Documentary filmmaking has always been an important tool of activism and education, but for Rosie Dransfeld, politics must be tempered by artistic concerns. “My films have a message, a political issue behind them,” she says. “But it is as important to create films that are entertaining and engaging.”
Dransfeld has become one of Canada’s most celebrated contemporary cinema verité directors. She insists on using only natural lighting and low-impact filmmaking, ensuring that the film crew understands where the story lies. The goal for her is to reach deep into the heart of a world too often hidden from view, but to do so in ways that connect the audience to the subjects on screen and provoke reflection from both.
It is this ability to capture the full humanity of her subjects and place them at the centre of stories that resonate with emotion that led Hot Docs to name Dransfeld “the master of verité cinema.” As Hot Docs states, “Her films are powerful encounters of the human condition and invite audiences to take another look at reality, balancing on a thin line between laughter and tears.”
That invitation is not so much to change the world as it is to change one’s own attitudes. Dransfeld hopes that her films have contributed to political conversations. And perhaps they have, obliquely. Alberta is now having a debate about payday lenders and the financial traps we lay for impoverished people who can’t access conventional banking systems. This issue was the subject of the award-winning Broke. Canada is finally having conversations about sex worker rights and safety. Who Cares? was released at the start of debates on Bill C-36, The Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission brought to the forefront the bleak history of Canada’s abuse of First Nations children. Chris Hoard, a main character in both Broke and Anti-Social Limited is a survivor of the infamous Sixties Scoop, when the government forcibly took Aboriginal children from their families and placed them in foster homes. Without human stories to connect with, these problems would feel too remote and hopeless.
Since her first feature, the quirky Beaverman (2002), Dransfeld has built her career on cinema verité explorations of people on the edges of society, surviving against systemic racism, sexism, family abuse and the grinding cycles of poverty. She eschews the polemical for “the good, well-crafted story” that offers honest depictions of real people up against untenable odds.
Her opportunity to become an independent filmmaker was the result of a move from the cosmopolitan city of Hamburg to Edmonton, then Canada’s heartland of right-wing populism. 1998 was a critical juncture in the national film and media sector. The NFB was shuttering studios and firing in-house creators. News agencies were concentrating in major urban centres, leaving regional studios gutted. In Germany, Dransfeld worked first as a print journalist, then made the switch to television where she contributed investigative pieces for the German public broadcaster, and also created political satire pieces for the long-standing comedy series Extra Dry. In Canada, she expected to continue in that line of work but could only find what she calls “cat stuck in tree” journalism. Looking around for options, Dransfeld was excited by the dedication to long-form storytelling provided by public broadcasters like the CBC, TVO and the National Film Board.
“I would agree with Kevin McMahon that documentary is truly a Canadian art form,” says Dransfeld. “I realised there was this incredibly rich history, and saw an opportunity to tell my stories in a unique way. Unlike Germany, Canada is a country that encourages entrepreneurship.” So, after having learned the ropes of being a producer, in 2000 Dransfeld took the opportunity to found her own production company, ID: Productions. From then on she wrote, produced and directed many documentaries.
There is no question that Dransfeld has developed a distinctive style that is at once indebted to the Canadian documentary tradition of cinema verité without the encrustation that sometimes comes from a lifetime of watching old NFB films in classrooms. She never shirks from the idea that she is constructing a drama out of real life circumstances.
While many other social justice filmmakers elect to use the essay documentary format to paint a big picture of injustice and inequity, relying on experts and global case studies, Dransfeld prefers to zoom the camera into essential human stories, “Cinema verité is perfect for the exploration of the human condition. You can create real life drama. It is an ever-evolving art form.” She finds that the conventional educational style of documentary filmmaking doesn’t trust the audience enough to reflect on their attitudes toward more marginalized people and to draw their own conclusions. Nor does it take enough time with its subjects to draw a complete picture of their humanity.
With The Dogwalker, she knew she wanted to tell a story about how people with disabilities are punished with poverty, but she also wanted to strip away misconceptions about the fullness of their emotional lives. On one of her own dog walks, she met Michael Borowski. With a makeshift steady-cam strapped to her, she and Borowski began to take their walks together. It was an opportunity for Dransfeld to test how well Borowski would appear on film and to give him time to build trust in the experience until he could forget that he was even being filmed.
A similar approach led Dransfeld to David Woolfson, the owner of the A1 pawnshop featured in Broke (2010). After touring many pawnshops scattered across Edmonton’s poorer neighbourhoods, she felt that he had the humour and the sharp-wittedness to invite audiences into his world. “It is part of my casting routine, familiarizing myself with the world I want to film and hoping to find a strong, ambiguous character who will provoke a lot of questions from the audience.” Dransfeld spent six months just observing the rhythms of the pawn shop, so that when the cameras were turned on it took only four weeks to finish filming. While researching, she met Chris Hoard, a First Nations drifter who struck up an unlikely friendship with Woolfson. That relationship became the heart of the story.
Following the success of Broke — which won the Donald Brittain Award for Social/Political Documentary at the 2010 Gemini Awards — Dransfeld remained in touch with Hoard, waiting for a story to emerge. It took her three years doing short vignettes and showing Hoard how to use a videocamera on his own before there was some meaningful development in his life. In this case, it was Hoard’s plan to use the business skills he had acquired as a drug dealer to launch his own all-native construction company to beautify his impoverished neighbourhood.
The scenes where Hoard is filming himself and reflecting on his circumstances are the most compelling in Dransfeld’s doc. The film opens with Chris Hoard framing himself in front of a mirror; he exhales and proclaims, “So. Here we go.” With those words he not only invites the audience into his own perspective, but also seems to grant consent for the documentary camera to follow him on his journey. Dransfeld experimented with this combination of observational and participatory filmmaking in both Anti-Social Limited and her film just before it, Who Cares?. “Cinema verité is a very open and creative style, especially for the documentary subject. I can invite my main characters to use the camera themselves. This adds something really wonderful to the film. I did this in Anti-Social Limited with Chris, and for Courtney in Who Cares? so we could see these incredibly brave, unguarded moments,” she says.
The juxtaposition of observational and participatory cinema in her two most recent films takes audiences through both big emotions and intimate moments. In Who Cares?, a documentary on street-level sex workers in Edmonton, Dransfeld provided a camera to one of her main characters, Courtney Heather. That footage is in extreme and very jumpy close-up, reflecting Heather’s post-traumatic stress disorder after years of abuse and the struggle of no longer engaging in sex work. However, at the end of the film, Heather turns the camera around to capture a sunrise, allowing us to imagine a better life for her in some unknown tomorrow.
By contrast, Shelly Sowan, still working but hoping to stop soon, is filmed only by Dransfeld and always at a respectful distance, so as not to overcrowd her emotional moments, such as when she stands on the street corner she worked while she was pregnant, or talks about her dead child, or goes to apologise to an old boyfriend she assaulted. The film is framed around the RCMP Project Kare, which collects DNA and personal information of sex workers so their bodies can be identified if they are killed. That high-stakes reality is laid starkly bare by this balance of intense, violent outbursts and quiet, observational moments of the toll that violence takes on sex workers and the people they love.
“With my films, I hope to empower my main characters so that I can find ways to tell their stories. I’m not trying to make them into better people; I’m just trying to portray them as people, without being sentimental. I want to show their humanity and the complexity of their lives,” says Dransfeld.
It’s evident that Dransfeld’s characters are not typically “inspiring.” But they do demand dignity and respect for the courage they have to face the camera and reflect on their worlds. The results are compelling yet open-ended accounts that do not tell viewers what to think, but ask audiences to step outside their comfort zones. “I invite viewers into worlds we don’t easily have access to and give them the opportunity to live in this world for a while from the safe comfort of their couch.”
Despite her indebtedness to cinema verité, Dransfeld is always keen to re-invent herself and try other styles of story telling. In development right now is Boom!: The End of White Privilege, a satirical essay on the rise of right-wing populism in the United States and Europe. In its own way, it’s as ambitious as the groundbreaking The Transplant Project, a multi-pronged investigation into transplant medicine, which she started working on after directing The Ward, about patients waiting for organs and using dialysis.
Dransfeld is stepping back from director duties to produce both a feature cinema verité documentary and an episode of The Nature of Things, for which she and director Niobe Thompson have received unprecedented levels of access to the University of Alberta Hospital’s transplant centre.
The feature, Memento Mori, is an emotionally arresting encounter with the experience of death and the wonder of living in another’s body. The television episode, titled Recycled Lives, is a fascinating journey inside the evolving science of transplants, where breakthrough discoveries are solving the organ crisis and transforming the future of medicine. Together, they interweave the personal and the social, the reflective and the educational sides of documentary. This in-between place is where Dransfeld feels documentary can best reach its potential.
“We are now at this exciting point where the technology has come so far that we can experiment with all kinds of ways to tell the story,” says Dransfeld. “But, more importantly, the audience understands the intricacies of documentary, so that we are able to create real drama that is also deeply true. I think we’re really at a high point at this moment with what we can accomplish with the art form.”