Monday, August 1, 2016
"The case for making the documentary Canada's official art form"
Dec. 28, 2015 "The case for making the documentary Canada's official art form": I cut out this article by Kevin McMahon in the National Post on May 5, 2012. I'm interested in TV production and filmmaking so of course I had to cut it out. Now that I reread it now, it does seem kind of deep.
I have seen Michael Moore's films Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 9/11. Those were good films.
The last few weeks were bad for documentary filmmakers in Canada, what with the federal government slicing the budgets of the CBC, Telefilm and the NFB. My colleagues in Montreal were so distressed they staged a sit-in outside the Board’s office. In English Canada, we mostly expressed our outrage by whining under our breath (though there was a brief protest in Toronto on Friday).
But this week has been another story. We’re gathered in Toronto to feel great about documentaries because Hot Docs is on and, this year, in its new home, the dazzlingly refurbished Bloor Cinema.
Every year the documentary festival sets new attendance records, proving Toronto is a city that loves docs. In fact, all Canadians do. How do we know? Because (being doc makers) we checked: A 2011 report by the Documentary Organization of Canada found that we consume many thousands of hours of docs every year on television, the majority of them Canadian productions. In the couple of years since the NFB put its films online, more than three million people have viewed them. Since 2007, attendance at documentary festivals — Hot Docs and its cousins Doxa in Vancouver and Rencontres internationales du documentaire de Montréal — has risen an incredible 77%.
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 tartan have Parliamentary sanction as our official animal, hue and textile, so should documentary be designated our particularly Canadian cultural form. Before the ballerinas and water colorists flip out, let me add that I’m not arguing for anything exclusive. Lacrosse is Canada’s official summer sport, but people still play soccer. This is about highlighting national excellence. In the cultural realm, there is nothing so Canadian as drawing images from reality and hewing them into a meaningful shape.
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. Grierson launched the NFB in 1939, as Fascism was rising, arguing that portraying reality was essential to saving democracy.
Unlike the cynical geniuses of Hollywood, documentary makers don’t want to beguile you. We want to be an accurate mirror. If you look fat in those jeans, we’ll tell you so. Which makes us neither rich nor popular, just useful. Late in life, Grierson recalled that “it was the public purpose within [documentary] which commanded government and other backing … and kept its own people together.” In other words, it’s art as civil service. Like, how Canadian is that?
These days everyone carries a fully equipped television station in their pocket. We can all record reality, just as most of us can read and write. But the unique skill of documentarians is to find meaning in that reality. Canada has produced legions of non-fiction filmmakers who see profundity in the seemingly mundane: Donald Brittain on the comic totalitarianism of bureaucracy; Alan King on the fluidity of marriage; Mark Achbar on the inherent psychopathology of corporatism. Yung Chang looked at flooding caused by the Three Gorges Dam and saw not just the environmental story that everyone saw, but the essence of the East/West relationship. His penetrating NFB-assisted Up the Yangtze played in Canadian movie theatres for 27 weeks, confirming not only his documentary vision, but our appetite for it.
Regardless of your home region, no Canadian ever really feels at the centre of things; we all view the world around us through a prism of contrasting needs and desires layered with fabulous complexity — which also happens to be the lens of a good documentarian. Marshall McLuhan, father of media study, said Canadians were inherently good observers: “When you are out of the main swim, as it were, you have a much better opportunity of seeing what’s going on.”
Documentary, as a form, has no fixed identity. It can include candid actuality, text, dramatic recreation, news footage, metaphorical images and animation — all wrapped in conventional stories, lectures, travelogues, biopics, experimental videos or all of the above. These days, we also have reality TV and “factual entertainment” (factutainment, as we insiders call it) — which add elements from game shows, practical jokes and porn. People argue, of course, about what constitutes “legitimate” documentary. They always have. Some judged Nanook to be sensational factutainment; the Jersey Shore of its day. Some of the most fascinating NFB documentaries these days are essentially elaborate websites. So no one can say what a true documentary is. Ahem. Who does that remind you of?
And there is this Canadian aspect to docs: their inquisitiveness makes the form inherently multicultural. Hot Docs — the world’s most important documentary festival — has films this year from 51 countries and hosts seven official international delegations. But what’s really fascinating is the global reach of the Canadian docs, including ones filmed in Guyana, Tajikistan, Iceland, Thailand and Chile. As ever: Flaherty was an American living here and Grierson was a Scot.
Surely that tells us that, beyond their infinite range of content, something in the very nature of documentary speaks to our sense of who we are … and who we are endlessly becoming. And that last part is very Canadian indeed.
–Kevin McMahon is a Toronto documentary maker. His recent work includes directing the feature Waterlife and co-producing the music, film and TV series The National Parks Project.
"Movie crew hitting the ice in Edmonton for hockey flick": I cut out this article by Victoria Handysides in the Metro on Jan. 19, 2010. I can't find the article on the internet, but it was about filming the movie Sure Shot Dombrowski 2: The Coaching Years in the Edmonton Rexal Place.