Stories of Canada’s beautiful game

Bell Media drafted eight directors to celebrate the Grey Cup on film

21 mins read

The Canadian Football League (CFL) and the documentary community are not commonly associated with one another, but Bell Media has teamed them winningly for the series Engraved on a Nation. Marking the centenary of the Grey Cup, Bell enlisted eight documentarians to make a film each on a subject related to the CFL finals. TSN (The Sports Network) began broadcasting the one-hour films in early October in the lead-up to the November 25th 100th anniversary match at Toronto’s Rogers Centre.

Modelled on ESPN’s acclaimed 30 for 30 POV doc series—which TSN also airs— Engraved on a Nation does not present a chronological history of the Grey Cup; rather, each filmmaker has tackled a specific topic through his or her distinct perspective. Subjects range from World War II tragedy to a current Montreal Alouettes quarterback. “To tell great stories has always been something that we’ve taken great pride in doing,” said TSN president Stewart Johnston, at a Hot Docs press conference in May where the films were announced. “This ambitious project is an extension of our storytelling philosophy as we weave tales about family, relationships, legacies, politics and culture around the remarkable role that the Grey Cup has played in shaping our national identity.”

While Bell Media would not release individual projects’ budgets, the price tag on the entire series has been pegged in the millions. Funding comes from the benefits package mandated by the CRTC after Bell Media acquired CTVglobemedia last year, and the Canada Media Fund (CMF) also participated. Bell Media was planning encore broadcasts Saturdays at 7 PM on CTV Two and Sundays at 5 PM on CTV, and the docs have been available on and for purchase on iTunes after airing. French-language versions are running on TSN’s sister Quebec station RDS. Bell Media has called on its wide-ranging TV, online, radio and social media might to market the series with promo spots, weekly features on TSN broadcasts and Facebook and Twitter exposure.

The broadcaster approached the likes of the Canadian Film Centre and Hot Docs to suggest producers and directors for the project and encouraged those individuals to pitch ideas. They weren’t looking for football fans per se, but rather filmmakers who would bring fresh eyes to a familiar sport. In the end, the directors who came on board form a noteworthy group: Larry Weinstein, Paul Cowan, John Walker, Shelley Saywell, Barry Greenwald, Charles Officer, Manfred Becker and Christie Callan-Jones.

Triumphing over racism
In the case of Officer, Bell Media offered four potential subjects. The Jamaican-Canadian director of the drama Nurse.Fighter.Boy and doc Mighty Jerome liked the idea of exploring black quarterbacks in the CFL. As he dug deeper into his research, he gravitated toward the story of Chuck Ealey, a black quarterback who, despite a 35-0 record at the University of Toledo, was bypassed for a quarterback role in the NFL (National Football League). The U.S. league had only one black QB in Ealey’s 1972 draft year— the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Joe Gilliam—and otherwise relegated black college quarterbacks to other positions. Ealey elected to play for the CFL’s Hamilton Tiger-Cats, and in his first season won rookie of the year honours and led his team to Grey Cup victory.

Officer, who partnered with Gordon Henderson’s 90th Parallel Productions on the film, believed he had unearthed a forgotten subject—until, that is, he learned of the 2008 documentary Undefeated: The Chuck Ealey Story. But while that film and Officer’s inevitably cover similar ground, Officer’s approach was unique. It turned out that Ealey’s daughter Jael Ealey Richardson was writing a book about her father’s experiences entitled The Stone Thrower: A Daughter’s Lessons, a Father’s Life, and Officer joined her and Ealey on a journey through the past. (The book inspired the film’s title: Stone Thrower: The Chuck Ealey Story).

“The film ends up being a father-daughter road trip with her going back and putting the pieces together to write her book. He’s taking her through his life, and she’s learning new things about him as we are,” Officer explains.

Officer learned that Ealey’s Portsmouth, Ohio, hometown, where he had a likewise immaculate quarterback record at Notre Dame High School, was a stop on the Underground Railroad, a system of routes and safe houses that allowed 19th-century black slaves to escape on up through Detroit and into Canada. “I parallel this journey that he has with what has happened to the American free slaves looking for opportunity and freedom in Canada, and put him on trains, planes and automobiles,” Officer says. He points out that Ealey’s experience coming to the CFL would be repeated by other black American quarterbacks, including Condredge Holloway, Warren Moon (who would eventually get his shot in the NFL), Tracy Ham and Damon Allen.

Although it is an issue-driven piece, Officer always kept his audience in mind. “I found a balance between sports film and non-sports film,” he says. “I encouraged [TSN] to take some risks and they are. There were some things I felt were important to include [about racial issues]. I’m happy with what’s being said.”

TSN is airing a 44-minute cut, while Officer also prepared a 50-minute version for foreign sale.

Unwavering devotion amidst agonizing defeat
Weinstein’s The 13th Man focuses on the Saskatchewan Roughriders, and its title has a bittersweet double-meaning. The team’s fans, arguably the most vocal and loyal in the game, have earned the nickname “the 13th man”—in other words, an extra player on the team. But the term took on a negative connotation in the 2009 Grey Cup game versus the Montreal Alouettes. The ’Riders had led the entire game but allowed the Als to come within two points and set up a 43-yard field goal attempt with five seconds left. Als kicker Damon Duval missed and Saskatchewan players celebrated what they thought was a victory. But they had one too many men on the field—a literal 13th man—were penalized 10 yards and Duval got another chance to kick. This time he made no mistake and Montreal won. The Saskatchewan faithful’s exuberance actually had been a hindrance: they had made so much noise at Calgary’s McMahon Stadium that Saskatchewan players and coaches could not communicate to each other that they had made an illegal substitution. It is the nadir of the team’s 102-year-old existence.

For Weinstein, best known for innovative music docs produced at Toronto’s Rhombus Media#, which he cofounded, the project seemed way out of his box. He couldn’t have been more surprised when producer Jeff Peeler of Winnipeg’s Frantic Films offered it to him. “I had never seen a football game live and I hadn’t seen one on TV,” he acknowledges. Weinstein’s film—a series of talking heads exquisitely framed by director of photography John M. Tran and interspersed with footage from the fateful game—ends up being about the people of Regina and Saskatoon and their unwavering devotion to their team. In that sense, it is actually a distant relative of Weinstein’s first Rhombus film, the 1984 short doc Making Overtures: The Story of a Community Orchestra. “It was very much about a community getting behind the activity— in that case, music. But at the time, I felt the music was secondary. It could have been a bingo event that people just love. On The 13th Man —even though I know nothing about football and was feeling incompetent and scared when I started filming—people were so generous and I just switched into my Making Overtures brain,” he says. He credits football-savvy writer John Turner with doing much of the research and preparing interview questions.

The film was the first in the series to go to air, nabbing an average audience of 530,000 on Thanksgiving Monday for TSN—the sports channel’s highest-ever rating for a documentary— and justifying the broadcaster’s faith in the project.

Underdog story
The Alouettes’ Anthony Calvillo, the quarterback on the winning end of the 2009 Grey Cup, is the subject of Saywell’s The Kid from La Puente. The Mexican-American Calvillo has overcome many personal and professional obstacles on his way to becoming pro football’s all-time passing-yards leader. He grew up in an abusive household with an older brother, David, whose gangland activities landed him in jail. After a rough start playing for Hamilton, Calvillo found his game in Montreal. But his career was interrupted when his wife Alexia was diagnosed with cancer and he took a leave of absence. When that battle was overcome, and after winning the 2010 Grey Cup, Calvillo revealed he had a cancerous lesion on his thyroid. He had the lesion removed, and one might think that at age 38 he would have then retired, but he continues to wear number 13 for the Als.

Saywell has built her reputation on acclaimed films on themes of war and human rights, such as 2010’s In the Name of the Family, which won best Canadian feature at Hot Docs. When Infield Fly Productions’ Dugald Maudsley approached her last December to do the project, she responded with skepticism. “I haven’t worked for anybody for years. I just really do my own films,” she explains. “The first thing I thought was that it was going to be reality TV, which is what these calls are typically about. He told me it was about a football player and I just started laughing. He didn’t know that much about Anthony, but he knew Anthony grew up in East LA and had had a tough life. He said, ‘I thought you would be good for that,’ and I was immediately interested.”

Saywell got remarkable access to the Calvillo family, who are surprisingly forthright about their lives. “I started with Anthony and he said, ‘There’s stuff in my past that’s not easy for me to talk about and I don’t know how far I want to go with it and I don’t want to hurt other family members.’ But he was doing the film partly because he knows his story might resonate with kids who are like he was,” she explains.

In an early cut, Saywell looked to appease broadcast executives by upping the quotient of football footage at the expense of Calvillo’s personal story, but was surprised by their feedback. “The note back was, ‘Get rid of the football. Our audience knows about that,’” she recalls.

Saywell is not only artistically satisfied with the project, but also sees Bell Media’s initiative as beneficial in a bigger sense. “They’re really behind it,” she says. “This is a good thing for docs because docs often don’t get promoted enough for television. We all have heartbreaking stories about working two or three years on a film that gets thrown on the air without enough lead time to even get publicity. But this is important to them. They wanted us to have creative autonomy and they also wanted to make sure they got films their audience would dig.”

Other Films In Engraved on a Nation:

The Photograph
Manfred Becker, a 2007 Gemini Award winner for his Nazism-themed doc Fatherland, revisits the World War II era in this emotional film. As with Officer’s Stone Thrower, it involves the filial urge to learn more about a parent. Becker turns his lens on Jackie and Diane Gaudaur, who trace the history of father Jake, the CFL’s longest-serving commissioner and a former player. During the war, Jake, a flight instructor, stayed behind while most of his teammates on the Grey Cup-champion Toronto Royal Canadian Air Force Hurricanes went off to fight—many never coming back. Jake was devastated and his daughters seek to understand the significance of a frayed team photo their their father held onto until his death in 2007.

The Crash
More family history here from filmmaker Paul Cowan, this time involving a peace-time tragedy. Calvin Jones, an African-American lineman who excelled at the University of Iowa, went on to play for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. After participating in the 1956 East vs. West All-Star game in Vancouver, Jones and four members of the Saskatchewan Roughriders perished in a plane crash that still ranks as one of the worst in Canadian history. (The 62 casualties matched the number on Jones’ jersey.) Writer/director/cinematographer Cowan, a former member of the National Film Board and a Genie Award winner for Westray, measures the impact of the Flight 810 disaster on the game and Cowan’s family, including grandson Edwin Harrison, a Calgary Stampeders lineman.

Playing a Dangerous Game
Jake Gaudaur also figures as a central character in this film by John Walker, one of Canada’s great nonfiction filmmakers, known for Passage and Men of the Deeps. Here Walker looks behind-the-scenes at Toronto-based commissioner Gaudaur’s perhaps illadvised decision to hold the 1969 Grey Cup in Montreal for the first time since 1931. Earlier that year the sovereignist Quebec Liberation Front (FLQ) had bombed the Montreal Stock Exchange as well as the home of Mayor Jean Drapeau. Further stoking the fire, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau was selected for the ceremonial kickoff, which heightened security at the Autostade. Meanwhile, the battle on the field was between the Saskatchewan Roughriders and Ottawa Rough Riders, whose star quarterback Russ Jackson made his last game memorable.

The Greatest Team That Never Won
Shifting a couple of years and 500 km down the 401, Christie Callan-Jones, director of Cat Ladies and a couple of award-winning episodes of History Television’s Turning Points of History, reflects on the 1971 Toronto Argonauts. The wild and woolly team assembled by GM Leo Cahill and starring the iconic quarterback Joe Theismann was symbolic of a Toronto shedding its puritanical image and coming into its own. But fans’ dreams of seeing their team capture the 59th Grey Cup—in its first finals appearance since 1952—would be crushed with a couple of minutes on the clock. Argos running back Leon McQuay dropped the ball on the rain-soaked field in what was controversially ruled a fumble, and the Calgary Stampeders recovered to ultimately win, 14-11.

Western Swagger
Alberta’s other team is at the heart of this film by Barry Greenwald, who has won multiple awards for docs including High Risk Offender and The Negotiator. Here he draws parallels between Edmonton’s fortunes in the oil and football fields. After all, its beloved Eskimos club re-entered the CFL just a couple of years after the city’s first major oil discovery in 1947. The city enjoyed boom years in the 1970s and 1980s thanks to high oil prices, while the Esks were similarly blessed, capturing the Grey Cup each year between 1978 and 1982. The film concentrates on the 1981 Grey Cup, when an underrated Ottawa team almost upset Edmonton, soon after Alberta premier Peter Lougheed had taken two blows for Team Canada, agreeing to Prime Minister Trudeau’s National Energy Programme (which cost Albertans revenue) and helping to repatriate the Constitution.

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