The new debate: Is the documentary our national art form?

A conversation between Kevin McMahon and Marc Glassman

28 mins read

Doc stalwart McMahon shocked mainstream media with his aesthetic call to arms during Hot Docs. Grabbing the cultural elite by the throat, he argued that documentary is Canada’s art form. POV editor Marc Glassman and Kevin McMahon debate his revolutionary suggestion.

Marc: Kevin, you wrote in the National Post during Hot Docs: “I’d argue that documentary is such a cherished cultural form here that the government ought to take the long overdue step of designating the documentary Canada’s Official Art.

“Just as the beaver, the colour red and the Maple Leaf have Parliamentary sanction as our official animal, hue and textile, so should documentary be designated our particularly Canadian cultural form… In the cultural realm, there is nothing so Canadian as drawing images from reality and hewing them into a meaningful shape.”

I heartily agree with you. In fact, I want to campaign for legislation to turn your proposal into a National Act. I know it would help the documentary movement in Canada, which is currently suffering from a lack of funding despite the phenomenal rise in popularity of three major doc festivals in the country, Toronto’s Hot Docs, the RIDM (Rencontres Internationales du Documentaire de Montréal) and Vancouver’s DOXA. But I must admit that you’ve struck a chord with me—and, I hope, many others. I think that Canadians are fundamentally documentarians: realists who get on with things and pride themselves on not dreaming the impossible dream.

I have a few questions for you, Kevin, and here’s the first one: What is the national imagination for Canadians?

And here’s a second: Do you agree that our national character is profoundly practical?

And a third: What makes us the “sober second choice,” operating in contrast to the profoundly optimistic Hollywood of America?

Kevin: First, Marc, thanks for the support. This proposal was intended as a way of highlighting the brilliance of Canadian documentary makers—both historic and contemporary. Basically, I wanted to cheer up my colleagues, who are going through tough times. I’m delighted that it’s been so enthusiastically received.

Now, to your questions. My answer to the first has to be qualified because, of course, the national imagination is both a cumulative thing—the sum of the dreams of Canadian individuals—and a collective one. What interests me is the latter, as it is expressed through our art, journalism, inventions, civic achievements and politics.

I think our collective national vision can be characterized as a “sympathetic imagination.” By that I mean that the default position of a Canadian’s imagination is to put oneself inside the Other’s head and/or conjure the enormous landscape around you and/or see yourself as others see you. If I have a sympathetic imagination it means that I am always striving to see how I fit it into the world as it appears before me.

I’d contrast that to the American “heroic imagination.” That’s what built Hollywood. Now, as you know, there’s a school of critical thought that argues that Canada only defines its character in contrast to the U.S. I don’t agree, but there’s no doubt that America dominates the film and television industries and the imaginative paradigms that flow from them. So it’s interesting to consider our differences, especially because the American idea of success influences many Canadian creators and most of our cultural gatekeepers. And not in a good way.

The priority of the “heroic imagination” is to envisage the victory of the dreamer vividly enough to carry him (or her, theoretically, but likely him) on a solo tear through any slog, however gory. That’s how empires get built. The priority of the “sympathetic imagination” is to envisage the survival of the dreamer in a given landscape, which means that acquiring understanding is both its process and its goal.

Now, of course, we’re indebted to Margaret Atwood for this “survival” idea, which is endlessly reinforced when you read our history or venture beyond our cities. While I’m footnoting, I should add that “sympathetic imagination” is not my phrase. It popped into my head while considering your question and I thought I remembered John Berger writing about it (which seems plausible). But I just searched it and some philosophy website attributes it to Scottish moral philosophers of the 18th century. I know nothing about philosophy, but that makes sense in our context. Maybe the HBC laddies brought it over in their kit!

Seriously though, American colonists came to this continent as a band of rigid co-religionists, rejecting their homeland and looking to each other for validation. They spent generations clinging to their beliefs on the Atlantic coast, giving the continent the back of their hand. Their vaunted optimistic individualism is not (despite the cowboy myth invented by Jewish immigrants) about “going it alone.” It’s about each man striving for ultimate status within the group. So they learned to imagine themselves as “heroes” to achieve that.

Our tradition is just the opposite. The first Europeans who came here were royalists, yet real individuals—Samuel de Champlain being the prototype and founder. He travelled inland, alone, through established, warring nations with languages and customs he found all but unintelligible. You can’t survive in such a context without being able to really imagine the surrounding environment and the feelings of the people you meet. Champlain was a master of both. His example was followed by many who came after, and I believe Canada’s imagination was forged through their experiences.

So, regarding your second question, yes, I agree that our character is profoundly practical for all the reasons above. To take an inquisitive but deferential approach to your surroundings has the practical value of helping you not get killed. Our history also includes imperious idiots like John Franklin who refused to imagine reality and died accordingly. But they are the exceptions that prove the rule.

And let’s not forget that, as Peter Wintonick always says, documentary is the second great Canadian form—aboriginal arts being the first. If our collective imagination was as sympathetic as Champlain’s, the First Nations would not be so troubled. So we still have a long way to go in honing our sensibilities.

Marc: I don’t quite buy that we’re rugged individualists and the Yanks are not. What about Daniel Boone and Lewis and Clark? What we don’t have—with the exception of Louis Riel—is the rebellious nature that motivated the American Revolution. Replacing their sheer contrariness, we evince a more accommodating nature that tends to build bridges, not blow them up. Simple fact: The U.S.’s defining moment is the Civil War, which has been revisited in films like Gone with the Wind and Birth of a Nation and TV programmes like Ken Burns’ massive documentary series. Our ongoing debate is with Quebec but it’s not led to the type of bloodshed that ruptured the U.S.’s North and South, nor will it ever do so.

Kevin (smiling): Daniel Boone was a self-aggrandizing Republican tavern-keeper mostly remembered because of a lousy TV show that, even when we were kids, looked ridiculously goody-goody, even compared to the saccharine Bonanza. Lewis and Clark led a musket-wielding military expedition that was only saved from being slaughtered by arrow-shooting natives thanks to the repeated efforts of a 15-year-old aboriginal girl who was married to a French-Canadian (and he didn’t need 30 soldiers to feel safe travelling in the west). The reality of those guys and their bloated myths just proves my point.

But I accept your bigger idea—and it is one that bedevils Canadian filmmakers. All the tropes of the heroic imagination are intrinsically dramatic, which is not true for its sympathetic cousin. It’s compelling to watch people blow up a bridge. Whereas to watch the building of one? Not so much.

Marc: I think that delving into our national character may be a good way to look at why the documentary was arguably created and certainly evolved here. It seems to me that may provide us insights into the following point, which I think is the most important one you made in the Post piece: “Documentary is uniquely ours by both history and nature, and we are (I’m sorry to boast) the best in the world at it. Nanook of the North, made by Robert Flaherty in 1922 near Inukjuak, Quebec, was the world’s first real documentary—though it was not then called that. The term ‘documentary’ was coined a few years later by John Grierson, father of the National Film Board of Canada.”

After all, if we’re to make the argument that documentary should be our official art form, it should be wholly Canadian, intrinsic to our country. Many of us love novels, for example, and are proud of Atwood, Munro, Ondaatje and other Canadian writers. But we can hardly claim that the novel originated in Canada. We can make that claim for the documentary.

Do you agree?

Kevin: I do agree. I’m not sure that we can argue it’s intrinsic to the country in the sense that someone somewhere would have invented documentary if Canada had not. After all, proto-documentaries begin with the Lumières in France. That said, not only is documentary’s actual history rooted in Canada but, I think, the nature of our national imagination also means that Canadian expression is rooted in documentary.

Modern documentary’s Canadian foundation is a matter of simple historical fact. But it’s worth unpacking the facts to understand their meaning.

First, there is Flaherty, the American, who is schooled in Toronto and sets out to be a prospector, not a filmmaker. It’s his boss—William Mackenzie, Canadian railway builder—who suggests he bring a camera when he goes north. So the Canadian impulse is not just to grab the gold but to observe and learn about the place and people. Flaherty got so caught up with that, he forgot all about grabbing the gold. Of course we must also admit that Flaherty’s success comes from exhibiting in the States—and that too is an enduring thing. Americans are always way better than us at blowing their own horn.

Consider also Grierson. He began as a film producer in Britain, but working for government agencies for which documentary was a sideline promotional activity. It is Canada—Mackenzie King’s government—which inviteshim to come here and set up the National Film Board, which, as far as I know, was the world’s first purpose-built documentary studio. In that typical Canadian way, an impulse in the zeitgeist was codified by government and structured into a physical reality, the NFB, that reinforced the zeitgeist. That seems to be how Canucks do things; that’s also how peacekeeping, constitutional multiculturalism and media studies were born.

You also mention the other Canadian arts and artists we love, and it’s worth talking about them too, because much of our best art is rooted in a documentary sensibility.

It’s obvious with many of the painters beloved across generations—Krieghoff, Carr, the Group of Seven, Colville—several of whom began as documentarian war artists. It’s also discernible in the work of some of our greatest novelists, who seem to be influenced by the 19th-century social-realist tradition in a way many contemporary writers are not (as Tom Wolfe famously complained). Maybe Atwood or Ondaatje would be appalled to read this, but it seems to me that, while they can be luminous poets, they are fundamentally brilliant social chroniclers. Same goes for many of our legendary musicians: Cockburn, Lightfoot and even, sometimes, Neil Young. Or think of the younger musicians. The Tragically Hip’s 50 Mission Cap is a documentary in a song. Look at the work of Sarah Harmer or Shad. When I heard that Grassy Narrows residents were in Toronto protesting their ongoing mercury poisoning, the first thing I thought of was Cockburn’s Gavin’s Woodpile. There’s a reason for that.

Obviously, pushed far enough, this argument becomes silly. But Canadian artists are very often people who strive, above all, to understand what is real. And that’s a documentarian’s job description.

Marc: You and I are Canadian nationalists so it’s not too surprising that we agree on many things: our sympathetic imagination as opposed to the U.S.’s notions of heroism; the documentary nature of much of our art practice even in literature, painting and song; and a historic impulse to map out and observe our landscape.

Further to your discovery that “sympathetic imagination” comes from Scottish moral philosophers—that’s also where the intellectual underpinning of John Grierson’s aesthetic and ethical approach towards film can be derived. He wanted to use cinema to edify audiences and build a sense of national and moral purpose, quite the opposite of Hollywood. We can reasonably argue that documentaries come from the same impulse that begat the sympathetic imagination.

Kevin: Absolutely! Grierson was, after all, a craggy old Scot and certainly a moral philosopher. I love that quote of his about the civic purpose of documentary:

“What…made documentary successful as a movement was that in a decade of spiritual weariness it reached out, almost alone among the media, towards the future. Obviously it was the public purpose within it which commanded government and other backing, the progressive social intention within it which secured the regard of the newspapers and people of goodwill everywhere, and the sense of a public cause to be served which kept its own people together. These facts should have made it clear that the documentary idea was not basically a film idea at all, and the film treatment it inspired only an incidental aspect of it. The medium happened to be the most convenient and most exciting available to us. The idea itself, on the other hand, was a new idea for public education: its underlying concept that the world was in a phase of drastic change affecting every manner of thought and practice, and the public comprehension of the nature of that change vital… Our job specifically was to wake the heart and the will.”

Many of those sentiments could have been written yesterday. In an era of spiritual weariness, here is a medium—or maybe it is better to say an impulse—that is reaching towards the future. That is still so true! In Toronto we are now lucky enough to have the refurbished Bloor Hot Docs Cinema, which mostly shows docs. I go there once or twice a week. And here is what is always startling, exhilarating and scary about the experience: Afterwards, in the lobby, someone is always saying: “Holy smokes, why didn’t I know that before? Why has no one told us that?” Much of the so-called news media have abandoned their watch. High art is absurdly insular. True leadership in politics is rare. Religion is largely hysterical and morally bankrupt. There are few pulpits you can stand before with a reasonable assurance that the speaker is honestly reaching for the truth. Documentaries, usually, are. The other strikingly modern point Grierson makes is that film was convenient to documentary’s civic purpose, but not inherent. Today, some of the most valuable documentaries are websites or photography shows—or, indeed, songs!

Marc: I’d like to focus our discussion on the practical—as befitting good Canadians and, of course, documentarians, if you will allow a journalist into that realm!

Kevin: I don’t distinguish… Reporter/documentarian. “Potayto/potawto… .”

Marc: If we’re right that the documentary is intrinsic to the Canadian collective imagination, how can we advocate for its formal acknowledgment as our national art form?

Doing anything to promulgate the notion runs against our national reluctance to blow our own horn, but I insist that it’s time for us to wail away. Do you agree?

Kevin: Well, I do agree—that is why I raised this idea. Though, to be honest, it was really a defensive gesture. I fully support the collective political-protest actions of DOC and the individual ones of our colleagues, but I originally proposed this idea as an alternative— or an addition—to the wailing and complaining about the dismal state of documentary support from the Canadian government and broadcasters. However, to be a little less Pollyannaish, it’s also worth pointing out the corollaries to the argument.

First, because our transitory politicians have always been afraid of our powerful broadcasters, they have consistently refused to provide us a fair market for our work—as they did for both music and books, which enabled those to flourish to the point of great export success.

The saw-off was to provide massive government subsidies to film- and television-makers. Well, okay. But if we are going to spend many billions—billions!—of taxpayer dollars, should it not go into enterprises that have some civic purpose? Like I always say: A shitty documentary still has the public value of providing a record of a people, a time and a place. A shitty drama is just a waste of everyone’s time and resources. And, let’s face it, excellence is rare in every medium. But drama scarfs up a ridiculously disproportionate amount of the public funds put into Canadian audio-visual art.

Second, as I see every week at the Bloor, and as the growth of the documentary festivals shows, the public craves documentaries because, well, these are tough times, fella, and you can’t live on cotton candy alone. But our broadcasters—who are government licensed, and therefore taking up public space, but always pretending they aren’t—are essentially fast-food vendors who marginalise docs, if they have them on the menu at all. I hasten to add that cable—and now digital stations have also been a boon for documentary makers. Every one of the minor channels has, in its turn, built its brand with our labour, and we have, as a result, flourished.

There are infinitely more outlets for nonfiction today than there were when I started out. But, like any company that gets big, successful media outlets are inevitably overtaken by bean-counters who only respect next month’s bottom line. So they start outsourcing to some cynical offshore factory that pumps out spun sugar. It seems to be the human condition. Or at least the capitalist human condition. And there’s nothing we lowly filmmakers can do about that. But it does seem a bit much for the Canadian taxpayer to be hoodwinked into subsidizing something that is just going to rot their teeth—or mind, as the case may be.

Lest I sound bitter, let me say that I’ve been at this for more than three decades and I have known publishers, broadcast executives and even whole media corporations that were wise enough to understand the congruence of their own best interests and their civic purpose in a democratic society. I haven’t known a lot of them but there’s the odd one still kicking about.

Marc: Kevin, maybe we should leave aside the practicalities of running a campaign to promote docs as our national art form until we see if there is a groundswell of support for the idea. I think we’ll find that a lot of people are interested in advocating for docs. But then, as you’ve told me before, I’m an optimist! What’s your take on where we’re at in the documentary world post your Hot Docs proposal?

Kevin: It’s an objectively interesting situation in which we find ourselves. Ours is, after all, damn good work if you can get it. Actually, it’s great work: exciting, adventuresome, fascinating, creative and fun. But, more than any of those things, it’s good because it’s really fulfilling to know that your work is, and always will be, useful to your fellow citizens and a boon to democracy. I suppose that’s ultimately why the most powerful of citizens would prefer we don’t do it. What will be interesting, as this discussion spreads, is to hear what everyone else has to say.

Do you want the documentary to be declared Canada’s national art form? Make your voice heard by signing this petition sponsored by the Documentary Organization of Canada.

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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