During this time of Zoom meetings and extensive phone calls, POV could only meet virtually with Michelle van Beusekom to discuss her new role as Executive Director of the Documentary Organization of Canada (DOC). In this interview, she covers what is happening with DOC and its community in detail as well as offering a concise but fascinating review of her background in the documentary world. POV is pleased to offer readers some insights into the work and thought of DOC’s new Executive Director.—Marc Glassman
MVB: Michelle van Beusekom
POV: Marc Glassman
POV: What were you doing before becoming the Executive Director at DOC?
MVB: I’ve worked in the documentary community for the past 25 years. I started at the Women’s Television Network (WTN), just as the CRTC started giving out cable specialty licences in the mid-1990s. At the time, all of those cable networks had strands for one-off documentaries. At WTN, we had three strands, and commissioned quite a number of docs. That’s when I caught the documentary bug. It really appealed to the academic side of me. Except, unlike academia, you’re not preaching to people who already think the way you do. You’re able to reach a much larger public. Documentary, of course, is an emotional medium, where you can touch people in very powerful ways. I saw the magic, and I was bitten. When WTN was acquired by Corus it became something else, more focused on shareholder revenue rather than mandate. WTN was founded to fill a gap, to provide programming by, for, and about women. That shifted.
Then, I got a job at the CBC, which brought me to Montreal. That was an awesome job. I was manager of program development. I had a mandate to work with independent producers working in the English language in Ontario outside of Toronto and across Quebec. I had a decent budget, and my job was to kickstart development with independents, and to help address the situation in which so many people outside of Toronto find themselves in – not having the same access to the decision makers. Many feel they have to make that proverbial $1,000 trip to Toronto to be on the radar. My role was to help bridge that gap. I would develop projects across all genres and then advocate with the different genre heads at the CBC in Toronto to try to get projects off the ground. CBCs Documentary Unit ended up paying my salary one day a week, so I could start working even more closely with them. At the time, Jerry MacIntosh was head of docs at CBC. I started working with a lot of different documentary filmmakers and doc-focused organizations like the NFB
After four years at CBC, I started working at the NFB I worked at the English Program for thirteen years, first as the Assistant Director General of English Program under Tom Perlmutter. My last few years, I was the Executive Director of English Language Production, overseeing the creative and editorial direction of the five English studios across the country.
It was a pretty natural transition to DOC. I love documentary. I love the community and know it well. I’ve had the advantage of always working in national organizations, so my connections aren’t just based in Toronto or Montreal. I have connections with filmmakers, producers, and decision-makers right across the country, and internationally which is a real asset to bring to DOC as an organization that’s representing filmmakers and documentarians throughout Canada.
POV: Were there certain documentarians that you spotted early on in your career that you continued having a relationship with over the years?
MVB: Pepita Ferrari, who used to be the Executive Director of DOC, is someone I worked with closely starting at WTN. I produced Capturing Reality: the Art of Documentary, which she directed, at the NFB. I met her before I moved to Montreal. That was a relationship that carried on right through until she died, sadly, last year. There have been a lot of other relationships dating back to those early years, for sure.
POV: That certainly was a major one, and germane to what’s happening now, as you’re now the Executive Director at DOC. What are your responsibilities in that position?
MVB: DOC is an advocacy organization. Many of your readers will know that it started over 35 years ago as an organization called the Canadian Independent Film Caucus (CIFC). The CFDC (now Telefilm Canada) was getting started, and the independent sector was starting to grow. While new supports within Canada’s film and tv ecosystem were being put into place, it felt like documentary was being forgotten. So the CIFC formed to make sure there was a healthy place for documentary which is, after all, Canada’s original cinematic genre. Cinema in Canada really starts with documentary and the founding of the National Film Board. We have such a rich documentary community and tradition because of that history, because of sustained public supports for documentary storytelling over the past eighty years.
But, at that time, 35 years ago, when the structure was being put in place to support independent filmmaking it seemed like documentary was being forgotten. The CIFC was formed to address that—to lobby and advocate on behalf of the documentary community. Our mandate is still the same. DOC is an advocacy organization, but also a community of mutual support. Membership now is about 800 people from across the country. DOC runs professional development master classes, and different programs, but advocacy for a healthy documentary community is the heart of the organization, and my mandate as Executive Director.
POV: In the early years, there were a lot of big victories getting signature shows on the CBC and TVO. There was a generation of filmmakers — John Walker, Rudy Buttignol, Peter Raymont — who pushed hard to get some significant strands for indie docs on TV. Television was the whole game. What’s it like now?
MVB: Well, it’s hard. I think it was always hard for documentary. There was a small window in the late ’90s to early 2000s when all the specialty channels were being licensed. There were a lot of slots on those channels for creative documentaries. But most of those slots have disappeared. Yet for the most part, financing is still tied to a TV trigger..
When I was at the CBC, for example, there was Rough Cuts, Nature of Things, Passionate Eye, Witness, and Life and Times. CBC was doing about a hundred hours of first windows a year, and two hundred hours of acquisitions. Now, it’s a shadow of that. There’s [CBC Docs] POV, and The Nature of Things, and the Doc Channel, but it’s a very small fraction of what they were able to do 20 years ago. Across the board—Discovery, National Geographic, History, WTN, even Life Network—they had space on their programming schedule for one-off documentaries. This is not the case anymore. So, it’s become incredibly hard for independent productions to find those TV triggers to unlock the financing to make projects. It’s very precarious right now. Then, with COVID, of course, it’s thrown the unsustainability of the system into relief. I think many documentarians were treading water already, and now some feel like their heads are being held underwater. It’s a really challenging time for documentarians. We have so much talent because of those 80 years of sustained public support that I talked about. Canadians are renowned internationally for their talent as documentary storytellers, but we don’t have that robust set of systems in place anymore to ensure a stable ecosystem for documentary production.
POV: So, would a major thing be to get documentaries funded without needing the television broadcast trigger?
MVB: Sure – and people have been talking about that for years. Maybe there will be some momentum around that now. Television is still very important but it’s no longer the main platform for many people to watch programming, yet it’s still the main trigger for documentaries to get made. There needs to be a shift. That’s on the radar of many people, and it’s been in conversation for years now. It’s a key piece of the puzzle that needs to be solved.
POV: Telefilm hasn’t been very responsive to documentary features at all. There was always funding in other ways, through other government apparatuses. There seems to be a little bit of money has come through Telefilm in the last few years. Do you think that is a solution?
MVB: Yeah, absolutely. It’s great that Telefilm’s Theatrical Documentary Program is creating a space for creative feature docs. Television often imposes a certain kind of storytelling style so having supports to finance theatrical docs is incredibly important. Telefilm is an important source of funding for documentary filmmakers working in a more creative space. It’s essential.
POV: For your role in DOC, how important is it that you’re bilingual? Do you find that the system itself is different between French and English?
MVB: Absolutely. In Quebec, many of the filmmakers and production companies working in French also work within the English system, and vice versa, but the realities are different. There’s a lot less funding available on the French side. There are other important differences. The fact that I speak French and have lived in Montreal for 18 years is very important to understanding what’s the same and what’s different.
POV: If you had a rapid dial on your phone, what would be the top places you would be calling?
MVB: I like to think of the work ahead in collegial terms, working together with the major institutions that support documentary. Telefilm, the NFB, CMF, CBC, Rogers, the Bell Fund, Telus, SODEC, Ontario Creates, Creative BC, and other organizations and broadcasters are all allies. There are people within those institutions who deeply care about and love documentaries. I think it’s about working together. Of course, Heritage Canada is the other piece, the ministry that’s responsible for the policies that set out our creative ecosystem. It’s important that everyone works together. Things have shifted, and people are reacting in real time. How do we work together to maintain a healthy space for documentary?
POV: Your first major step was creating a Webinar, with a number of major players in the doc world—from CBC to the Canada Council to Telefilm—sending representatives to speak about what they’re doing during COVID. What was the response from the DOC members to the webinar?
MVB: It was great! We had over 400 people register for the first webinar which happened my second week on the job. I started on the 16th of March which was when working from home and social distancing became part of everyone’s reality. It was a very strange context in which to start a new job and step into a new role. Suddenly, everything was sidelined by COVID. Our industry has ground to a halt and it’s thrown everyone into crisis. My major short-term focus is, how does DOC work to support its members in the time of COVID?
One role we’ve been playing, is to be an information conduit. So, I’m tapped into contacts at Heritage and many other organizations. DOC is a member of the Industry Task Force that the CMPA was instrumental in getting started, bringing together Telefilm, the NFB, CMF, the ISO, guilds, producers associations and other organizations across the country. We have weekly meetings. I’m getting the latest information which I can feed back to membership. That way members can stay abreast of what’s changing, what government support is coming online, the grey areas and the nuances around eligibility, how people are adapting, new initiatives and ideas about how to move forward when things start to come back online..
The goal of the webinars—the second big one was on April 23—is to bring together representatives from across our industry (funders, broadcasters, insurance brokers, accountants) so people can get information first-hand. The attendance for the webinars has been excellent. The April 23 session brought together 22 panelists and over 400 documentarians on Zoom. The good news is that everyone is trying to keep things moving forward: business as usual was a recurring mantra. Radio Canada have green-lit a number of projects over the past two weeks. CBC is moving full steam ahead on development. CMF envelopes have been announced. Everyone’s mantra is flexibility—in terms of requirements, deadlines, and payment triggers.
POV: What’s it been like for you, Michelle? There’s usually a build up over the first three to six months at a new job for you to learn what you’re doing. Instead, you walked right into a crisis.
MVB: It’s been crazy. Normally, you have that first week where you meet people and figure out all the passwords, the systems, how things are stored and organized. What do I need to know? What are the administrative workflows? Instead, it was like, OK! We need to reach out immediately to our partners in the documentary community and understand what they’re doing, get that information flowing. It’s been a total whirlwind. It’s been super interesting. I’m enjoying it! It’s keeping me hopping.
But it’s a stressful time. The community has been hard hit. DOC’s finances have been destabilized by COVID. Many of our members were in a precarious state to begin with, and now it’s become that much worse.. DOC has a key role to play in being the voice for the community, making sure the concerns of documentarians are understood and heard and that we can be part of the process of finding solutions and a path forward. That’s what I’m focusing on.
POV: How has your relationship with Hot Docs been amid this crisis? As we know, they’ve had to postpone their festival.
MVB: DOC and Hot Docs have a strong relationship. It’s great to see how Hot Docs has been able to pivot quickly to an online festival. DOC’s finances are intimately tied to Hot Docs as we receive royalties from them based on ticket sales. Hot Docs leadership has been great in helping us plan within that context.
POV: Historically, DOC National has been in Toronto. I remember Pepita coming every month to Toronto from Montreal. Are you considering changing that pattern?
MVB: The plan pre-COVID, was for me to be based in Montreal and to spend at least a week per month working from the Toronto office. I was actually supposed to be working at DOC’s Toronto office for the last two weeks of March. I had my train ticket booked and everything! By the Friday before, travel was starting to feel like a bad idea. Thankfully, I stayed put because by Monday everyone was working from home. So I’ve been working at home since I started. With DOC’s financial situation, we’re looking to move to a virtual office for the foreseeable future. Once we can travel again, Toronto is a critical site for the documentary community, so I imagine that I would still come to Toronto on a regular basis, probably once a month. But we’re not going to have that physical office.
POV: So, what is your strategy? Let’s start short-term.
MVB: Serving membership during the COVID crisis is the key short-term focus. Making sure people have the latest information to help them make informed decisions regarding their projects and livelihoods. We’ve formed a COVID-19 committee that meets weekly. One of the first actions of that committee was a survey aimed at taking stock of where our members are, how they are being affected and what supports they need.. We’re trying to get a handle on the concrete economic impact as well as the intangibles. That will give us information we need to lobby on behalf of the documentary community, to create programming to support members and to pinpoint areas of specific focus such as developing production protocols for when things start to come back on line.
The DOC chapters are doing specific programming for their members including looser, and more informal Webinars to create a space for people to share the challenges they’re facing. Everyone’s isolated. You can share with your family, and they can be sympathetic, but it’s the people in your community who can understand what you’re going through. We’re trying to create spaces for that.
National is leading on the concrete information that everyone needs. That’s what I’m doing. With this survey, we’ll gather more information to help us figure out how to support our members and advocate on their behalf. That’s the big focus for me for the next three months. Then, I’ll need to stabilize DOC’s financial situation. Like so many others we’ll be applying for CEBA—the $40,000 interest-free loan, and the 75% wage subsidy. We’re very lucky as Canadians that these supports are in place. The government has talked about sector-specific support, $500 million in support for arts and culture, that should come online very soon. We’ll help parse the details for members and apply for the ones that DOC as an organization will be eligible for.
POV: And long-term?
MVB: The core for DOC, COVID or otherwise, is to advocate for documentary and documentarians Documentary is a genre with incredible cultural value. It’s an artisanal genre. It’s not something that always aligns in strictly economic terms. It doesn’t prove its value in traditional economic measures. Yet it out-punches its weight in terms of the social and cultural value it delivers. That’s why documentary has always been a bit precarious. You don’t make docs because you want to be rich. That reality needs to be factored into the supports for documentary creation. Whether we’re in a COVID world or not, the role of DOC is to advocate for documentary, for a healthy ecosystem. I don’t think we’re going to go back, 100%, to how it was before COVID. But, the world needs documentarians. It needs documentary stories. Documentarians provide that long, interpretive view on our world and our society. It plays an important role, now more than ever. The important thing is to make sure there is a healthy space for this incredibly talented community to practice their craft. My worry is that this may be the straw that breaks the camel’s back for some people. Some very talented people are going to throw in the towel, and say, “I can’t do this anymore. I need to do something else. This is just too precarious.” That’s what we need to prevent.
POV: Do you feel any optimism despite the current crisis?
MVB: Yeah, absolutely. The encouraging thing is that documentary has become so popular over the past twenty years. I think, twenty years ago, when you said documentary, people would think about classic National Geographic animal documentaries. People didn’t have an understanding of creative non-fiction storytelling. I remember when Man on Wire came out. Many of the reviews were like, “It’s just like a movie! But it’s a documentary!” Docs aren’t considered to be boring anymore. I feel that that dial has moved so much. We see it at Hot Docs every year, with lineups around the corner on Bloor Street. It’s there in the popularity of documentaries on Netflix. More than ever before general audiences are embracing creative nonfiction storytelling. There’s a love—an appetite, a hunger. It’s real, it’s authentic. People really connect to the kinds of stories that documentarians offer.
The financial model has been undercut. A lot of work needs to be done to realign it, to make it sustainable. Public interest is definitely there. I think that will be the impetus for solving the crisis we’re in. Yes, everything is shifting: how people see the films and how they access them. But the popularity and relevance is there – for all forms of documentaries, features, shorts, series,, interactive and immersive documentaries—there’s a big appetite for all varieties of documentary storytelling. Now, we just have to figure out how to make it sustainable.