Ontario is a province that houses two formidable capitals, and while Ottawa officially represents the seat of Canadian political power, in a country whose population is spread wide and thin from coast to coast it is Toronto that is widely perceived as the epicentre of our collective industry, economy and popular culture—the biggest and most influential city in Canada, and, accordingly, the most widely despised as well.

Spiderman reminds us that with great power comes great responsibility, and Let’s All Hate Toronto takes those words to heart. The film is actually built around a superhero, “Mister Toronto,” a civic-pride avenger (played by co-director Rob Spence) who takes it upon himself to travel around Canada singing the praises of his hometown. As a piece of documentary filmmaking, Let’s All Hate Toronto is lightweight stuff, convening home-grown talking heads from Dan Aykroyd to the late Jack Layton to wax mildly theoretical on the reasons behind the enmity that has always been directed towards Hogtown since its inception. Yet looked at 10 years on, Let’s All Hate Toronto is also a fascinating time capsule of the period directly before the mayoralty of Rob Ford—a very different kind of “Mister Toronto”—punctured a hole through the local status quo and turned the entire metropolis into a flashpoint for a different sort of international curiosity.

It goes without saying that any summary of documentary cinema in Ontario is going to include a long list of films made in Toronto. It’s important to remember, however, that for a long time the city was more commonly used as subject matter than as a site of production. In 1939, John Grierson’s fledgling National Film Commission, quickly renamed the National Film Board of Canada (NFB), was based in Ottawa, meaning that Toronto filmmakers hoping for institutional support found themselves way too far away for lunch meetings.

Soon enough, though, the NFB became interested in the city. Leslie McFarland’s triumphalist short Toronto: Boom Town (1951) celebrates the forces helping to reshape a municipality previously revered for its piety—the “Toronto the Good” of yore—into an industrial hub to rival New York or Chicago. The image that comes through in Toronto: Boom Town is of a city and an artistic tradition in flux: McFarland’s hokey device of a staged encounter between two men—a local and an out-of-towner—debating the merits of Toronto’s expansion is just one instance of the film’s wobbly balance of cheerleading and tongue-in-cheek critique.

Toronto Boom TownLeslie McFarlaneprovided by the National Film Board of Canada

Grierson’s maxim that “art is not a mirror, it is a hammer” is reflected in Toronto: Boom Town’s focus on literal construction—of skyscrapers and subway lines—which in turn suggests an aggressively hands-on approach to constructing screen reality, which was a hallmark of early Film Board productions. When the NFB moved its headquarters to Montreal in the mid-1950s, it became a breeding ground for a new generation of directors like Claude Jutra and Michel Brault while Toronto filmmakers discovered that they would have to move to Quebec or work for CBC-TV.

The main Ontario analogue to the new Quebecois “direct cinema” was Allan King, who moved from Vancouver to Europe before settling in Toronto. He had worked for the CBC while living in B.C., Britain and Ibiza, so when King finally settled in Toronto in 1966, he was able to quickly establish himself as a key fixture of the city’s independent cinema. By setting up his own production office, King was able to practice documentary filmmaking on his own terms, and his battle with the CBC over the shocking, standards-and-practices-baiting Warrendale (1967) cinched his rebel-with-a-cause bona fides—an ethos he carried through the rest of his career. King deservedly became enshrined as the preeminent English-Canadian documentary filmmaker, but he didn’t ever let himself fade into mere respectability: his late masterwork EMPz 4 Life (2006), a record of Scarborough’s youth-gang subculture and police racial profiling tactics, shows his enduring commitment to unstinting social portraiture.

The major non-fiction Toronto films of the 1960s reflect a similarly anti-establishment bent. It should not be forgotten that Nobody Waved Good-bye (1964), the keynote Canadian production of the decade and a fixture on best-of-all-time polls, was originally conceived as a documentary about juvenile delinquency. Director Don Owen ran a bait-and-switch on his NFB producer, torquing the scenario into an angry-young-man drama (albeit one shot through with a documentary impulse). And then there was Mort Ransen’s wildly experimental Christopher’s Movie Matinee (1968), which concerns the efforts of a group of student radicals to create a documentary using the NFB’s resources—a gesture of intergenerational collaboration destined to end in glorious failure.
Essentially a case of inmates running the asylum, Christopher’s Movie Matinee is a ragged, unfocused hymn to youthful idealism and narcissism that also beautifully captures the spirit of late-60s Toronto counterculture (and as such is an ideal companion piece to Robin Spry’s Flowers on a One-way Street (1967)). It’s also a wonderful study of the era’s increased accessibility to the means of film production. A scene set at a downtown protest concert features the image splintered into split screens as a way of allegorizing the hippie left’s tolerance for multiple, proliferating points of view, while also paying homage to the nouvelle vague inventions of Godard and his French colleagues.

By eschewing both Griersonian detachment and direct-cinema stringency, Ransen’s film pointed the way towards a period of passionately politicised films that saw the productions of Michael Kanentakeron Mitchell’s incendiary Challenge for Change doc You Are On Indian Land (1969), about a violent confrontation between Canadian authorities and Mohawk Indians outside Cornwall, Ontario; the feminist-inflected provocation by Holly Dale and Janis Cole P4W: Prison For Women (1981), filmed in Kingston’s notorious female penitentiary; and the proto-environmentalism of Susan Murgatroyd’s The Forest in Crisis (1981), which raised alarms about predatory logging practices in Ontario forests. Even a relatively gentle effort like Donald Brittain’s Paperland: The Bureaucrat Observed (1979), a mock-ethnographic study that begins with a middle manager ice-skating to work down the Rideau Canal, manifested a sceptical perspective on authority.

The Forest in CrisisSusan Murgatroydprovided by the National Film Board of Canada

If the success of these films indicated a new receptivity by filmmakers and audiences to issues of social justice, the slightly jaundiced, grudgingly affectionate take on Toronto delivered by Glenn Gould in a 1979 episode of the documentary series Cities hinted at new battle lines being drawn. On the surface, Glenn Gould’s Toronto is simply a guided tour through the city by one of its favourite sons, whose whinges about the dangers of modernity are very much in character for an inveterate recluse. But what Gould is getting at in his narration is that Toronto’s need to stay current and keep pace with the Joneses down south (“on a clear day, you can see forever, or at least Buffalo,” he jokes) has extended the boom-town mentality captured two decades earlier by Leslie McFarland to a breaking point. And while Gould is more apt to talk about music than movies, it’s no coincidence that his instalment of Cities came out around the same time that the cost-cutting incentives of the tax-shelter era were transforming humble old Toronto the Good into Hollywood North.

The feature film boom in Toronto towards the end of the 1970s didn’t create a similar outpouring of non-fiction filmmaking, which was considered outside the purview of the capital cost allowance and largely ignored by federal funding agencies like the Canadian Film Development Corporation, which transformed into Telefilm Canada. Instead, it was the formation in Toronto in 1983 of the Canadian Independent Film Caucus (CIFC), an advocacy group that placed pressure on funding sources and broadcasters to open the vault and give access to non-fiction filmmakers, that ushered in a vital period of documentary cinema in Ontario.

In the 1980s and ’90s, a new group of Ontario-based documentary directors variably challenged and forcibly integrated themselves and their peers into the country’s filmmaking establishment. The growing industrial influence of CIFC co-founder Rudy Buttignol, whose eclectic directorial sensibility was on display in his profiles of Canadian artists Jack Bush (Jack Bush, 1979) and Allan Bean (Allan Bean: Art Off This Earth, 1990) and the visually dazzling Neon, an Electric Memoir (1984), showed that even those who criticized the system could also try to work it from within. Starting in 1993, Buttignol became the commissioning editor for TVOntario and with the provincial public broadcaster’s backing he was able to produce (or co-produce) such notable docs as Paul Jay’s compassionate look at a professional wrestler betrayed by his company Hitman Hart: Wrestling with Shadows (1998), Jennifer Baichwal’s startling literary biography Let It Come Down: The Life of Paul Bowles (1999), Kevin McMahon’s insightful McLuhan’s Wake (2002), Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbott’s stunning takedown of capitalism The Corporation), Allan King’s massively moving Dying at Grace (2003) and Hubert Davis’ personal search for his roots, Hardwood (2005).

HD Hardwood – FILM from Untitled Films on Vimeo.

Buttignol and TVOntario weren’t working in a vacuum. Though Telefilm Canada refused to fund documentaries until recently, the Canadian Television Fund (now the Canadian Media Fund) began to do so in 1995, and the Ontario Media Development Corporation (OMDC) also offered assistance. Other provinces also began to respond to the demand for creating independent documentaries through funding initiatives.

As the CIFC evolved into DOC (Documentary Organization of Canada) and began opening up offices across the country, its members kept producing crucial works that received international attention, like Peter Raymont’s widely acclaimed The World is Watching (1988) about the American news media, and Barry Greenwald’s Between Two Worlds (1990) about the Inuit icon Joseph Idlout, which offered a corrective to stereotypical depictions of Indigenous peoples dating back to Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North (1922).

If this context of increased productivity and infrastructure helps to account for a more bustling non-fiction filmmaking scene in Ontario and throughout the rest of the country, it didn’t result in any smoothening out of artistic sensibilities. Rather, the last 15 years have been an era of eccentrics, from counterculture vultures Ron Mann and Alan Zweig to the Peters Mettler and Lynch, two intellectually restless adventurers always on the lookout for signs and wonders, whether scattered across global outposts (Gambling, Gods & LSD, 2002) or deep in the Canadian wilderness (Project Grizzly, 1996). Mettler’s collaboration as a cinematographer with Jennifer Baichwal on her majestic Manufactured Landscapes (2006) led to arguably the new millennium’s most visionary Canadian non-fiction film, as well as one of the most internationally acclaimed Toronto-based productions of all time.

The 2009 release of Invisible City was a quiet landmark; nearly 60 years after Toronto: Boom Town, Hubert Davis’ beautifully shot and edited film about a group of black high school students in the city’s Regent Park neighbourhood vividly showed the flipside to the city’s incessant attempts at upward mobility. Starting with its title, Invisible City represented an effort to show a Toronto not always represented onscreen. Davis’ mantle of unflinching civic depiction was picked up last year by Hugh Gibson’s award-winning The Stairs (2016). Shot in the same neighbourhood by cinematographer Cam Woykin, Gibson’s film shows the residents of Regent Park exiting a period of intense gentrification, which has only superficially disguised the persistent issue of widespread substance abuse. The much-publicised selection of Gibson’s doc as the Best Canadian Film of 2016 by the Toronto Film Critics Association (an award carrying a $100,000 cash prize) suggests that The Stairs will endure in the history of Ontario documentary filmmaking even as it inverts the traditional sentiment of hating Toronto; instead, it takes a cue from Allan King and offers something more akin to Empathy 4 Life.

For more stops on the POV cross Canada documentary road trip, visit: British ColumbiaAlbertaSaskatchewanManitobaQuebecAtlantic Canada, and the North.

Adam Nayman is a critic and teacher in Toronto. He writes for Cinema Scope, The Ringer, and other publications.

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