Down and out in Cusco and Bangkok
And Rio and Harlem and Tegucigalpas. Montreal documentary filmmakers Luke Cote and Robby Hart roam the world looking for stories of individuals—ordinary and extraordinary—who are trying to change their worlds
Some of the street children of Cusco, Peru, are no more than five or six years old. They congregate in the town?s main square begging, hawking postcards, or visit a shelter where they can get a meal or occupy themselves making art work. In their games the children seem as happy as any, but underneath the playful veneer smoulders a quiet despair, apparent if you get to know them even slightly. A six-year old girl sheds a tear when asked about her father. A seven-year old boy tells of his arrest and imprisonment by the police. A five-year old boy already has a history of glue sniffing.
These images form the heart of the film Growing Up in the South, by Luc Cote and Robbie Hart, two Montrealers with an intensely personal approach to documentary filmmaking. To coincide with the film?s broadcast premier on Radio Quebec, Cote and Hart held an exhibition they organised of the children?s art work in a Montreal gallery, raising $20,000 for the Cusco shelter. Filmmaking for Cote and Hart is an act of intimacy and affection directed at the people they focus on, but that affection extends beyond their films into an ongoing involvement in the lives of their subjects.
In the more than thirty films they have made since 1986, Cote and Hart have sought out hope in the lives of people on the margins and explored solutions to mundane but vital problems. In contrast to the more predictable documentary that focuses on the macropolitics, wars and disasters Cote and Hart’s films are devoted to the micro-where individuals, ordinary and extraordinary, struggle to understand and change their worlds. Even more unusual, in an industry full of part-time filmmakers who often juggle other jobs to finance their films, Cote and Hart?s company Adobe Productions occupies the partners full-time. Their films have been broadcast on the CBC, Radio Canada, TVOntario, Tele-Quebec, PBS in the United States and in more than thirty other countries. And Adobe has won more than thirty awards at such prestigious film festivals as the Columbus International Film and Video Festival, Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television and the Japan Prize International Education Contest.
One of the risks in making the kinds of films that Cote and Hart make is of being seen as simplistic and naive in the face of life?s cruel realities. With their six-part >I>Rainmakers series, broadcast in 1997, the accusation has some merit. The series examined the lives of a global melange of young people each working for a cause against formidable circumstances. But in one Rainmakers episode, for instance, how effectively can the drug-dealer-turned-poet alleviate violence in Harlem? Or, in another episode, can one low-caste Hindu woman really make a difference and improve the lot of all women in India? And do such films matter?
Rena Mcleod, a young aboriginal woman in Manitoba who was featured in another Rainmakers episode, says that her experience with Adobe has helped both her and her cause. Mcleod, who works with troubled native youth in Winnipeg, says, “it?s important when people tell positive stories.” And it is particularly important that those stories appear on TV, says Mcleod, because young people are very much influenced by what they see there. While there is an optimism in Cote and Hart?s films, it is rooted in the belief that individuals can make a difference. The name of their series speaks to that belief: a rainmaker in North American aboriginal lore, is a conjurer with extraordinary abilities to move and shape events.
Adobe?s documentaries originate in a spacious but Spartan former flat in a grey-stone turn-of-the-century walkup on Avenue du Parc in the Mile End, Montreal?s most ethnically diverse neighbourhood. Cote and Hart relish the area?s mix of Jewish delis, Vietnamese and Greek restaurants and French pastry cafes, and both live within walking distance of their office.
One or the other of the partners greets the visitor to the office, there is no secretary or receptionist. Two of the former bedrooms are now editing suites. The walls of Adobe?s “boardroom,” formerly the dining area, are decorated with film award plaques. In the front office, shelves hold toys handmade by Peruvian street work story here ers, a soccer ball and an adobe mud block from Honduras, all items that have appeared in Adobe films.
Cote, now 45, and Hart, 39, first became acquainted with each other in October 1985. Hart was completing a master?s degree in international affairs at Columbia University in New York City and looking about for a career. Becoming a filmmaker appealed to him. Although he had never made a film, Hart considered himself, “very knowledgeable about film theoretically and as a journalist.” Already Hart had in mind a film project to shoot in Honduras, which had developed from his experiences living in Central America in the early 1980s. Hart?s roommate suggested that he speak to a friend?Cote?who then had his own production company in New York and had worked at the National Film Board in the 1970s. Hart telephoned and they spoke for two hours about filmmaking and Hart?s project idea. Cote was impressed by Hart?s enthusiasm and they arranged to meet at Cote?s office the next day. “Of course he never came,” laughs Cote, who imagined Hart as someone with big ideas but little initiative. (Hart had been too busy with his thesis.) Three months later, in early January 1986, Cote flew to Montreal with Hart?s roommate. Hart happened to be at the airport and the roommate introduced them. “You?re the one who?s going to Honduras,” Cote said to Hart. “I?ve got news for you, I want to go too.” A few days later, back in New York, they made plans to go to Honduras that year to tackle their first joint film project. Funding for the trip came from a Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) grant.
The basis for Hart?s idea was Central American squatter settlements and their political organisation. Seeing Windows, Cote and Hart?s first film, focused on two farming co-operatives working to prevent the people of their communities from fleeing to the squatter settlements that had sprouted up around the Honduran capital, Tegucigalpa. Seeing Windows examined how the two co-operatives built houses using the adobe mud block, a whitewashed mixture of sun-dried mud, straw, sand and water, creating sturdy clean homes. (An apt symbol of attainable self-help, the name Adobe was perfect for their fledgling production company.) With improved housing and increased farming efficiency, co-operative families are less likely to migrate to the dismal squatter settlements.
Seeing Windows is not a great film narratively or aesthetically, but it is a competent first effort and it delivers its message?that local affordable solutions can be implemented and can effect real change. The film was produced in conjunction with the 1987 United Nations International Year of the Homeless. Earnest and serious, as expected from novices, the film lacks the passionate edge of their more recent work. Cote and Hart?s struggle with learning to work as a team is reflected in Seeing Windows pedestrian nature. “I wanted to make my first film and I wasn?t thinking much beyond that,” says Hart. Moreover, they shot the film without any commitments from broadcasters. It was very much a gamble.
During that first trip the values and objectives of the two partners coalesced into a philosophy that 13 years later still guides their approach to filmmaking. For Hart, those values had developed while he worked as a part-time stringer for Radio Canada International, CBC?s shortwave service, in Central America in the early 1980s. “I was doing stories about Contras, revolutionaries and Sandanistas, the American military,” says Hart. “It was your typical stuff. No one talked about the lives of ordinary people. It?s very difficult to tell a story that has a good news ending. I was determined to tell that type of story.” For Cote, too, those stories were important. “We love people, to be with them, to experience what they experience and to be able to tell simple stories. That?s part of who we are.”
“They were young when starting,” says Jacques Bensimon head of TFO (TVOntario?s French-language affiliate) and a documentary filmmaker himself. “But, what was striking was their almost missionary approach to their work and their respect for the subjects they were treating.” Once back from Honduras, Cote and Hart had no idea if any television networks would be interested in their films. They failed to interest CBC in Seeing Windows although it eventually aired on Radio Quebec, TVOntario and several foreign broadcasters.
Hart and Cote persevered, encouraged by this success, and in 1987 were commissioned by CIDA to produceDu Coeur au Ventre. The film, a mundane, chronological account of 18 Quebecois who volunteered to visit and work with local farmers in Nicaragua for a month, celebrated CIDA?s twentieth anniversary. Then, in 1988 Adobe produced, for Tele Quebec?s “Nord Sud” program, Au Marche des Manchettes, a short film contrasting the professional lives of three foreign journalist in Nicaragua with Hollywood?s version of journalists portrayed in feature films like Salvador and Under Fire. Au Marche des Manchettes tries to dispel the myths surrounding war correspondents. For anyone with an interest in the news and how it is gathered, the film offers insights into the lives of journalists. It shows, for instance, how some “on-location” journalists from the American Networks covered the war from their hotels, getting their news from Washington.
In a Peruvian village in the Amazon basin Yage Prztyk, a Polish-Canadian farmer from Quebec?s Eastern Townships, talks to a group of farmers, descendants of the Incas. Yage is helping the farmers? co-operative market its organically grown coffee in Canada. Several times a year Yage, “the flying farmer,” travels to Peru and treks into the jungle to meet his business partners. To reach the Ashaninka Indians, a primitive and remote tribe who grow some of the co-operative?s coffee, Yage and his local associate, Luis, set out on a two-day cross-country hike. The camera follows the two men hiking up steep hillsides and across a river on a primitive footbridge. This area of Peru is infested with the cocaine mafia and the Sendero Luminoso guerrillas. “The native communities still survive on simple hunting and farming methods and maintain their traditional ways,” says narrator Roy Bonisteel. “Most are tucked away in the Amazon jungle and reached only by small aircraft. Others are virtually inaccessible.” Yage and Luis approach the Ashaninka village and the Indians chant a greeting. Dressed in long coarse cloth tunics, painted faces and bows and arrows, the Ashaninka appear threatening. Later, sitting under a thatched gazebo, Yage and Luis talk business with the Ashaninka.
Off camera, Cote and Hart, had some difficulty with the Ashaninka. “They were not expecting us,” says Hart. “I had to negotiate with the tribal chief, for permission to film them.” Sitting in a hut with two interpreters, Hart and the chief finally agreed on terms; a case of canned tuna would be sent to Ashaninka. “Transactions like that are normal in the more remote corners of the world,” says Cote. “Filming the Touareg in Niger meant constantly having on hand a supply of tea and sugar.” A quirky film, mostly because of the incongruous Yage?a chain-smoker promoting organic farming to Amazonian Indians?The Flying Farmer is intriguing, despite having to fit into the constraints of a 30-minute format. The Flying Farmer?s prime-time broadcast on CBC?s “Man Alive” in 1989 was a big break for Cote and Hart. It was the largest audience of an Adobe film to date. The film fits neatly into Cote and Hart?s philosophy and goals. Self-sufficiency based on local resources and the spirit of solidarity between Canada and the Third World engrossed them. Cote and Hart felt that the strong central character of Yage with his humanist message would appeal to the “Man Alive” audience.
Also in 1989, Adobe produced Villa El Salvador – A Desert Dream, the story of a squatter settlement of 300,000 people on the outskirts of Lima, Peru. Astonishingly, Villa El Salvador has the highest literacy rate in Peru and one of the most effective municipal structures in South America. Adobe?s film demonstrated the importance of grassroots organisation?people working in unison toward common goals. Two other 1989 films,The Cusco Kids and Growing Up In the South, examined the day-to-day lives of eight Peruvian street children. The 1993 film When the Circus Came to Town looked at two groups of street kids, in Rio de Janeiro and in Montreal, working with artists from Cirque du Soleil. “We knew when we started that this was an Adobe film,” says Cote. “But that it was a new way to do it through the circus.” The parallels between street kids in Rio and Montreal are striking and the idea of the circus as educational tool intriguing. With this film, Cote and Hart aimed to reach youth audiences in Canada and abroad, wanting to dispel any romantic illusions of street life. All of the kids in the film, both in Rio and Montreal, are on the street because of abusive or broken homes. Some openly yearn for a normal family life.
To date, Cote and Hart?s most ambitious projects, in terms of scope and logistics, have been two series: the eight-part Turning 16 which examined the values and concerns of 16-year-olds around the world and aired in 1994, and the six-part Rainmakers. Both series were largely well received by reviewers and the public, winning film festival awards. One Turning 16 episode set in Thailand won the prestigious Japan Prize. Cote and Hart are currently working on seven new Rainmakers episodes to be broadcast in late 1999 on CBC and TFO.
Regardless of their success, Cote and Hart claim not to follow any specific cinematic movement. “From the beginning we tried to have a different look from the NFB films with their talking heads,” says Cote. But is there a unique look and feel to Adobe films? “I can?t remember a moment or sequence in their films that made me sit back and say this is a totally new way of looking at things,” says Mike Boone, television reviewer with The Gazette in Montreal. Boone is careful not to criticize too strongly. “I don?t think they?re innovators, but, at the same time I don?t think they?re making films like anything else I have ever seen. I don?t think they have a lot of style.”
Henry Mietkiewicz, television critic at The Toronto Star, says that in the Rainmakers series and When the Circus Came to Town, Cote and Hart leave several unanswered questions regarding the characters? lives and the issues surrounding them. “Filmmakers tend to get carried away by the fact that they are working in a visual medium,” says Mietkiewicz, “and not enough time is spent satisfying basic journalistic requirements.” Cote and Hart respond by pointing out that they are not engaging in journalism. “We let the characters narrate the story,” explains Hart. “We don?t go for a lot of talking heads. The only characters speaking on camera are the protagonists, the rest is live action.” Half-hour time slots (imposed by TV requirements) do not allow for much room to flesh out an individual?s character and passions, and still present a sketch of the issues. And in films dealing with obscure individuals it is essential to draw in viewers, especially the targeted stimulus-craving youth audience. “We thought a half-hour time slot with its faster pace is more dynamic and easier to reach them,” explains Cote. “We made a choice to do a certain type of film. Some of the more traditional investigative school tend to be more critical.”
Critically successful or not, Adobe?s films, like all documentaries, are the result of a complex and intricate process. After researching an idea, filmmakers must sell it to the television networks. Once a network (or networks) is committed to broadcast, the filmmaker receives a licence or contract, and, more importantly partial fund- ing. Andre Champagne, creative head of youth programming at TFO and a co- production partner on the second set of Rainmakers episodes, says that Cote and Hart are, “tough negotiators. Even though they?re dealing with emotional subjects, they?re shrewd businessmen.” Obtaining that initial financial commitment?between ten and 15 per cent of the film?s budget?triggers access to other sources of funding such as CIDA, Telefilm Canada and the Cable Production Fund. Finally, provincial and federal tax credits top up a film?s finances. “It?s an incredible challenge to go through all these different phases,” says Hart. The whole process can take months, even years. One Turning 16 episode took two years from idea to broadcast. “Robbie and Luc have a good reputation so they?re able to put together these arrangements successfully,” says Jerry Mackintosh, senior producer at CBC?s Newsworld. The Turning 16 series, for instance, was broadcast in thirty countries.
In between projects, money generated from previous films carries Cote and Hart through. They have deliberately remained a small business, “a cottage industry,” as Hart calls it. Cote adds, “we don?t want to be a big company. We want to do our own films.” To minimize costs, they hire technicians on a project-by-project basis. On location they keep the film crew to the bare essentials, one or the other of the two partners as director, plus a cameraman and soundman.
When they first started out, Cote and Hart co-directed but six years ago that changed. “We have a different vision of things on a creative level,” says Cote. “Our approaches to filmmaking are not exactly the same, and when we co-directed there were always concessions to the other.” Nevertheless, each of their films is joint effort?Hart undertakes most of the writing, while Cote?s forte is in the editing suite. Their different roles do not stop there, the partners have distinctly different views about the importance of journalism in documentary films. For Cote, the expression of opinions is intrinsic to the process of filmmaking. “I?m a filmmaker with a point of view,” says Cote, “not necessarily with a rigorous journalistic approach. I have a feeling, I have a story that I want to tell.” Hart agrees but is careful to add that the journalistic approach does play a part in their films. “There?s a big part of me that is a journalist,” says Hart, “that?s looking, listening and asking questions. The end product may not be a pure journalistic story but there are a lot of journalistic skills involved.”
In a Rio de Janeiro courtyard a group of boys, mostly teenagers, shout and roughhouse. The boys, street kids, barefoot and stripped to the waist, look lean and muscular with close cropped hair. Three long-haired men, circus instructors, struggle to control the boys and teach them some circus skills. Sixteen-year old Cosme pauses long enough to speak to the camera. “I?ve been living in the street since I was six years old. My mother also lived with me in the street. My father drank and I helped my mother. Sometimes I returned home, but I found living in the street better. I managed all alone. I thought that I didn?t need anyone?s help and I could do whatever I wanted.” Another boy, eyes in a stoned glaze, shouts at one of the men. “I?m a mafioso. I smoke marijuana, take coke and sniff glue. I don?t want to know about school, just drugs.” Alain Veilleux is with the Cirque de Soleil. “I know that anything can happen. It could be unsettling. But I can feel the energy even in the little space like this. Since we started working it?s been going well.” The courtyard is in chaos, the instructors plead for order. “It?s impossible to work!” shouts instructor Geraldo Miranda. “If it continues like this we?ll cancel everything. There are some who won?t come back. It?s finished for today.
The idea for When the Circus Came to Town, did not originate with Cote and Hart. But helping street kids, the goal of Cirque de Soleil?s humanitarian program, Cirque du Monde, appealed to them. It was difficult film to make. Gaining the kids? confidence took considerable effort. Yet some of the kids? lives did change for the better after the experience. “Jardel (one of the Rio kids) is now a professional performer,” says Cote. Others remain on the street. “A year after the filming I went back,” says Cote, “and found Cosme as messed up as ever. I?ll be surprised if he lives to be 25.” Filming in the streets of Rio de Janeiro, Luc and his crew had to constantly watch out for muggings and thefts. The kids were wild? physically rough with each other and, at times, with the film crew.
Despite filming conditions that are often difficult, Adobe?s films are known for their high technical calibre, says TFO?s Andre Champagne. That competence partly depends on developing an intimacy with the subject?the only way to get the camera and microphone in close to the subject. “They have gifts to do this work,” says Rena Mcleod, subject of one of the Rainmakers episodes, speaking of Hart and his crew. “I could trust them and I could open myself. They?re respectful of other people and that?s what has earned them respect from everyone else.” It takes a patient director and crew to gain the subject?s trust. It also requires a lot of preparation and ground work. Cote and Hart do not simply fly into a location and start filming?there may be months of preliminary contacts with the subjects. And when something major is happening in the subject?s life, a demonstration or a conference, for instance, they plan to go on location. In a Bangkok AIDS shelter, a dozen women sit at a table. Jongsada Suwanchondee is a Rainmaker, a former heroin addict who is now HIV positive, and a advocate for people HIV positive and AIDS infected. She asks, “How do you feel about living here at the emergency shelter?” One woman tells how her family won?t allow her to take meals with them. Her eyes moisten. She starts to cry and dabs her face with a handkerchief. In a low calm voice Suwanchondee councils, “Our families wouldn?t be sacred of us if they knew more about AIDS.” The camera cuts to another woman, face contorted by anguish as she sweeps tears away, a toddler in her lap. The child is oblivious to her mother?s sobs. Suwanchondee walks around to the weeping woman and asks, “Do you want to talk? If you want to cry, it?s OK.” Suwanchondee embraces the sobbing woman. “She wants to go home,” someone says, “but she?s afraid that her parents won?t accept her.” Quick cuts reveal most of the women weeping.
Behind the camera Cote, the soundwoman and the cameraman were in tears. Suwanchondee embraced each member of the camera crew in turn. “For two weeks we were surrounded by all these people,” Cote recalls. “They were all young, very sick, others not sick but HIV positive. We shared everything with them, we ate with them. When this happened on the last day of filming it was very intense. All of us cried like babies.” It took two weeks of patience to capture the scene on film. Nothing as emotional had occurred until then. Cote used Suwanchondee to put a human face on the HIV problem in the developing world and at the same time show that those who are afflicted have the hope of living in dignity.
It seems fitting that an important part of Cote and Hart?s philosophy is to become part of the lives of the people whose stories they tell. They still keep in touch with many of them, including Suwanchondee, and have organized several events around the films, raising funds for the various causes that the protagonists champion. In a Turning 16 episode, Cote and Hart filmed 16-year-old Rosie giving birth to her son J.R. Now, every year on his birthday J.R. receives a present from the two partners. In Harlem, Cote and Hart organized a screening of the Rainmakers episode featuring Victor Cherry, a former drug dealer turned poet and “peace maker.” Early in 1998 Cote and Hart put Cherry in touch with Rena Mcleod. She invited Cherry to spend two weeks in Winnipeg to hold seminars on poetry and non-violence for her group of native youth. “It was wonderful,” says Mcleod. “Victor had a positive influence on my group and on others.” And with Cote and Hart?s help, Suwanchondee got in touch with a young woman featured in a Turning 16 episode who is fighting for the rights of child labourers in Thailand. Now the two women help each other with their respective causes.
These days Cote and Hart are so busy working on the second set of Rainmakers episodes that they have had to turn down an invitation to film a Cirque du Soleil tour of China, something they would have liked to do. If anything, the second set of Rainmakers is more ambitious than the first. Cote and Hart have deliberately sought out controversial issues in contrasting locations and cultures. Gay and lesbians tights in Zimbabwe are hardly considered newsworthy by the mainstream media, but Cote and Hart are documenting the story of a lesbian whose life is under constant threat in that country. Similarly the rights of the disabled in Mozambique gain little media coverage. In Mozambique, Hart will profile a young man, deaf and blind from childhood, fighting for the rights of the disabled whose numbers grow daily in a land littered with millions of unexploded land mines. Not all of the Rainmakers are from the Third World. One of the new episodes will focus on a young man working with the homeless in Tokyo. In Turkey for another episode, Cote was detained for several hours and questioned by police while doing preliminary research on a woman fighting for human rights.
Work on the new Rainmakers episodes will occupy Cote and Hart until September 1999. In the meantime they are looking for new project ideas. “Right now we are in that creative space where we?re looking to plant the seeds for something new,” says Hart. Like their other projects, their next film will probably be the stuff of television?competent, workmanlike and uncon- troversial, perhaps leaving the discerning adult viewer less than satisfied. And, like their other films, it will most likely draw audiences already sympathetic to the subject matter. But, Cote and Hart aim much of their film work at teenagers and young adults. These are impressionable audiences whose views, opinions and perceptions are in constant flux. If they succeed in opening the eyes of even a few, maybe they will have achieved their goal?sow the seeds of change and understanding. Naive? Optimistic? Perhaps, but with their personal approach to filmmaking, Cote and Hart, like their subjects striving to make the world better, have themselves become Rainmakers.
by Xavier Macia
Xavier Macia was the Executive Editor for the Summer 1999 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.