Slow Dissolve

Why has it become almost impossible to make a documentary in Canada?

Illustration of a film roll with a man holding a sword, with a fire flame at the bottom
Illustration by The Walrus Art Department

Maya Gallus and Justine Pimlott had been making films for a combined thirty-five years when they set out in 2006 to produce a documentary about the Canadian novelist Mazo de la Roche. The writer, who died in 1961, is little known to audiences now, but she was one of the twentieth century’s bestselling authors and the mind behind the Whiteoak Chronicles, a series about a fictional dynasty in southern Ontario. More significantly for the filmmakers, who are partners in life as well as work, de la Roche lived with her cousin Caroline Clement for her entire adult life, and there was much speculation about the nature of their relationship.

Gallus and Pimlott’s Red Queen Productions has released several provocative films to widespread acclaim: Girl Inside, a portrait of a transgender youth; Fag Hags: Women Who Love Gay Men; and Punch Like a Girl, a six-part series about female boxers—but The Mystery of Mazo de la Roche was a uniquely daunting prospect for potential funders. “When we pitched it,” Pimlott says wryly, “the response was like, ‘You want to make a film about a writer who’s been dead for forty years and whom no one knows?’”

The couple spent a full year making the broadcaster rounds. They finally received $10,000 for research and script development from Bravo, then still an arts channel owned by CHUM. A year later, the National Film Board of Canada ponied up additional seed money, but Mazo languished at this stage until September 2009, when Bravo agreed to help fund production. There was a caveat: since it couldn’t cover the full budget, it made its financial participation contingent on Red Queen obtaining the remainder of the money before the year was out.

Gallus and Pimlott scrambled, managing to secure lucrative broadcast licences from TVO, Ontario’s public broadcaster, and British Columbia’s Knowledge Network (this allowed both networks to show the film after Bravo and the NFB had their windows), but even that was not enough. Meanwhile, the NFB was considering investing further as co-producer, though too late for Bravo’s deadline. With all other options exhausted, they decided to mortgage their house. “I felt sick to my stomach that day,” Pimlott says. “I looked over at Maya and realized she would do well in Vegas. I would not.”

The gamble paid off. The NFB did eventually green-light Mazo in early 2010, at the end of its fiscal year, and the film went into production six months later. It premiered at Toronto’s Hot Docs festival in the spring of 2012, with three packed screenings, two in 500-seat theatres, then went on to play and win awards at several festivals across the country. It debuted on the Knowledge Network in July 2013, and will air on TVO this month—eight years after Gallus and Pimlott first started pitching the project.

But as tough as it was to produce Mazo, things were about to get a lot tougher. Bravo, which became part of CTVGlobemedia (now Bell Media) in 2007, eliminated its arts programming over the next few years, and is now almost exclusively home to a suite of American crime dramas. More broadly, television has fallen under the thrall of reality TV; traditional docs have been replaced on all channels by programs like Canada’s Worst Driver and The Real Housewives of Vancouver. Without the broadcasters, Red Queen and hundreds of other Canadian production companies have lost what had been their main line to funding. The upshot is that, while Canada is often called the birthplace of the documentary, it might also be where the form has gone to die.

The term “documentary” was coined by John Grierson, a Scottish filmmaker who established the NFB in 1939, using the word to describe “the creative treatment of actuality.” Robert Flaherty’s 1922 movie, Nanook of the North, shot near Inukjuak, Quebec, is widely considered the world’s first significant nonfiction film. Many documentary pioneers have come out of Canada: Pierre Perrault, Allan King, Peter Wintonick, Alanis Obomsawin, Ron Mann, Peter Mettler, and Jennifer Baichwal, to name just a few. In 2012, filmmaker Kevin McMahon published an editorial in the National Post calling for the documentary to be designated as “Canada’s Official Art.”

Mark Starowicz, who heads CBC Television’s documentary unit, says we are in the form’s golden age, with more people worldwide making and watching these films than ever before. In 2012, Hot Docs, North America’s largest festival for the genre, opened a cinema dedicated to first-run documentaries, one of just a few such theatres anywhere. The following year, Hot Docs’ twentieth anniversary, it enjoyed record attendance. Audiences are also lining up across the country at community screenings like Open Cinema in Victoria, and Cinema Politica, founded in Montreal. And several recent Canadian productions—The World Before Her, Stories We Tell, Watermark—have received international acclaim.

The industry’s dark secret, however, is that the long-form POV documentary has never been more imperilled. Making a doc in Canada has always been difficult, but it is now often a protracted exercise in bureaucratic brinkmanship, the artistic equivalent of executing a triple Lutz on a melting rink. Last summer, the Documentary Organization of Canada released a report showing that production had decreased by more than 21 percent, or $105 million, between 2008 and 2011 (the last year data was available), and that the sector had lost almost 4,000 jobs. Lisa Fitzgibbons, DOC’s executive director, called the situation a crisis.

Of the various reasons DOC cites for the decline, an antiquated funding model is the most pernicious. For several decades in Canada, producers have relied on funding via licences paid by TV broadcasters, in exchange for windows during which they can show the films they have financed. In addition to providing this critical development money, licensing can also trigger significant investment from the likes of the Rogers Documentary Fund and the private-public Canada Media Fund, based on the assumption that broadcaster interest equals audience interest. (Red Queen, for example, received CMF money for Mazo only when it had the licences in place.) However, since about 2008, many of the documentary “strands” that once existed in prime time, notably on CBC and CTV, have been cancelled or had their budgets dramatically cut.

“We find it truly shocking that broadcasters have turned their backs on programming one-offs,” Fitzgibbons says. “It goes against the grain of what audiences are seeking.” Nick Fraser, who heads the BBC’s thriving documentary strand, Storyville, says specifically of CBC, “The attention to documentary is not what you would expect for a national broadcaster. It’s a scandal.” Even Starowicz—while quick to point out that CBC is the sole Canadian broadcaster that still offers documentary programming in prime time every week (The Nature of Things and Doc Zone)—acknowledges that the budget has dropped to about a third of what it was in 2005. “What we’ve lost are series and specials,” he says. “We used to do fairly magisterial series: Canada: A People’s History, China Rising, Breaking Point. It’s been a heartbreaking eight years, trying to hold back the tide, so to speak.”

Why have broadcasters abandoned the form? The predictable answer is money. Reality TV is inexpensive, easier to program (the audience for, say, Dragons’ Den knows pretty much what to expect every week), and easier to promote. “It really does come down to the bottom line,” says Daniel Cross, co-founder of the Montreal production company EyeSteelFilm. “You can find reality TV programming all over prime time, at the expense of drama and documentary. It’s become the path of least resistance.”

Along with the loss of broadcast opportunities, government support has ebbed. In 2008, the Conservatives killed the PromArt grant program, which enabled filmmakers to travel to international markets and find non-domestic funding sources. Meanwhile, as part of an effort to prioritize pure art projects over more commercial work, the Canada Council for the Arts has more rigidly enforced its policy that grant recipients must maintain complete artistic control, with apparent disregard for the collaborative nature of filmmaking.

Gallus and Pimlott considered themselves extremely fortunate to have landed a broadcast licence from Global TV for their latest film, Derby Crazy Love, an investigation into the immensely popular roller derby subculture, but they still had to throw in $12,000 of their own money to finish it. They risk not making it even that far on one upcoming project: The Fruit Machine will trace the history of The Body Politic, the notorious Toronto magazine published in the ’70s and ’80s that was central to the gay liberation movement. They completed their research over a year ago and began looking for production funds last fall, but if broadcasters are already loath to bankroll docs they certainly won’t rush to produce a film about radical queer history in Canada. TVO has indicated an interest in acquiring the film—once it has already been made. The History Channel turned it down flat. “History doesn’t make history anymore,” quips Pimlott.

Red Queen is a small operation—just two people, working with budgets under half a million dollars—but larger, more established players have been just as buffeted by the industry’s caprices. The aforementioned EyeSteelFilm has made dozens of renowned documentaries (including The Fruit Hunters and Up the Yangtze), several of which were financed through broadcast fees from foreign entities, such as the BBC. EyeSteel’s Daniel Cross acknowledges, however, that this route usually remains closed to emerging filmmakers, and that, in any case, foreign interest in a project may not translate into domestic interest. “If we can’t get a broadcaster in Canada, we can’t trigger tax credits or the Rogers Documentary Fund,” he says. “It’s tougher now, for sure.”

Nick de Pencier—who produced and shot Watermark, co-directed by his partner, Jennifer Baichwal, and Edward Burtynsky—is even more pessimistic. “I think the form is almost in danger of becoming extinct,” he says. They partly financed Watermark in the usual way, but to achieve the $1.7-million budget de Pencier had to raise money from private collectors of Burtynsky’s work, which was only possible because art collectors tend to have plenty of money. (He also subsidizes his films by working as a cinematographer for hire, ironically sometimes on the reality shows that have supplanted traditional docs.) However, he describes a shelf in his office filled with proposals that have never found buyers: an adaptation of Dave Bidini’s Home and Away, about the Canadian team at the Homeless World Cup of Soccer; an examination of the “problem of evil”; and the story of skeptics who debunk so-called miracles.

Pimlott and Gallus are determined to keep The Fruit Machine from ending up on a similar shelf. They will never mortgage the house again, but they are trying to cobble together a budget through various arts councils and micro-investments from fans of their work and supporters of the project. “Crowdfunding” has been a buzzword for years—Kickstarter and Indiegogo are the two most popular matchmaking services used to pair creative projects with potential investors—and it can be an effective approach. (Hot Docs, again, has stepped into the financing breach with, among other small grants, a crowdfunding program called Doc Ignite.)

Still, as Gallus, who is more outspoken than her partner, points out, the method has its limitations. “The downside is that it becomes a bit of a popularity contest,” she says. “Films that are challenging and risk taking won’t necessarily do well with it.” Just as nettlesome, despite recent pressure from DOC and others to change the financial model, those sources are still not considered valid triggers for the major funds. The bottom line, says Gallus, is that “if broadcasters are not stepping up to the plate, films will get lost.”

Toward the end of our conversation, I happened to mention a recent magazine article I had written about Toronto’s growing rat population and the colourful exterminators I met while researching it. Pimlott leaped up from her chair: “That would be a great subject for a reality series!” Although Red Queen primarily works in long form and the subject was well outside their wheelhouse, she asked if I, who had never written a TV proposal, would craft a synopsis they could pitch to a broadcaster. This surprising moment illustrated perfectly how uncertain and desperate the industry is, and how limited its options are. In this environment, almost any revenue stream holds an unlikely allure. After a quick Google search for comparable series, Pimlott turned to me and smiled brightly: “This is how we’ll pay for The Fruit Machine!”

This appeared in the April 2014 issue.

Jason McBride
Jason McBride is a Toronto-based journalist whose work has appeared in Toronto Life, New York, Maclean’s, and many other publications.