Shifting Sands

19 mins read

Not too long ago in a land called Canada, there was a vibrant documentary film culture. Filmmakers hailing from there earned worldwide reputations as heroic leaders in the genre. All was good in the land of Canadian documentary and a great tradition built up giving birth to many talented documentary filmmakers.

Then one day, it was no longer so. Viewers tuned in to their favourite documentary television programmes and could only find lifestyle and reality shows. Thousands who once looked forward to a long and fulfilling career making documentaries were forced to turn to other occupations in order to survive. Those who were able to continue clung to the edges of what remained of their industry and prayed for a miracle.

One day the great tradition of Canadian documentary was declared dead and a massive funeral was held. Bureaucrats and decision makers came declaring their love for documentary and lamenting its passing, saying they were so sorry but there was nothing they could have done to save the departed. The documentary lovers and filmmakers looked down at the shrivelled corpse of what had once been such a vibrant part of their culture and creativity and felt betrayed. This was the beginning of what became known as the Dark Age of Ignorance and Cultural Deprivation.

To some, this is a mythical rendition of the present reality. Parsing the declarations of the doomsayers, the avant-gardists and the optimists, the primary question becomes: are declarations of the demise of documentary in Canada premature? As with most things in life there are no simple answers, rather a collection of contextualised realities.

“There has never been a situation where people felt things were good in documentary. There’s always a sense of the world ending, perhaps as a result of the dark subject matter documentary filmmakers are often dealing with,” is how the NFB film commissioner Tom Perlmutter sees it. He starts the conversation by emphasizing how much documentary is a shape-shifter these days. It’s many things—no longer one thing as it used to be back in the day.

So let’s be specific here: so-called documentary series (i.e., granted documentary dollars by the Canada Media Fund) like The Cupcake Girls and Village on a Diet are doing just fine. In fact there have never been more outlets for this type of scripted “reality” content, given the proliferation of specialty channels. If you’re happy doing highly formatted “content” as opposed to creative, reflective, thought-provoking point-of-view (POV) documentary, then there are still possibilities in today’s Canada Media Fund (CMF)–dominated environment.

What nobody disagrees on is that the near abandonment of the one-off and the POV documentary on Canadian television is creating huge aftershocks. As past Hot Docs programmer (and POV board member) Sean Farnel says: “The entire funding system is predicated on the assumption that broadcasters are the target ‘market partner.’ But where do those filmmakers now look for that initial enabling support?”

Some would say the first crippling blow was struck on March 31, 2009, when the Conservative government axed the Canadian Independent Film and Video Fund, the federal agency that had helped to finance non-theatrical production by independent filmmakers. As the only non-broadcaster-triggered fund, its departure laid the groundwork for a forced marriage between producer and broadcaster.

Later that year came the consultations for and subsequent implementation of the CMF, which has thrown documentary production in Canada into a nosedive. Cameron McMaster, policy and research analyst for the Documentary Organization of Canada, sums it up like this: “Even for broadcasters who want to support POV documentaries, the CMF’s funding system punishes them for doing so.”

When asked, McMaster said he thought there were two issues that DOC had pushed unsuccessfully in the CMF consultations that would have alleviated some of the carnage the new guidelines have subsequently wrought for the small independent documentary producer. The first is the insistence that documentary productions comply with having an accompanying digital media component when there is just not enough money from the broadcaster to make this happen in a meaningful and mutually beneficial way. The second is the CMF’s refusal to look at alternative metrics for measuring the “success” of documentaries on television. The result two years down the line is that English single episode volume is at a 10-year low.

DOC has diligently presented the case for documentary with the CMF over the past two years but to no avail, their exhaustive efforts hampered by a policy directive from cabinet shrouded in mystery, and only minority support for the plight of documentary on the CMF board. Suffice it to say that at times it’s easy to think dark thoughts about how documentary is an instrument of democracy and…is that really what this is all about?

Conspiracy theories aside, the challenge facing Canadian independent documentary producers today are Sisyphean in proportion: meagre-to-non-existent development funding for projects; paperwork requiring clerical staff that nobody can afford to hire; wait times for tax credits of up to 42 weeks in some provinces; unyielding Canadian content regulations that hobble the real possibilities of embarking on international co-productions; the passing of Bill C-11 (the copyright modernization act) disabling filmmakers from accessing content behind digital locks; the push by American majors to impose the Virtual Print Fee (VPF) and digital projection in all commercial theatres across Canada; an increasingly rigid Canada Council definition of what constitutes “creative control”; inflexibility and inequity over distribution rights—to name only the more obvious.

It’s enough to make a documentary filmmaker move to another country like France or Denmark, where documentary as a creative, innovative genre is actually encouraged and fostered. Sally Blake, co-founder and producer/director (along with writer/producer Jeannette Loakman) at Toronto’s Chocolate Box Entertainment, is presently based in Paris.

“In France, ARTE and France Télévisions are still strong supporters of documentaries. France Télévisions just published a ‘documentary manifesto’ complete with the picture of a raised fist! They are still open to all types of subjects, from traditional things like science and history and current affairs but also to philosophy and art. And they’re more than fine…with the subject having an international focus,” she reports.

Sean Farnel gives Denmark a similarly glowing report card: “Everything they [the Danish Film Institute] do is built around the priority of developing and nurturing creative talent outside of the imperatives, aesthetic and financial, set by the market. These are low-budget productions that are encouraged to push boundaries, and the filmmakers are given the freedom not only to thrive, but, even more importantly, to fail.”

A broadcast licence in Canada, when you’re lucky enough to snag one, is still going to get the greatest number of eyeballs than any other outlet for your documentary. American Tiger, produced by Montreal production company Périphéria Productions, got a healthy 562,000 viewers on its first night out on CBC’s The Nature of Things. Without hefty promo dollars behind them, few and far between are the feature docs that will raise numbers like that with a theatrical release.

Périphéria executive producer Yanick Létourneau thinks broadcasters should be more innovative at different levels: “Open up to new ways to creating interest in viewers. A broadcaster who is committed and has vision would develop doc streams with a transmedia component. [They] would think more internationally, to exploit a documentary’s full potential with more partners, to find new revenue streams.” He mentions SODEC [Société de développement des entreprises culturelles] and the Quebec arts councils as being important fiscal advantages for that province’s producers. Their participation allows more flexibility in a producer’s financial structures and provides some leverage in negotiations with broadcasters or distributors.

When asked about how to continue to make one-off docs for television, Charlotte Engel, former Bravo! commissioning editor and great defender of the creative documentary, offered this advice: “Be strategic. Look for the holes in programming. Watch television and think of projects that will entice viewers. Think BIG!”

Talk to doc producers from any small to medium production company and everyone is working on their formula for survival. For some, like Montreal’s EyeSteelFilm, the answer is to focus on the international market with feature docs like their latest from Yung Chang, China Heavyweight, which premiered at Sundance. “For EyeSteelFilm, I would say that it is easier to make feature docs because doors are open to us internationally more and more, so the possibilities of doing co-productions or foreign sales is easier,” confesses the company’s co-founder Mila Aung-Thwin.

Some relief may come from Telefilm Canada’s recently announced two new funding initiatives targeting features of all genres: a private donation fund created in partnership with the Canadian Chamber of Commerce and a pilot micro-budget initiative. In an interview, executive director Carolle Brabant said, “In the present environment it’s important to find partners and creative ideas to help the industry leverage the opportunities that are there.” This year the pilot project for feature documentary is up for review with results expected sometime after the recent announcement of the new federal budget. Brabant added that Telefilm is in ongoing discussions with the Rogers Group of Funds and other partners regarding the renewal of the Theatrical Documentary Program.

Many documentary producers, like Winnipeg-based Merit Jensen Carr at Merit Motion Pictures, are hoping for an inclusive review process before new planning goes ahead: “Telefilm needs to sit down with theatrical doc filmmakers to see what our needs are and where we sit in terms of their mandate and the best opportunities to increase box office. Maybe there are better business models out there than the ones that exist.” She also agrees with Brabant about the need to create new strategic alliances, like the one she formed with Vonnie Von Helmolt to produce the two-day Special Events screenings across Canada through Cineplex for their performing arts feature documentary, TuTuMUCH. The Special Events screening circuit being an international one, their success in Canada meant being picked up in Australia and New Zealand too.

For those who make noise about the NFB abandoning the documentary filmmaking community in its hour of need, film commissioner Tom Perlmutter points to the GDP webdoc series and interactive doc as examples of projects that incorporate and call on large numbers of documentary filmmakers. As for the NFB moving away from traditional documentary, he uses the recent Sundance launch of Jennifer Baichwal’s feature-doc treatment of Margaret Atwood’s book Payback and the theatrical release of Léa Pool’s Pink Ribbons, Inc. as proof this is not true. But he goes on to warn against the feature doc being used as the golden standard by which all documentary is measured when it is not necessarily the most effective form to express an idea.

It’s a highly fragmented media universe we’re living in these days, which seems to expand exponentially with an unstoppable flood of viewing innovations. It may be time for documentary filmmakers to realize that making and showing work is about so much more than what is or isn’t being programmed by your broadcaster. It’s as much about how we watch—or interact with—what we watch. Not long from now, perhaps that flat-screen in your living room will have morphed into a cube offering 3-D viewing in the middle of the room for anything streamed, broadcast or interactive. Just take a look at doc projects like the ones that were competing at this year’s IDFA DocLab and you realize that we are in the infancy of a whole new era of non-fiction storytelling.

“I think it’s a bit early to tell how all this technology will influence television but it does seem that we are moving toward multi-usage platforms. Everyone wants programming on the fly, wherever they may be. I think distribution hubs will eventually license all platforms and make programming including documentaries available to subscribers,” is how Charlotte Engel sees it. Along with the recent proliferation of streaming platforms being set up by Hot Docs, the NFB, SnagFilms and Women Make Movies do seem to be heading in the digital direction.

“The very fact of the interactivity of the web is forcing our community into a conversation about ‘What is documentary for?’ Is it a piece of art, to be admired but not acted upon? Or does documentary have a role to play in our society, opening up conversations, connecting audiences, supporting real-world change?” suggests Katie McKenna, chair of DOC and interactive producer on Inside Disaster: Haiti.

Brett Gaylor (director of RiP! A Remix Manifesto), for one, has launched wholeheartedly into making use of the web as a canvas to create works that are constantly evolving, involve audiences, and push the form in new directions. “Rather than see the web as supercharged TV, we ought to think about what are the unique [opportunities] that this medium gives us. At Mozilla, we’re exploring these possibilities with our software project Mozilla Popcorn and through our Living Docs partnership with ITVS [Independent Television Service], Tribeca, BAVC [Bay Area Video Coalition] and the Center for Social Media at American University,” he writes from Vancouver Island.

Katie McKenna takes it a step further, “This whole idea of checking formulaic boxes designed by bureaucracies and trying to twist ourselves into what we think the funders and broadcasters want has utterly sapped the life and artistic energy out of the Canadian filmmaking community. We need to completely hit the reset button, and work together to make a system that’ll work for the world we live in now.”

So how to survive these turbulent times? Open up new dialogues. Look for strategic partnerships. Build new communities. Diversify. Explore new technology. Embrace the challenge. Documentary has always been in the vanguard of creativity since the Lumière brothers’ train footage back in 1895 that had its audience running for cover. Our greatest asset is that more people than ever love documentary for its power to inspire, inform and astonish. As they say in France: “Documentary is not a subject, it’s an experience.” The way we experience it may change but documentary itself is very much alive.

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