I spent the last week of May at Hollyhock on Cortes Island, talking about documentary with inspiring media makers in a yurt under towering trees on a remote island. It’s going to take a few days to integrate, reflect and rest.
If you know me or read my blog, then it comes as no surprise that I have a lifelong passion for documentary. Way back in 1984, my first film was a 16-minute experimental documentary: Citizen Soldier. In 1989 I emigrated to Canada specifically to work at the National Film Board of Canada, the worlds oldest government film agency and the birthplace of the documentary.
I’ve worked on dozens of social justice documentaries and hosted hundreds of OPEN CINEMA screenings in café-style venues with discussion, using documentaries as a catalyst for community engagement. And I’m now in my second term serving on the Documentary Organization of Canada‘s national Board of Directors. Yep, I’m a feature-length docuphile!
Documentary is a uniquely Canadian art form
But did you know that the documentary genre was actually born and nurtured in Canada? The world’s first documentary, Nanook of the North, was made near Inukjuak, Quebec in 1922, before the term documentary was even coined. in 1939, John Grierson launched the NFB, arguing that portraying reality on film was essential to saving Democracy from the rise of fascism in Europe.
Canadians have made dozens of award-winning, popular and important documentaries. Most notably is Terre Nash’s Oscar winning If You Love This Planet (produced by Edward LeLorraine, who I worked with on the worlds first non-linear editing system EditDroid – another story!). Other well-known Canadian-made docs are Up the Yangtze, The Corporation, as well as Toronto’s Hot Docs, one of the biggest documentary film festivals in the world. You can read a comprehensive list of Canadian documentaries here.
Let’s protect our national heritage
Sadly, the documentary is facing a perfect storm that is currently threatening its very survival. The economic downturn, shrinking arts budgets, the advent of Reality TV, changing technology, YouTube and the riddle of Internet monetization are all conspiring to turn a once thriving industry into a flickering archival memory. I, for one, am not about to let that happen.
As Jazz is to America, so Documentary is to Canada.
Earlier this year, Kevin McMahon wrote an inspiring article that proposed making documentary Canada’s official art form. In response, POV Magazine has just published the first in a series of in-depth interviews with Kevin to further explore this idea. And the Documentary Organization of Canada has issued a petition to Minister James Moore.
You can help – please sign the Petition!
If you love documentaries, then we need your help, please! Read more about it, discuss with your peeps on social media and IRL and please, by all means, sign the petition.
Do you think documentary should be Canada’s official art form? I’d love to know your thoughts.
For a couple of years now, we’ve been grappling with the very real possibility of the demise of the Canadian documentary. The industry as we’ve known it over the last 20 years has been dealt a number of life-threatening blows, a lethal concoction made up of equal parts economic turn-down, cancelled broadcast strands, government funding cuts, the emergence of low cost Reality TV, digital technology and the Internet. The number of Canadian docs being made has been steadily dropping over the last 5 years, by as much as 21% according to Getting Real 4, the Documentary Organization of Canada‘s most recent economic profile of the Canadian documentary production industry. Ironically, for audiences, the documentary has never been so popular. Download the detailed report here: Getting Real.
Getting Real About Documentary
This trend isn’t exactly news. Many doc filmmakers are struggling as the market shrinks and turning to crowdfunding sites such as IndieGogo and Kickstarter with varying success. Over the last couple years, I’ve responded by successfully rebranding as a media-savvy storyteller, educator and social media content strategist. But my heart isn’t able to let go so easily; I’m still set on finding a way forward for the beloved genre. As part of my involvement with the Documentary Organization of Canada’s National Board of Directors, I’ve helped spawn an audience development campaign to raise awareness about the plight of this endangered storytelling species.
We Love Documentary launched at HotDocs 2011 and will form part of a longterm campaign in conjunction with DOC’s advocacy efforts. Plus I’m currently developing a fun interactive cross-country roadtrip project that will engage documentary audiences, filmmakers and changemakers across the country: get ready to Get on the DOC Bus!
So while I haven’t exactly been hiding out from the changing media landscape, my experience at last week’s VIFF Film Forum was a rude shock to the documentary ego.
The Beginning of the End Game
The first indication that we’re in an end-game scenario came when Storyville Vancouver was cancelled. We can only speculate why no international broadcast commissioners came to hear BC doc filmmakers make public pitches this year.
The next clue came when I checked out the VIFF Film Forum program: for the first time this year, ‘Documentary Day’ was renamed ‘Factual Day’. What used to be a day of talks dedicated to the genre, this year, was a disorienting mashup of what I might call FactuReality.
Sessions included documentary’s Pursuit of Objectivity (which the excellent panel agreed was not the point of documentary at all); producing a punchy sizzle reel to upsell your Reality series; CBC’s new online interactive experiences; and the transmedia project Collapsus‘ experiments in cross-platform storytelling. All interesting and tangentially relevant, but I missed the usual networking with my fellow doc filmmaking colleagues, who were, for the most part, noticeably absent.
Good Luck With That
The real sting was delivered during the tail end of the day, at the Industry Networking Cocktail reception. After Minister Ida Chong officially opened the Forum, I found myself in conversation with Don Fast, Deputy Minister of BC Ministry of Community, Sport and Cultural Development. “What do you do?”, he asked me. I began by cheerfully replying “Well, I was a documentary filmmaker, when there was an industry…” But before I was able to tell him about my creative re-branding and ask his thoughts on the future, he changed the subject. I heard all about his daughter, the actress. At the end of our conversation, he shook my hand with a friendly smile, saying “Good luck with making documentaries.”
I’m usually pretty optimistic, but I have to admit I left feeling rather discouraged. What do you think, dear reader? What does the future of documentary look like from where you sit?
I’ve been thinking a lot about storytelling and reinvention lately….
As a documentary filmmaker and editor, the last three decades has been all about crafting good stories. More recently I’ve been exploring the use of story to engage community through OPEN CINEMA‘s programming and publicity. And now that social media and transmedia are reinventing our media ecosystem, it’s forced me to grapple with my own personal and professional reinvention as a transmedia producer, story architect and social media marketing strategist. Mostly, it’s been exciting and rewarding, but it’s also edgy and challenging.
Over the last few weeks, I’m grateful to have found myself amongst a like-minded tribe of storytellers, brought together around an innovative virtual campfire. “The Reinvention Summit” is a model for the remarkable use of online networking and social media tools to engage people around the future of storytelling. It was an honour to be a Summit Producer, a speaker in one of the 32 presentations, as well as one of over 500 virtual delegates from across the planet. The ideas, connections, conversations and twitterstream (#story10) that flowed from this gathering have been nothing short of inspirational, with revolutionary undertones. I particularly appreciated the sessions offered by Lance Weiler, Gunther Sonnenfeld, Nancy Duarte and Jim Gaines. Big ups to Michael Margolis and the design team at GetStoried for having the chutzpah to pull off such a grand experiment — and succeed!
The Big Bang
Now that the Summit is over, I’m left with an elemental complex of ideas and flash points. I know they will eventually find their true orbital patterns within my narrative solar system, but for now, we’re still at the Big Bang stage. Thankfully my understanding of story allows me to trust the transformative relationship between chaos and order. The post-Big Bang universe must have been pretty messed up before it all settled into something relatively predictable. Likewise, I’m in the eye of this hurricane of change and for the moment, it’s hard to know where and how it will all land.
A Quantum Guttenberg Moment
My professional reinvention lies at the confluence of a number of factors: the economic downturn has punched large holes in the broadcast media funding model, which has been the mainstay of the Canadian documentary industry, so documentary commissions and contracts are few and far between. Meanwhile, cheap digital filmmaking equipment, Web 2.0 and mobile technology is offering easy access to media tools, turning everyone into a documentarian of sorts. Consider the effect that the invention of the Guttenberg press had on writers and readers, then quantiply it: the social media revolution effectively puts a printing press and broadcast network into everyone’s pocket. The good news: it’s reinventing the way we create, share, experience and watch content and stories. But the bad news is that it’s challenging the way traditional professional media creators like myself make a living.
For the last couple of years, I’ve been diversifying, retooling and exploring this new terrain with plenty of excitement and a modicum of success. I’ve been offering media education in both traditional film and social media, while exploring transmedia, interactive storytelling and marketing. But we’re still standing on the threshold between the old and the new, a foot in both camps, so to speak. It can be dizzying, disorienting and, at times, overwhelming.
Reinvention is messy
The Reinvention Summit was like a therapeutic irritant, creating a space to really dive into this liminal stage of transformation and collectively explore its boundaries. Along with my new narrative cohorts, we discussed everything from brand strategy, hip-hop, Maori myths, education, civic engagement, transmedia and much much more. It was fascinating, and a lot to take in. But reinvention isn’t a simple one-step process; it takes time, it’s messy and deceptive. So now I’m grappling with how to make sense of it all: thinking, writing, soul searching, talking and reading a lot. But I’m itching to break out of the mold; I feel the butterfly’s hunger to shed the cocoon, an urgency to spread my damp new wings out into the world, to catch a glimpse of the bright, bold, unfolding story. It’s taking shape nicely, but it’s not quite cooked yet.
Then today, I stumbled upon this little story that offered fresh insight, and stopped me in my tracks.
“There was an American professor who had made a lifetime’s study of the Japanese tea ceremony. He was the western expert. He heard there was an old man living in Japan who was a master of the tea ceremony. So he made a special trip to Japan to see him. He found the master living in a small house on the outskirts of Tokyo and they sat down to have tea together. The professor immediately started talking about the tea ceremony, his study, all he knew about it and how he was looking forward to sharing his learning with the old man. The old man said nothing, but started to pour tea into the professor’s cup. While the professor talked, the old man continued to pour the tea, the cup filled and the old man kept pouring. The tea split down the sides of the cup in a stream onto the floor, yet the old man did not stop. “Stop!” said the professor. “You are crazy. You can’t fit any more tea in that cup. It’s full.” “I was just practicing,” replied the old man, “for the task of attempting to pass learning to a mind that is already full.” (Source http://www.lifepositive.com)
That’s when I decided to take a break from trying to figure it all out. Stay tuned for more on this process as it unfolds; but for now, there’s nothing like a long walk on the beach to empty the mind…..