The POV Interview: Rudy Buttignol

37 mins read

Rudy Buttignol is a key figure in the contemporary documentary movement. Articulate and gregarious, his presence is felt wherever he goes: in Canada at Banff and Hot Docs, in European festivals ranging from IDFA (International Documentary Filmfestival Amsterdam) to Marseilles and in conferences for Science and History producers from Japan to his native Italy. Whether it’s on practical or aesthetic issues, producers, commissioning editors and festival directors around the globe seek out Buttignol’s strong-willed assessments.

The Creative Head of Network Programming at TVOntario, Buttignol has been responsible for many of the important documentaries made in Canada over the past twenty years. Among the films he commissioned are The Corporation (2003), Let It Come Down: The Life of Paul Bowles (1998), Memory: for Max, Claire, Ida and Company (2005), and Hitman Hart: Wrestling with Shadows (1998). Buttignol created TVOntario’s acclaimed point-of-view doc series, The View from Here, and has been the executive producer of the station’s international programme, The Human Edge. He has worked with such leading documentarians as Allan King, Jennifer Baichwal, Niv Fichman, Paul Jay and Mark Achbar.

Buttignol is one of the founders of the Canadian Independent Film Caucus, now known as DOC, the Documentary Organisation of Canada. He was instrumental in the creation of POV, which is still published by DOC. Generous with his time and opinions, Buttignol has worked tirelessly for greater recognition of documentaries at the Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television. He is a highly respected advisor to Hot Docs, a festival he helped in its earliest stages and for which he helped to create their influential Toronto Documentary Forum.

The multi-award-winning Buttignol took time off his busy schedule this past winter to discuss his life, career and passionate opinions about documentaries with POV.

RB: Rudy Buttignol
POV: Marc Glassman, editor of POV

Early Days

POV: Rudy, you grew up in Toronto in the 60s, an Italian kid dealing with all the WASPs. How did you move from that into studying film?

RUDY BUTTIGNOL: When I was 14, I started taking Independent English, in which students could pursue their own course of study. You didn’t have to be in the classroom every day. There was a class presentation that everybody had to do, and I decided to make a film. My project was re-conceiving a few scenes from 1984. Being a young guy, I had a lot of chasing scenes, a lot of torture, and a lot of running up and down. I had been a shy, timid kid, and all of a sudden, I was presenting this arty little Super 8 film to my class! And I think it was the first time that the teacher really liked something that I had done. At the next school assembly, I showed my film and when it ended, I heard the audience applaud. I thought ‘Wow, this is good!’

I started making films every year and when the time came to go to university, York was just starting its programme and it was the only degree-granting film programme in Canada. I was part of the first full film programme there, in 1971.

POV: Wasn’t Jim Beveridge, the famous Griersonian, running the programme then?

RB: Yes, Jim Beveridge founded the programme. Jim was really an interesting guy, full of knowledge. I’d been quite passionate about cinema but I quickly realized how little I knew. I must have seen six or seven hundred films in that first year. I realised I needed to learn; I needed to see the Japanese films, the New Wave films, the neorealist films. So I spent all my time watching films.

POV: Did you study documentaries at York?

RB: There was only one documentary course and it was taught by John Katz. So I took that course and that turned me on to documentary film. At the time, the big thing was the ’60s protest films—the Chicago riots, the Democratic convention— but the movie that really turned me around was A Married Couple (1969), Allan King’s film. I remember that I saw it at a great art house theatre, Cine-Cité, just off Yonge Street near Bloor. Two hours later I walked out of the screening going ‘It’s real? Those were real people!’ It was just something that I’d never seen before. And it was the first time I’d had a theatrical experience with a non-fiction film.

Independence and the Caucus

POV: When you graduated York, you got into filmmaking right away. It was the ’70s in Toronto, which wasn’t a great time for the industry. What did you do?

RB: When I came out of school, the CBC and NFB were it. There was no structural support for an independent industry; the government was it. There was a recession on in ’75. The industry was not hiring and people were being ‘downscaled.’ And so we walked into a recession, and if you’re gonna work for nothin’, you might as well work for yourself for nothin’! That was my attitude, and instead of paying my student loan I bought a Steenbeck, with the theory that I could rent it out during the day, cut my own stuff at night, and in the process meet people in the industry. Then one Steenbeck led to three Steenbecks and I was editing other people’s work.

Finally I said to myself ‘You know, I’ve sat here for days correcting everybody’s mistakes, I think I’m going to go out and make my own mistakes.’ And that was the end of editing for other people, the end of being a service house. I realized it was good experience: I got to know a lot of people, I’d seen how the industry worked, and now I could branch out on my own, start making my own films.

POV: You were interested in space travel quite a bit in those early films, weren’t you?

RB: That began with a call from Louise Clark. I got hired on through the Film Board to cover the programme, and over the course of that time got to meet what were Canada’s space pioneers. I worked with David Sobelman on a series called The Space Experience and we made a separate doc on the pioneers.

POV: This was around the same time you were working on Neon: An Electric Memoir in 1985…

RB: It was ’85, yes. We spent four years shooting a great selection of neon and art and architecture. We shot it all over the continent. Every time I had some money we’d get in the car, drive around and follow the neon trails across North America. I said ‘This is terrific, even if it doesn’t turn into anything other than a collection of great lights.’ I was doing some volunteer work with Rhombus at the time, and one of the partners there was John Frizzell. I asked him for advice, and he said, ‘Structurally it’s pretty there, you just need a couple of changes. I’ve got this friend, Jackie Burroughs; she loves this stuff, and will probably help you out for nothing.’

So we brought her in; she just loved the project and said ‘okay, I’ll do it.’ She ended up narrating and then doing an on- camera piece as a fictional character, Gloria Reposo. The idea was that at 14 she ran away with a neon glass bender and this was her life. It was totally illogical; if you count the years she probably would have been 110! But it really didn’t matter because it was so much fun. Adding that fictional element, the docudrama, was one of those liberating things. It made me fall in love with actors and writing and made me realize the potential that was there. Whether fiction should mix with documentary, that’s the lifelong question; but it just gave me such admiration for what actors can bring to a project.

POV: The question of docudrama and allowing fiction into documentary is a major one. Has your attitude changed over the years?

RB: Well, I’d say that I’ve always had an aesthetic problem with it. For certain people it does work, and it’s clearly a very popular form. But what I loved about those documentary photographers, what I loved about Life magazine, about Allan King’s Married Couple, was that it was real. It was happening; it was trying to capture what life is like. And I always think one of the key properties of documentary, whether it’s evidence in a court of law, or a photograph, or a documentary film is that in a hundred years, someone can look back at these documents for authentic clues as to what kind of people were living in this time. I feel that docudrama, whether it works or not, contributes nothing to that. Docudrama doesn’t really compete with documentary. It competes with drama. As an artist I think people should be free to do whatever they want to do, but I think it’s important to nurture and support those people that pursue the documentary form in terms of collecting evidence of what we’re about.

POV: You were there for the formation of the Canadian Independent Film Caucus (CIFC), the precursor of DOC (Documentary Organisation of Canada). How did that take place?

RB: Schools were starting to develop people like myself, people who wanted to stay in Canada and were passionate about making a career in the business here. A bunch of us—Peter Raymont, Barry Greenwald and some others— started getting together informally to talk about issues that were facing us. While we were having our monthly chats, the Canadian government announced that the vehicle for cultural policy was no longer going to be film, it was going to be television. They were going to turn the CFDC (Canadian Film Development Corporation) into Telefilm Canada, and focus on drama. That’s when we got the wake-up call: no children’s programming, no film, no documentary.

We looked around the room and realized that we all make documentaries; they comprise an important area of our endeavour, and they’re going to leave us out. So let’s lobby! I remember one day saying, ‘Let’s call ourselves the Canadian Independent Film Caucus.’ I pulled out a three-ring binder, wrote the name down, and we all signed it. I said, ‘everybody give me $10,’ and that was the treasury. So then we had to write position papers, and I took over the organizational aspect— policy and governance, the structure of it— creating committees to do specific tasks.

Our first victory came when Telefilm Canada decided to include both children’s programming and documentary in their new mandate. And that galvanized this force we’d gathered. We were, suddenly, an independent documentary group, which worked with the public broadcasters and the NFB but were autonomous of them. We insisted that independents had the right to hold on to their copyright and distribution, to have effective control, as opposed to being people for hire. At that time it was a contentious point for broadcasters and the film boards who’d been used to calling the shots. We came from nowhere, and I think we were an important part of what became the Canadian independent film industry.

POV: Now we look at the generation that came to maturity in the ’80s and a lot of them have become leading filmmakers in Canada.

RB: Yeah, it’s amazing. Twenty, twenty-five years ago the biggest threat to documentary was marginalization; today the threat is its full embrace by the commercial sector, because it makes the possibility of exploiting people and people’s stories, real human stories, that much more probable. Revealing humanity in all its tenderness and all its difficulty is fraught with peril, because it’s so easy to exploit that which you’re observing. It’s easy to be a tourist through human misery. And the danger there is that it inures the public, hardens them towards the real issues that plague us all the time, that human condition which never changes: our intolerance, our difficulty in realizing that people are always created equal.

Humanity never seems to run out of examples of cruelty and thoughtlessness. It’s always happening, only the specifics are different. And if you’re going to approach that subject honestly, it’s going to hurt. If you’re an artist and you’re attentive to the world around you, you’re going to feel other people’s pain, you’re going to be honest about it, and that’s not an easy thing to do. That’s hard especially because you get to go to the comfort of home in the evening, and live with the fact that you live a middle class life and the people who may be the subjects of your film don’t and aren’t going to. And if you’re a thinking human being, that’s got to trouble you.

Moving to TVO

POV: Can you discuss your move from being an independent filmmaker to joining TVO (Television Ontario) in the early ’90s? That must have been a major switch.

RB: Sure, but there were a couple of steps in between. At that time I was emboldened by what we’d achieved at the Caucus (CIFC), so I wrote the Academy (of Canadian Film and Television) and said ‘You’re modeled after the Oscars and the Oscars has four awards for theatrical shorts and documentary. The Academy has only two and it doesn’t have a documentary branch. Why?’ I got a call from Andra Sheffer, who said. ‘Good point. Why don’t you come to the rules and regulations committee and present it?’ And that became the theatrical short and documentary branch of the Academy, where I was the representative for the first few years. I used that as my springboard: I ended up doing every position there. I quickly joined the executive, was part of the audit and finance committee, the rules and regulations committee, and used that as a platform to expand the Gemini Awards into the documentary category.

And from there I got involved with Hot Docs, where one of my main motivations was to prevent its becoming a parochial festival. What Canadians and our filmmakers need to know is that there’s great film work happening around the world. I’m seeing great work, and it’s not always coming from Canada; it’s coming from other places, from unexpected places. That international aspect was important first and foremost for our own community, so that our filmmakers could meet their filmmakers. That way Canadian documentarians would grow and be more open. And they’d make documentaries that could be understood internationally.

POV: Weren’t you the one who came up with the idea to have a pitch forum at
Hot Docs?

RB: Well, I was the first Canadian to go to the Amsterdam co-production forum when they had just changed the rules from EU (European Union) -only countries. When I saw what they were doing at IDFA (International Documentary Filmfestival Amsterdam), I said, ‘This is perfect. It’s better than Banff because it’s a real market: everyone on the table is in the same commissioning area of social, political and cultural documentaries. And the people pitching have to be supported by their commissioning editor; it kind of evens up the odds.’ It was a great concept. By then, I was already at TVO and Chris McDonald was in charge of Hot Docs. I said to him, ‘Chris, this is it. We need this.’ He decided to hire Michaelle McLean to run the Forum. And I said, ‘People are starting to riff on this in other parts of the world; let’s not steal it, let’s franchise it. Let’s hire the IDFA people, and do a formal knowledge transfer; let’s learn from the mistakes they’ve made and pay them their fair due.’

POV: Let’s go back to that transition, which had a major impact on your life. Obviously you were interested in the industry, but wasn’t it a big step for you to go from being an indie to an executive?

RB: My big move started with a call from Louise Clark, who had supported my space programmes. She told me that TVO was looking to hire a commissioning editor, someone who had experience in documentaries but also had a feel for what the community was like. When I met Peter Herndorff (then Head of TVO) for the interview, the main focus seemed to be on how fast the station could get something on the air. I said to him, ‘The kind of documentaries that are the hardest to do but are the most important are the social issue ones; they’re auteur- driven and that’s what we should be focusing on.’ He said, ‘Okay, can you have them on the air in six months or twelve months?’ I said ‘No, because the hardest thing for the filmmakers to do is close the financing. You can’t have a deadline- based point of view here. You want these films when they’re done, not when they’re due. Television is full of stuff that’s due, not necessarily done.’

At that point the funding story had changed for TVOntario. It was being cut back in a major way by the government, but they still had some money left for documentaries. TVO used to be a big producer of documentaries, but large sums of money were no longer there. The independent financing structure is all based on the producer as the agent. They’re the ones that will trigger the funding. The public funds, the publicly directed funds are all levered by the independent producer. My job was to turn an internally focused culture here at TVO to an externally focused one, to look at the independent sector as partners in the culture as opposed to competitors who are going to eat your lunch.

After 18 months here, I realized that I wanted to become a broadcaster. It had been an intense learning period: I needed to understand how ratings worked, how programming worked. Aerlynne Weissman and Lynne Fernie’s film Fiction And Other Truths: A Film About Jane Rule (1995) was the first documentary to be aired. George Ungar’s film Champagne Safari (1995) followed shortly after that and not much later, we broadcast In the Reign of Twilight (1995) by the McMahons.

POV: Those were all big successes, Rudy. After that, how many programmes were you able to produce in a year? Has that changed over twelve or thirteen years?

RB: We squeeze every penny we can. In terms of documentaries, we’ve suffered from cutbacks and freezing, as inflation has eaten away our budget. This is my thirteenth year, and I’ve really had to learn how to stretch that acquisitions money. We do a lot of pre-buys from the international market, there are some specialty channels that we partner with…

POV: But are there more opportunities? You’ve been all over the world at doc festivals. Industry people know you and, as a result, you must be able to not only pre-buy but also structure co-productions.

RB: On a net basis, it’s true, we do a lot more work involving co-financing. We don’t have a lot of cash, but we do have a little more elbow grease to help filmmakers make that connection to the visiting foreign commissioning editor. The extra cash is good, but what’s most important is that when filmmakers get a compatible international broadcaster, it broadens their own perspective. All of a sudden you’ve got to speak to someone in Britain who won’t know who this person is, or where that street is, so you have to really concentrate on what your story means.

On filmmakers, television and documentary

POV: I wonder if you can talk about working together with filmmakers in a creative way, from your perspective and theirs. How do these relationships evolve?

RB: I’ll speak specifically of our commissioned projects where I have a significant role as an editor. It varies from filmmaker to filmmaker because they’re all so different in their working styles. There are some filmmakers that really want me to be involved, while others could care less what I say. The one thing I’ve always insisted on is you don’t have to do what I say because I’ve structured the deal; the filmmaker always gets the final cut. No matter how combative you and I become, no matter how many disagreements we have and how strongly I make my point, you know at the end of the day that you can deliver what you want. But you have to listen to what I say and you have to go home and you have to think about it and sleep on it. Tomorrow morning or next week, when you come to your own conclusions, you can do whatever you want, but you have to consider it; that’s all I ask.

POV: Is there something you’ve learned from the people you’ve worked with, like Jennifer Baichwal, not just in terms of friendships but discovering how other people can approach a documentary?

RB: I think what I love most about documentary is that it forces you to learn about a new subject each time. From each filmmaker I learn something, and sometimes it’s from new and emerging filmmakers. I taught briefly at the Ontario College of Art, and I thought, ‘man, teaching is such a fraud because they’re paying you to learn as well!’ You learn from each filmmaker, and Jennifer Baichwal is a great example because beyond the text and the structure, someone like her is really interested in the sub-text, in the philosophical meaning of things. When Allan King and I worked together, we often chatted for two or three hours but it was never on point; a lot of the time it had to do with the thinking process, the underlying elements, nothing to do with the specifics.

I bless my lucky stars every day I come to work. Some people in docs I could strangle but most people I can embrace: filmmakers have different temperaments. If they’re a pain in the ass but do great work I say, ‘hey that’s fine.’ I’ve always had a good ability to work with eccentric people, which includes most people in our industry. I love working with the chaos, because every once in a while people can bring order to that.

POV: How does it feel working in TV instead of film?

RB: I’ve got a great job, because when I’m not making television, I’m watching television. It’s interesting how lowly television is regarded in the cultural arts. If we go to the Royal Ontario Museum twice a year or spend two hours watching a film, somehow that’s a bonafide cultural activity, and yet when people are in the electronic space defined as television, when people are spending 23 hours a week watching TV, that’s something else.
I know that watching television can be like taking a giant valium. You’ve had a busy day and you want to fall asleep, lie on the couch and watch the TV and see if you can doze off. It’s an incredible tranquilizer, and that’s its dark side. But engaging people at an emotional and an intellectual level is what keeps people awake. That’s harder to do, but if you’ve got their attention, you can actually deliver something meaningful in this fantastic mass medium. When are you going to talk to an average screening of 50,000 or 100,000 people? Where in the world are you going to talk to that many people?

POV: Is that the challenge in producing documentaries on television?

RB: The documentary is an art form which can change the way people understand the world. When you work with artists at the height of their powers, seeking the truth as best as they know it, and that magic happens when everything comes together, you can create something that resonates with a large audience. The Corporation is a great example. I commissioned it as a three-part series; I said, ‘OK, I get it, great thesis, it’ll be fun, it’s meaningful and all that.’ But then along that path something magical happened, and the next thing you know…I remember I was on a panel in San Francisco and when I said that I’d commissioned The Corporation for TVO, the whole place broke out in applause.

Great things often come about when people listen to their own work. You remember Hitman Hart by Paul Jay. He filmed that for eleven months and then the documentary gods shone on him, and the next month’s shooting was great. I often look at that as a great example: he had the smarts, the strength and the fortitude to throw out the first eleven months. It’s hard to do, knowing that you couldn’t have got to the last month without the first eleven months, but that doesn’t mean you have to use the first eleven months. The foundation doesn’t necessarily have to show.

POV: A final question, and of course it’s the big one: The future of documentary. We’ve chatted about it over the years and things have changed a lot in what we’ve seen. Do we see now whether there will be a future for feature film documentary, and will the things you’re doing allow that to happen?

RB: There’s always going to be a future for documentary. Documentary is no longer the flaveur du jour, so the documentary artists are going to have to ride out that period. Which means that the Johnny-come-latelies will be the first ones to jump off the bandwagon. But there always will be artists who have a story to tell and will tell it in a nonfiction form and tell it however they feel fit to tell it. And I would hope that, as commercial interests come and go, there’s a continuing role for the public sector, be it public service broadcasting or educational broadcasting or just public sector funds, that there’s always a respectable amount set aside for artists to do the difficult things in a nonfiction format. And a part of that would be theatrical films. That when it’s no longer popular, the public sector’s there, supporting it specifically because it’s not popular. Only because it’s important.

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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