The Docmedia Manifesto

19 mins read

I believe that the justification of art is the internal combustion it ignites in the hearts of men and not its shallow, externalized, public manifestations. The purpose of art is not the release of a momentary ejection of adrenalin but is, rather, the gradual, lifelong construction of a state of wonder and serenity.
Glenn Gould

This article is going to make you believe in one truth and one truth only: That Documentary is Canada’s ONLY Original Art Form. It should be protected in much the same way as one protects an endangered species in a United Nations heritage zone. Or a Tom Thomson painting in our National Gallery. And it should be funded with 10 percent of the GDP, because it brings Canadians 50 percent of their pleasure.

This is a call to arms in the pacifist sense. But because it’s about filmmaking, it’s both a call to alms, and a call to art. A Reality Manifesto. The campaign that this manifesto will enflame is as earnest as a director of a Griersonian documentary. But it also has a provocative tongue placed in my fat cheek. Here at _POV _we hope to incite more recognition for docs in the country that founded the genre. O reader, with your help, making and disseminating creative Canadian docmedia will forever be much better for all of us


If newspapers were written by people whose sole object was to tell the truth about politics and the truth about art, then we would not believe in war, and we would believe in art.
Virginia Woolf

A recent visit to the National Gallery in Ottawa confirmed my theory that, as emotionally moving as it was, most of the great Canadian visual, plastic and performance arts are borrowed without a down payment from other places, or are derivative clones. In form, function and materials, they are Darwin’s children, adopted from outside Canada in the great international pomo brouhaha called contemporary art.

I may be crucified on a Maple tree gnawed by beavers, but let me posit for a moment my theory: that outside of indigenous peoples’ creative cultures, the only art form indigenous to this country and developed to its highest form has been the long-form documentary film.

Think about this: Grab the next person you see and ask them what art form they associate with any particular country. When you think about America, what is the first original art form that immediately comes to mind? Why, it’s jazz, of course. With Greece, it’s the sculptures. France: vintage wine. With Italy, you could say food, but I reckon it’s the ecstatic painters like da Vinci and Michelangelo. India has its ageless classical dance and music, China its porcelain and cloisonné enamel. Japan—its Zen-inspired flower arranging, Holland has realist painters. Aboriginal Australia has its millennial rock paintings, Russia its poets, Britain its literature.

But when you say Canada to anyone anywhere in the world, the first images that will come to their mind will be the pictures painted by Canadian documentary film. I guarantee it!


We all know that Art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize the truth, at least the truth that is given to us to understand.
Pablo Picasso

While the first documentaries were made by Edison and the Lumière brothers in the mid-1890s, some of the earliest docs ever made were by a farmer living in the middle earth of Canada: Brandon, Man. In 1897, with an Edison combo camera-projector in hand, James Freer filmed documentaries about what he knew.

As Professor Gene Walz of the University of Manitoba has commented, some of Freer’s short films were barely longer than their titles: Arrival of CPR Express at Winnipeg; Six Binders at Work in a Hundred Acre Wheatfield; Typical Stooking Scene; Cyclone Thresher at Work; and Harnessing the Virgin Prairie. With the Canadian Pacific Railway, Freer organized a screening tour through the United Kingdom. It was a chance to recruit immigrants, who would naturally have to take the train when they arrived in Canada.

In the early 1900s, Freer gave way to The Bioscope Company and others documenting the young nation. Then came the first fiction film, Hiawatha, The Messiah of the Ojibway (1903), which looked like a bad documentary. British producer Charles Urban’s 1904 catalogue of CPR-commissioned films depicting life in Canada includes the docs Montreal on Skates and Ice Yachting on the St. Lawrence. In Montreal, down the street from my house, Ernest Ouimet established the country’s first film exchange in 1903 and opened Canada’s first theatre in 1907. In 1917, Ontario established the Ontario Motion Picture Bureau, “to carry out educational work for farmers, school children, factory workers, and other classes.” The Canadian Government Motion Picture Bureau followed in 1918.

To most people, documentary was invented in Canada. In the 1910s and early ’20s, Robert Flaherty made his incursion into Quebec’s Arctic, making the first doc-feature, Nanook of the North (1922). His film was a huge hit, praised by many, including a Scottish critic who coined the phrase “documentary” to describe Flaherty’s next film, Moana (1927). That Scotsman, John Grierson, came to Canada in 1939 at the request of Prime Minister Mackenzie King and started the National Film Board (NFB). Its mandate “to interpret Canada to Canadians and to other nations” allowed Grierson and his successors to develop a group of doc filmmakers including Colin Low, Wolf Koenig, Roman Kroitor, Michel Brault and Gilles Groulx. Those directors and cinematographers would go on to create the most important movement in documentary history, the cinema verité (art)form. With the development of an independent documentary sector three decades ago, we’ve gone on to make more docs per capita than any other nation in the world. How’s that for dreaming and creating BIG ART?


Without tradition, art is a flock of sheep without a shepherd. Without innovation, it is a corpse.
Winston Churchill

Think of a name of any great Canadian documentarist. I will pick two mentors—Donald Brittain, and Michel Brault. Brittain—the man with the whiskey-soaked voice of a tough old reporter delivering the goods in docs on concentration camps, baseball pitchers, Quebec politicians and corrupt union organisers. Brault—the visionary cinematographer and director who showed us wrestlers at the old Montreal Forum, snowshoers in 1950s Sherbrooke, and Sixties Quebecois activists. I put pictures of these two saints in a shrine in my living room. You choose your own. They deserve top recognition for their work. Why? Because documentaries push forward social agendas like no other art form born here. Documentaries are the way that the world knows about Canada. They are vehicles for diversity, education and action. As they march around the world, Canadian docs also return more money per dollar invested to the public purse than their fictional brothers and sisters. Docs are a living Canadian institution and must be supported.


There is no pulse so sure of the state of a nation as its characteristic art product, which has nothing to do with its material life.
Gertrude Stein

In Truth, documentary is the informational art, the art of information, the art of reality considered.

Art, and especially the art of documentary, can shed light into the dark corners of these dark times.

Art, in all its incarnations and cultural iterations, can fill a people with the inspiration and the means to see its way forward.

Art, however it is defined, can turn us into true, active and creative citizens.

The documentary art shows us that another world is possible. A world where films can change the world. A world where free expression is possible. A world where there are no walls, no barriers, no limits to free speech, no economic impediments to creativity.

It is art that should take its proper place at the centre of all decisions about what this country is, and what it can become.


Art, if it is to be reckoned as one of the great values of life, must teach man humility, tolerance, wisdom and magnanimity. The value of art is not beauty, but right action.
W. Somerset Maugham

This “documentary is art” thesis got me thinking about manifestos. And by extension, manifiestas, which are about how you take your principles to market. As a creative individual, packaging with passion, a true artist can blow thought bubbles at us or spit the world back onto itself, as a unique film or object lesson. As an icon, manifestos are symbolic statements or new facts of life that audiences can reflect upon or reject.

I love manifestos, which are really rules to live by. They are as old as the hills themselves. As long as there have been rocks, there have been sets of commandments to scratch into them. Moses figured that one out. My favourite is the Why Cheap Art? manifesto from Vermont’s Bread and Puppet Theater: “ART IS FOOD. You can’t EAT it BUT it FEEDS you. ART has to be CHEAP & available to EVERYBODY.”

The grandparent of all film manifestos was written by documentary pioneer Dziga Vertov, whose Man With A Movie Camera is the first great non-fiction film. Ziggy and his friends wrote manifestos in the Soviet Union of the 1920s. Among their points: “The organism of cinematography is poisoned by the frightful venom of habit. We demand being given an opportunity to experiment with the dying organism, with an objective of finding an anti-toxin.”

Manifesto-generating is a way of developing your own voice and vision. I’ve written a few manifestos. Two decades ago in October 1987, I wrote the “Maple Leaf Manifesto” for the film mag Cinema Canada. It was a cry to replace the Ameri-continental dream of manifest destiny in our cultural industries with ones which were more indigenous, local, and you know, Canadian. That magazine is long gone. And so, it seems, under the current regime of unhappy circumstances, is our national culture. But the art of documentary remains!

So, here’s a new manifesto, the Docmedia Manifesto.

We are independent film and docmakers and I am a cultural investigator. It has fallen upon me to inscribe the synthesized thoughts and feelings of a number of people who are working in documentary and independent cinema here in Canada. This is an intuitive blueprint for the future, but it is by no means cast in stone, iron or celluloid. It is malleable, to be added to and subtracted from, to be completely rewritten if need be, custom-crafted to suit the individuals that we are.

Here goes:

WHEREAS despite the assimilation, acquisition and destruction of local, native, original and indigenous media cultures brought about by super powerful production and marketing processes commonly called “the industry,” there is a rebirth of what we have come to know as the independent creative documentary, the cinema of meaning and resistance.

AND WHEREAS we desire and demand a new reality, a reality mediated by our own storytellers, writers, producers, personae, technicians and directors with a scale and human interest that we can respond to.

AND WHEREAS we, the uninitialized, the uninitiated and the not-yet famous or infamous women and men creators of independent media, will work to replace monocultural media with our own smaller visions of ourselves and our world that will have, ironically, a much larger scope.

THEN, BE IT RESOLVED THAT we declare that the Canadian Documentary is Canada’s Original Art form and should be protected and supported.

WE DEMAND that Canadian Documentary media be funded by we the public, and by the public purse, by public broadcasting and broadband casting, by para-public agencies and the publicly subsidized private sector. We demand that public broadcasters get serious and get back in the game.

WE DECLARE that seven decades of intrusion by American lobbyists interfering at the highest levels with policies and law-making have prevented enforced quotas for Canadian content on Canadian screens are enough. Things must change. We demand that 33 percent of all theatrical, television and hand-held Canadian screens be given over to Canadian content, including documentary. We want access to our own networks.

WE DEMAND that 10 percent of our nominal Gross Domestic Product—$1.7 trillion dollars—be devoted to the information and cultural industries and to arts, entertainment and recreation. Let’s sell off one F-35 a year and put the money into Culture! And while we’re at it, let’s double our output and priorities. Let’s refocus on educational services, healthcare, social assistance, care for the elderly, environmental sustainability, help for the First Nations. These are Documentary Values.

WE DEMAND the return of the billions of dollars of box-office receipts that American media companies effectively take out of Canada each year. An involuntary levy must be gathered from cinema-goers who watch American and foreign films, the proceeds of which would go to finance our domestic production.

WE DEMAND that pubcasters and private corps be compelled to play at least one long-form doc a day. The One Doc a Day campaign emulates those initiatives trying to convince us to take an ASA tablet a day, or to drink eight glasses of water, eat five portions of fruit or have one unit of sex per day.

WE DEMAND that a Museum of Canadian Documentary be built, supported federally, and that a chain of local DOC-houses or centres for Docmedia Arts be built across Canada and Quebec and financed provincially.

WE DEMAND THE RETURN OF our voices, our screens and the means to create a visual literature of documentary reality that is ours to share with others in our country and around the world.

WE DEMAND FULL AND EQUAL representation on all the boards and committees and juries that make up our cultural institutions. We demand recognition and the means to be recognized.

WE DEMAND that the idea that Documentary is Art should be defended until the end of History…or until the Montreal Canadiens win the Stanley Cup, whatever comes first.

AND FINALLY, I PERSONALLY DEMAND a litre of maple syrup and a half dozen pancakes for writing this article. Because making all these demands is making me hungry.


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