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Canada at a Crossroads: Documentarians' Dilemma Lies in the Cultural-Commercial Disconnect

By Michelle Mason

From 'La Cueca Sola,' which earned the award for Best Direction--Short to Mid-Lenght at the 2004 Hot Docs.

In the 1980s, with a global communications revolution raging in the cable television industry, everyone was keeping his or her eye on the year 1984. After all, who could forget the frightening vision of George Orwell's dystopian world so chillingly prophesized 35 years earlier: television screens in every home, with Big Brother's penetrating stare.

But that same year, one media critic published an alternative and equally disturbing vision of our future based on Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. In his controversial treatise on "public discourse in the age of show business," Neil Postman envisioned a world in which such technologies would become the seeds of our undoing as a civil society. In Postman's new world, he predicted we would all end up, as the title of his treatise says, "amusing ourselves to death."

To Postman, technology was heading in a direction where "no Big Brother would be required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history because people would come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think."

Twenty years on, in the titillating, ratings-driven world of television programming, it would appear that Postman, not Orwell, may have been right. If broadcasting trends in Canada are any indication, then it would seem that Orwell's vision of the future—where the truth would be concealed from us-has been supplanted by Postman's version, where the truth is starting to drown in a sea of irrelevance. In the dramatic world of television, it is a situational irony of epic proportions.

At the moment, nowhere is that irony being felt more strongly across Canada than in the small offices of documentary producers. As a February series in the national Globe & Mail newspaper confirmed, thanks to a rich tradition of award-winning Canadian documentary films, and the exhilarating rebirth of feature-length docs like The Corporation, Bowling for Columbine and Spellbound, documentaries have become the darling of Canadian audiences.

It was no surprise then that even during the National Hockey League playoffs in Toronto, audiences lined up around the corner night after night to see documentaries at the Hot Docs International Documentary Film Festival, which ran from April 23 through May 2. After 11 years of steadily growing audiences, this year attendance was up 60 percent. Those numbers were up 30 per cent in 2003—during the SARS epidemic, no less. It is all a clear sign that docs are indeed hot.

In a post-9/11 world, the trend towards documentaries makes sense. After all, documentaries are where the complex issues of the day can be researched in depth, contextualized and presented with diverse points of views and fresh insights. In short, the health of a documentary industry speaks to the health of public debate in society as a whole.

For many Canadian documentarians, then, it is troubling that in spite of the fact seven of the all-time top-grossing documentaries screened in 2003, feature-length production in Canada is actually decreasing. Last year, annual documentary budgets averaged 20 per cent lower than five years ago.

Moreover, filmmakers are now required to use tax credits as part of the financing structure of their films, the credits were initially intended to help small businesses survive in between productions. As the tax credits don't come until one or two years after a film is made, they also have to be interim-financed, and no Canadian banks will provide this service. That means that many filmmakers—if they can—often have to take out personal lines of credit. Meanwhile, broadcasters are reporting record profits.

 "You know there's a problem when broadcasters are making 30 percent profits and documentary filmmakers are having to re-mortgage their homes to make their films," says Sandy Crawley, executive director of the Documentary Organization of Canada (DOC), the grassroots lobbying organization that represents independent documentary filmmakers.

As some 300 small and mid-sized Canadian documentary production companies grapple to survive the funding gap, they are finding themselves closer and closer to the cash flow precipice that can lead to bankruptcy. The funding system that spawned a rich tradition of Canadian documentary filmmaking needs an entire rethinking.

Canada is at a crossroads. In the past 20 years, a hybrid funding system, which has blended cultural and commercial content, has assisted the growth of an indigenous independent documentary industry. At the same time, however, with globalization and fragmentation of the film market, as well as increased competition over the past 10 years, the Canadian system based on trigger broadcast licenses no longer seems to be working. Speaking to the cultural/commercial disconnect, Rudy Buttignol of TV Ontario likened the situation to a need to separate church and state.

Whereas Canadian filmmakers could at one time survive making meaningful films for Canadian audiences in the insular world of indigenous production, fewer dollars and more competition have meant that broadcasters, and hence filmmakers, are turning to more commercial content that appeals to large international audiences—and do this with smaller budgets.

These factors speak in large part to the success of reality TV, which is cheap to produce and attracts mass audiences. While some filmmakers attribute the growth of documentary audiences-and the growth of film companies-to reality programming, other filmmakers worry that they must now focus almost exclusively on the highly commercial programming of a ratings-driven world. During a panel at Hot Docs, filmmaker Albert Maysles reminded the audience, "They used to put quotation marks around ‘reality TV,' but now it's just reality."

Nevertheless, with broadcasters getting better bang for their buck with series, the number of slots available for broadcasting single documentaries is diminishing. As a result, hour-long documentaries—the broadcast standard—are having a harder and harder time getting made.

Meanwhile, few broadcasters provide windows for feature-length docs, even though those are traditionally the films that play the festivals, bring home awards, get theatrical releases and are starting to increase returns at the box office. What it all means is that fewer and fewer socially relevant films are being made, at a time when they are in high demand by audiences.

As for new Canadian filmmakers who may be sitting in those audiences, the single documentaries are where they usually cut their teeth in Canada, and those windows are narrowing. Consequently, new talent doesn't seem to fit into the funding equation, unless emerging filmmakers can attract the interest of the National Film Board, where they have traditionally gone to learn their craft.

Even at the NFB, however, young filmmakers must compete against veterans who increasingly find themselves back at the board to make the socio-political films so difficult to finance through the broadcast license system. Unless the system starts to support new talent again, Bob Culbert of CTV points out, "New filmmakers either won't make films or they'll have to live with their parents until they're 40 to do so."

Moreover, some veteran filmmakers are so exasperated, they're throwing in the towel. "Some of Canada's best documentary filmmakers, who are national treasures, aren't making films anymore," says filmmaker Peter Raymont. "They're burnt out."

While times are tough, they've never been easy. As Buttignol points out, "For 20 years, documentary filmmakers have been the foot soldiers in the cultural wars for a system that supported indigenous production."

Documentarians have always been a tenacious breed, and Canadian filmmakers are known as a particularly feisty bunch, so it follows that they will continue to find ways to make their films. At the same time however, Canadian filmmakers are starting to get organized.

As a positive first step, filmmakers with DOC met with broadcasters, distributors and agency directors at a NFB/Telefilm-hosted summit during Hot Docs. All seemed to agree that the lack of a cohesive plan for creating a viable documentary industry has created the current situation. According to Telefilm's Richard Stursberg, the summit was an opportunity for everyone to voice his or her concerns and start creating a new vision and action plan for building a sustainable documentary policy.

A large part of the Canadian dilemma lies in the cultural-commercial disconnect inherent in a system that attempts to balance cultural programming within a commercial system. This year the government's Canadian Television Fund (CTF) adopted an audience-based assessment for documentary funding applications, which means projects will need to target high ratings. This has put even more power in the hands of broadcasters, giving them envelopes with which they decide how to spread the money around.

The recent changes at the CTF are indicative of the ad hoc way in which filmmaking policies have developed since the emergence of an independent film industry in the 1980s. Consequently, the solution, say DOC members, is to finally create a policy that integrates the various pieces of the puzzle into a coherent policy for docs—something that has never been done.

With the NFB, Telefilm and the CTF recognizing the need for a streamlined system that serves the unique needs of documentaries, the door has finally opened. Over the next year, DOC will be working with these agencies to create a policy that can be presented to the federal government in time for the renewal review of the CTF in 2006. From there, the future of documentaries will rest with the political will of the government to support a system that, for all of its faults, has helped create one of the most illustrious documentary traditions in the world. Hopefully, the next Canadian government will throw the system a lifesaver before it drowns in a sea of irrelevance.


Michelle Mason is an independent filmmaker from Vancouver. Her award-winning debut film, The Friendship Village, tells the story of a Vietnam veteran's journey to establish a reconciliation project in Vietnam, She also serves as co-chair of the Documentary Organization of Canada's British Columbia chapter.