POV Interview: Peter Raymont

46 mins read

Peter Raymont is a rare figure among artists in this country, a true Canadian patriot. Raised in Ottawa, he served an apprenticeship at the National Film Board before reaching his maturity in Toronto as an independent documentary filmmaker. He scored major successes with the award-winning docs The World is Watching, about the media’s intervention into Nicaragua’s Sandinista Revolution and Between Two Worlds, an investigation into the life of “model Eskimo” Joseph Idlout, whose face was on the two dollar bill. White Pine Pictures, the company he formed with his creative and personal collaborator Lindalee Tracey, has gone from making TV docs to mini-series to a four year run with the popular program A Scattering of Seeds. Most notably, Raymont is the director of one of the most significant feature documentaries ever made in Canada, Shake Hands with the Devil: the Journey of Romeo Dallaire.

Raymont’s films demonstrate his on-going fascination with Canada. Many of his docs, from Sikusilarmiut through Magic in the Sky to I, Nuligak have been shot in the far North, a place that has a significant hold on the director’s imagination. He has made docs about such Canadian subjects as hockey, federal leadership conventions and immigration. Even his biggest international success focuses on a Canadian, Romeo Dallaire, and his response to a foreign holocaust. Now that Peter Raymont is trying out his hand as a producer of drama, his output may change, but it’s highly likely that one thing will remain the same. Raymont won’t leave Canada.

When Peter Raymont, Lindalee Tracey and I undertook career-length interviews for POV, it was clear that Lindalee was very ill. That was why Lindalee and I worked on her interview first. Graciously, Peter waited and this interview was conducted in mid-September, days before Lindalee had to be taken to the hospital for the last time. Lindalee Tracey passed away October 19, 2006 at the age of 49. Her warmth, passion and brilliant skill as a writer and filmmaker will be missed.

POV: Can you tell me about your childhood, Peter? You come from what we call in Canada a good background.
PR: Good background meaning well-off?

POV: More than that. Your dad was a significant person.
PR: He was a great man. My dad was a civil servant. He was a Colonel in the military and ran an espionage school in England during WWII for Canada. After the war he worked for the Department of National Defense. He’d come to Canada as a twenty-one year old in 1929 and worked on his aunt’s ranch in Alberta. I loved going out there and feeling his spirit. I grew up in a community where discussions around the dining table were always about politics and world affairs. My dad was there at the beginning of NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) and NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command). I remember when I was twelve he came home one night and it was the first time I’d ever seen my father scared. It was the night of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and he was inside, knowing all that was happening.

I volunteered for Trudeau when he ran for the leadership of the Liberal party in ’68 so I grew up with politics and international affairs in my blood. I’d read The Globe and Mail editorials as a teenager and cut things out. I was involved with the political science club at school and geeky things like that. I really got wrapped up in the Trudeau thing, like so many young Canadians did of that generation. It was very exciting.

POV: It was a belief in Canada.
PR: Exactly. And at Queen’s, in Kingston, where I went to university, we’d protest the Vietnam War at the bridge, in Gananoque. We were very much involved in world affairs. I had grown up in Ottawa with a world-view because dad traveled all over the world. I have this wonderful box of postcards he sent me from Egypt and Turkey and India. It was the 60s and we really did think we could change the world.

POV: Did your dad endorse your efforts?
PR: Yeah. I think he was quite proud of what I was doing. Later, he and my mum would come to public screenings of films we’d have in Ottawa. He’d always put up his hand and ask a provocative question. He was a great raconteur, dad. Funny and witty and smart. He was a good father for a guy who didn’t have a dad himself; his father died when he was four years old, so he never really knew about being a father. We had a good childhood.

POV: How did you get into filmmaking, Peter?
PR: When I went to Queen’s University in ’68, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. Peter Harcourt had just started teaching there, in the English department. Queen’s didn’t have its own department of Film Studies at the time. So Harcourt would take the money he’d been given to bring in another Bergman film and he’d buy a tape recorder, or a lens for the camera. He had all this begged and borrowed equipment. His students all felt like they were subversives. It was wonderful. We learnt how to make films just by making them. I made this documentary Have You Ever Been North of Princess Street?, which was 16mm and black and white. The purpose was to try to politicize the Queen’s students to the reality of life on the other side of the tracks. Poverty is huge in Kingston. We were living in this ghetto of students and professors, doctors and lawyers, south of Princess.

POV: Which still exists…
PR: Still there? We ventured into north Kingston and made this film on what it’s like to live on welfare. That film was shown at a teach-in about urban poverty and was seen by some people at the National Film Board (NFB). That got me a job at the NFB as an editor in 1971, right out of Queen’s. I was very lucky. I was 21.

POV: Were there other young filmmakers at the NFB?
PR: Giles Walker and John Kramer came in around my time and Paul Cowan. Nice people.

POV: Dedicated people who are still at it.
PR: We had this great thing we did at the Film Board in those early days. There was a projection room in the basement called the sweatbox because it was this sweaty little windowless cell. Since you were working inside, you could book any film that the Film Board had ever made, and so every lunch for years, we’d go down there and watch 16mm films. A film at lunch, take a little sandwich, and we would try to get the filmmakers if they were still around, Wolf Koenig or Tom Daly or whoever, to come and answer questions for half an hour. It was extraordinary; we’d created our own little film school, just watching films every lunch hour. Unbelievable opportunity. We became good friends too; we’d take films home and have screenings for our friends. (NFB founder John) Grierson’s shadow is long; it certainly affected me very deeply and the others around at the Film Board at the time. That sense of using film as a tool for social change and subsuming your ego behind the purpose was inculcated in us.

POV: Were you working on films at that point? In ’71 and ’72?
PR: Oh yeah. I started as an editor and fairly quickly was directing. Wolf Koenig sent me up to the Arctic in ’72 or ’73. The Film Board had set up a workshop led by Co Hoedeman to teach animation in Cape Dorset. And the first year of the production, these young first time filmmakers won a big prize at the Zagreb animation film festival. So at that point they said, ‘hey we should make a film about this whole process. Let’s send Raymont.’ It was called Sikusilarmiut, which means ‘people from the place where the ice meets the sea.’ People from Cape Dorset.

POV: How big a crew did you go with?
PR: Same as we do now, camera, sound and assistant. You needed an assistant camera person, because you needed to load 16 mm or 35 mm films. We’d keep the crews as small as possible. We were a band of desperadoes out there. It was great fun; there was a lot of camaraderie and the people that I worked with are still close friends.

POV: Your film career from Sikusilarmiut to your latest I, Nuligak has been dotted with films made up North. You must have seen something appealing there right away. What was it?
PR: You fall in love with the North. If I were the prime minister of Canada I’d make sure that every young Canadian could get to the Arctic somehow…really cheap flights or something subsidized. Until you visit a place like Cape Dorset, you don’t appreciate the country—what Canada is and who Canadians are.

POV: Was there a sense of community?
PR: Yes—community, life, spirit and survival. We were taken on walrus hunts and caribou hunts and lived in an igloo for a few days while we were making Sikusilarmiut. I remember sitting on one of these long sleighs, powered by skidoos, driving for hours and hours across the ice. Suddenly the guy who was driving got out and let out this amazing yelp ‘wooooh’. It was dark and way out in the distance, a light was shining off a steeple of a church, and the Canadian flag was lit, blowing in the midnight wind. He was coming home.


POV: Beautiful…
PR: I’ll never forget that. Makes you a Canadian.

POV: You did a doc about the beginning of Inuit television.
PR: Yeah, Magic in the Sky. Did you watch it again?

POV: I find it really interesting but sad as well, in terms of questions that come up about the media’s potential influence on the North. And I wonder what you think about it now.
PR: It’s the first film I made as an independent filmmaker. Actually History on the Run was; but it’s the first big project, where I raised all the money. I really wanted to make that film about the impact of television on Inuit people, which in a way was a metaphor for all of us. They didn’t want television in Igloolik until they felt they could control it in some way. They’d seen the devastating impact of television on Frobisher Bay which is now Iqaluit. Nolan Nasuk, who was the Anglican minister in Igloolik, was one of the leaders of the ‘we don’t want television until we can control it.’ They knew it was inevitable but they thought if they could learn how to make television programs in their own language, with their own spirit and identity, then television could be all right. They would hold plebiscites or referendums every year and people kept saying ‘no, we don’t want television.’ By the time the network Inukshuk was launched, they had an indigenous group of filmmakers who’d been making film and television, in Inuktitut. So I don’t think the impact of southern television was as profound and as devastating as other villages.

POV: Hadn’t the NFB had been involved in workshops on making docs as well as animation?
PR: Yes, in fact, I taught a group in 1974 or ’75 that included Zach Kunuk and his filmmaking partner Paul Apak. We were all really young.

POV: Does the North refurbish you?
PR: Yeah, that’s a word for it. Some parts of the North are sadder for me now. I’ve lost some friends who’ve died up there.

POV: It’s a hard world.
PR: It’s been devastating on some of the kids. There’s still a lot of drugs and alcohol abuse. The clash of cultures, Between Two Worlds right? It’s the title of one of our films and that’s what it’s all about. Older Inuit were born in the equivalent of the Stone Age, in igloos and tents out in the land, and now they’re text messaging each other and flying around the world. It’s jumping thousands of years of evolution in one lifetime. It was hard on a lot of people, but remarkably the culture has survived and so has the language, Inuktitut. It’s almost a metaphor for Canada, which has survived as well, despite the pressures from the south. They’ve survived because they’re strong. And partly because the government and the institutions we’ve created have supported their identity and their language.

POV: Why did you leave the Film Board?
PR: I felt frustrated there because so many wonderful films were being made but they weren’t being seen in Canada. The few films I made in the ’70s were much better known in England, where they were shown on Channel 4, than here, where they weren’t being seen on the CBC. I thought that if I lived in Toronto I could do co-productions with the Film Board and CBC and maybe Telefilm, which was just starting out, back then. So I drove down the 401 and bought a house in Toronto.

POV: Nicaragua was a hot topic back in the ’80s. A small Central American republic going Communist while Reagan was in power in the US fascinated a lot of Canadians. How did you get involved in documenting what was going on down there?
PR: There’s a song by Nancy White that goes: I know Managua like the back of my hand…
I felt that I knew Managua almost better than I knew Toronto by the time I made The World is Watching. The first time I went to Nicaragua, I’d just taken an audio tape recorder. Sunday Morning, the CBC radio show where I made docs, had agreed that I could send back tapes. It was a great way to find out about the Sandinista revolution without the camera and the crew and the expense. We went down, Harold Crooks and I, as cotton pickers. We were the worst cotton pickers they’d ever seen, but it gave us a chance to do something on a brigade of Canadians who were farming in Nicaragua. I remember sitting in a cotton field, with our short wave radio, listening to Radio Canada International to a radio documentary that I’d put together the week prior. It was very cool. Harold and I were able to come back again and make a half-hour TV doc called With Our Own Two Hands about the brigade.

POV: Did you want to do something bigger right away?
PR: Sure, right then, in ’85, we tried to raise money for The World is Watching. We couldn’t get it funded; we had TVO and that was about it. The same day that we were turned down by Telefilm, I got an offer to go work in Boston, at WGBH which is a flagship station of PBS, to work on a series called The Nuclear Age. So I moved down to Boston for a couple of years. When I came back to Canada, the OFDC (the Ontario Film Development Corporation, the precursor to the OMDC) had just been created. Wayne Clarkson and Jonathan Barker put money into The World is Watching. Then Telefilm put money into it because the rules had changed and documentaries were eligible. Though the film had been postponed, the subject was still there: the issues were as pressing and relevant as they had been a few years previously.

POV: The film was a big hit. It won a Genie and was a prize winner in Chicago and Nyon. Why do you think it was so successful?
PR: I think it helped open people’s eyes to not only the reality of the Sandinista Revolution but to the reality of the distortion of reality by the process of news gathering. It was a way of trying to deconstruct how TV news works. The establishment, TV news people, heavily criticized it—people were very angry. We were saying that the emperor has no clothes. That news gathering, television news, often starts out with a storyline. If you’re off to Nicaragua for ABC-TV, working under the guise, like Peter Jennings was, of going down there open minded, we showed what really happened. TV news journalists aren’t like documentary filmmakers—they’re going down there with an agenda. In a way it’s dictated by the speed in which you have to work; you go down there and have to turn around a story in a day or two. You’re trying to figure out what the hell is going on in the people’s revolution; it’s very complex, in another language, and you’re supposed to be feeding back news to New York. So TV news journalists did have to go down there with agendas and storylines, looking for evidence to back a point of view. But they were purporting to be objective, and that’s what’s upsetting when you’re watching it intimately from the inside, as we did in making The World is Watching.

POV: Many years later, you went back to make The World Stopped Watching. Why did you return to Nicaragua?
PR: Almost from the time I’d made that first film I’d thought, ‘Boy it would be good to go back.’ Because in ’90 the Sandinistas lost the election to the American supported United Nicaraguan Opposition under Violeta Chamorro. Everything changed. I thought it would be good to go back and see what happened to those people who were in the first film, the Nicaraguans, and what had happened to the reporters that we’d followed then, too. How they had changed. We made that follow up film with Bill Gentile, who had been a Newsweek photographer, “Ry” Ryan who was a columnist for the Boston Globe and Gilles Paquin from Montreal’s La Presse. We talked to people ranging from Daniel Ortega to the old woman in the co-op farm whose farm the American- backed Contras had destroyed in ’86.

When we finished that film we had a screening in Managua. It was the anniversary of the revolution. They showed both films back to back in a theatre in Managua. And that elderly woman who’s in both films had never been to Managua. She lives up in the hills. One of the people from the film drove up there and took her into Managua for the premiere. We had a Spanish version of The World Stopped Watching, thanks to the National Film Board. She watched the film in this packed, packed room. I got up on stage after the film ended and said, ‘it’s so great to be here again and so wonderful to have with us a woman who I thought always embodied the spirit of the Sandinista revolution…’ Well, she came up the aisle and they gave her a standing ovation! She took over the stage and spoke like a politician. It was something that people couldn’t understand, how political and politicized a peasant farmer from the hills in Nicaragua was after the Sandinista experience. How internationally conscious they had become. That’s one of my great moments as a documentary filmmaker, to see a film having that kind of impact on people and see it being used to help rekindle their spirit. And to help an elderly woman in her eighties become a star in her own community. I remember Grierson used to talk about the working class on film, and how, prior to the documentary, they were always the funny taxi driver or the funny gardener. It was the documentary that helped give working class people a sense of self worth, to see themselves on the screen, depicted as heroes. It was very important for the spirit of democracy in the world.

POV: The World is Watching and The World Stopped Watching raise questions around objectivity in journalism. As a filmmaker, you have a point of view. Should broadcasters be objective?
PR: I don’t know if they still teach this at schools, but we used to be taught there were three pillars of journalism: balance, fairness and objectivity. I try to be fair but I don’t think it’s necessary or important to be balanced. I think in the overall programming of a public broadcaster, perhaps one should strive for some sort of balance, but we’re not broadcasters, we’re filmmakers. And objectivity is bunk; it’s crazy to think that anyone can be objective. We’re all passionate individuals, so everything we do is subjective: every decision we make, every word we utter, every time we make a cut in a film, we’re expressing our individual sensibilities. To have this pretence of objectivity is a lie— it’s wrong, it’s false. That’s what news organizations say they are, objective. But they’re not. I think it’s fair to say, ‘here’s a reporter from Al-Jazeera and one from the National Post, and they have different points of view.’ Audiences are intelligent enough to read both these points of view. Maybe there’s four or five different points of view on something; in that case, I’d say, ‘show them all and let the public decide what they want to feel or think about that issue themselves.’ Broadcasters shouldn’t try to tell people how they should think about Israel or Palestine or Rwanda or Nicaragua or whatever it is.

That’s the sensibility I come from and in expressing that, certainly back in the 70sand80s,myGod!didIgetalotof opposition from people who were running documentary departments at the networks! They all came out of the news departments with so-called ‘objective’ sensibilities. Point of view docs just didn’t work for them; it only worked at places like TVO, which didn’t have a news department. TVO encouraged and nurtured filmmakers with passionate points of view. But it was always a difficulty for the CBC. They now have a POV policy, but that only happened in the last decade or so. It was tough to be an independent documentary filmmaker in the 70s and 80s in this country.

POV: During those rough times, you helped to found the CIFC (Canadian Independent Film Caucus), which has now become DOC, (the Documentary Organisation of Canada). Can you tell me about how it all started?
PR: When I moved from Montreal I really missed the sense of community and camaraderie that one had among the independent filmmakers who were at the Film Board. And in Toronto, that’s what the CIFC became, this community, this part of being part of something, because you get very isolated and lonely as an independent filmmaker. Those were great times. There were 6 or 10 of us in a room and part of the purpose was to get Telefilm which was then called the CFDC (Canadian Film Development Corporation) to put money into documentaries because it was created for features films initially and then television drama.

When you’re working off your kitchen table or whatever, if you feel you’re part of a community, you can share good and bad stories and advice and suggestions and who’s who and how to get things done. There’s a wonderful spirit now in Toronto and across Canada in the independent documentary film community thanks to what we now call DOC.

POV: White Pine, the company that you and Lindalee Tracey started, made a big step forward with A Scattering of Seeds. Can you tell me about it?
PR: You mean that it was a big step forward because prior to that, we had just been making one-offs, right? When you’re filming one doc after another, you always try to get two or three going at once, just to keep the wolf from the door. Once you create a little company and a bit of an infrastructure, and have an office outside the house, you need a series. I ran into Phyllis Yaffe, who had just been named President of History Television, at the Bravo! Bistro 990 annual reception they have at the Toronto International Film Festival. Lindalee and I were there and she said, ‘you know, you guys should come up with a series for History Television. We’re just getting it off the ground.’ Within a week, we were meeting with her, Norm Bolen, and Sydney Suissa. We got one of the first core series of History Television, A Scattering of Seeds, half hour films celebrating the immigration experience, profiling immigrants to Canada. It went for four years, 52 episodes; it took over our lives, in a way. We had filmmakers in every province, and Lindalee and I really tried to make it a filmmaker driven series. For many first time filmmakers, it became their calling card film. We had some very experienced filmmakers, too, like Tom Radford and Ali Kazimi, who made beautiful films for that series. A Scattering of Seeds has become an evergreen series; it’s used now in schools, all across the country. Lindalee wrote a book and there are teachers’ guides: it became a whole industry, A Scattering of Seeds. It’s a reflection of the spirit of Canada.

POV: After A Scattering of Seeds, you were able to make a feature doc, Shake Hands with the Devil. How did you meet Roméo Dallaire?
PR: I’d gone to Rwanda four or five years after the genocide to make a doc. Rwandans would come up to me and say, ‘you’re from Canada. Do you know Roméo Dallaire?’ I was embarrassed. I had to read up about the genocide. When I did, I said to myself, ‘if there’s one film to be made by a Canadian documentary filmmaker about the most horrific tragedy in the latter part of the twentieth century, it’s a film about Roméo Dallaire.’ So I started writing him letters. I wrote through the military, I wrote through lawyers, I wrote through his doctors because word had got out that he was doing odd interviews. I contacted his agent through his publisher; he hadn’t written his book yet, but I knew he was writing it. Not one of my many letters, and I’m a pretty persistent guy, was responded to; this went on for ages. One day, out of the blue, I was in an elevator going into the Maple Leafs Club and there was Roméo Dallaire! All alone on this little elevator. So I introduced myself, ‘General Dallaire I’m a great admirer of yours and for the last three years I’ve been trying to reach you!’ I don’t know if he knew who I was or the fact that I’d been trying to reach him or not. Maybe none of my letters had ever reached him. We sat down for two hours and talked. We both missed our flights; it didn’t matter—we got other flights. I think some sort of relationship started being built then.

Prior to that, the entertainment lawyer Michael Levine had told me ‘look Peter, I know you’ve been trying to get through to Dallaire for years. If you want to make a film about Roméo Dallaire, you’ve got to see Michael Donovan. He’s acquired the rights to everything concerning Dallaire.’ So I went to see Donovan in Halifax, prepared with my reasons why I wanted to make a documentary about Roméo Dallaire. He came into his boardroom at Salter Street, which he still ran in those days, and said before I could open my mouth, ‘Peter, I know your work. You should make the documentary on Roméo Dallaire!’ That opened the door, and eventually a bond was created between Roméo Dallaire and I; it didn’t hurt that my father had been a Colonel in the military. The CBC were on board as soon as I acquired the rights to make a documentary on his book. When Dallaire decided to go back for the tenth anniversary of the genocide, we had a ‘property,’ as they say.

POV: How did you feel, making the film?
PR: I was so nervous. It was such a huge responsibility to make a film about this hero. I remember standing in the shower, where I often do some of my most important thinking, wondering, ‘how am I going to do justice to this man?’ And the story. Jesus, almost a million people died in a hundred days; people knew but nobody cared! But Dallaire decided to trust me all the way, so from 6 in the morning till 10 at night, for two weeks, we were with him, in Rwanda. And we came home with this extraordinary film that is as much his as mine.

POV: The response to the film was instantaneously positive. I was at the TIFF (Toronto International Film Festival) screening and people were rhapsodic. Was it just as good at Sundance?
PR: First, we had to convince Dallaire to come to the Sundance Film Festival. He’s a former General, an author and a human rights advocate; what’s he doing going to a Film Festival? But Michael Donovan helped me a lot. He was talking to Dallaire throughout this whole period, getting a feature film script written and funded. He said ‘General, you should go to Sundance.’ So he came and that became an extraordinary experience. He came to the discussions and screenings and Q&A’s. Robert Redford, who had read his book, wanted to meet him and so came to our premiere screening at the Sundance Film Festival. Redford broke his unwritten rule that he wouldn’t go to screenings because he didn’t want to be seen as favouring one film over another in a competitive situation. He came and introduced our film and said, ‘it’s for films like this that we’ve created the Sundance Film Festival.’ We won the big prize, the Audience Award, and the film really took off.

After TIFF and Sundance, we had 35mm prints. There were screenings all over the US and Canada and Europe. This film became something unto itself. It didn’t require pushing from the filmmaker; it went on its own momentum. It’s gone to dozens of film festivals all over the world; Shake Hands has taken me to China, to Rio de Janeiro, to Paris, Norway, everywhere. That film has worked on people on many levels, from Presidents to the people of Rwanda who have seen the film on television and in screenings. Laura Bush, the President’s wife, wrote this lovely letter to Lindalee and I, saying how important the film was and that all the people in the White House had watched it and been very moved by it.

People all over the world have seen it. Hopefully, it has opened their eyes to what happened and that, as Dallaire says, the value of a life here on Queen Street equals the same as the life on the hills of Rwanda. Until we all understand and appreciate that, there will continue to be genocides, whether it’s in Darfur, or wherever. The international community speaks of national security interests, but they should really be talking about the security of the whole world. Until that understanding and appreciation trickles down, there will continue to be instability and terrorism and war and tragedy all over the world.

POV: You’re doing a drama. Tell me how that came about.
PR: Lindalee wrote an award winning cover story for Toronto Life called The Uncounted Canadians about illegal immigrants living in Canada which became the basis of her film Invisible Nation. She and I made a three hour series called The Undefended Border, and, around that time, Lindalee conceived the pilot for a drama series called The Border. We have had The Border in development for five years with the CBC. It’s a drama about immigration cops and enforcement. We’re making the pilot now. It’s a very different world, making film and television than making documentary so I’m learning stuff every day.

MG: I’ve left the biggest question to the last. Can you tell me about your life with Lindalee?
PR: As you know, Lindalee is an extraordinary human being. So full of heart, warmth, emotion, caring, and she’s an extraordinary writer, with great skills as a filmmaker and a speaker. So it’s been a wonderfully collaborative and creative relationship we’ve had and it’s resulted in some great films. A Scattering of Seeds was her idea and so was The Border. Lindalee has been important to my life in so many ways. We have a wonderful 16- year old son Liam, who is the love of our life. I’m a very different person having been with her for the last 20 years. Lindalee has brought a lot of joy and complexity and good times to my life.

Marc Glassman is the editor of POV Magazine and contributes film reviews to Classical FM. He is an adjunct professor at Toronto Metropolitan University and is the treasurer of the Toronto Film Critics Association.

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