They have the talent, the ideas and the drive. But many documentary filmmakers can't get past the screening at public television's private club
“There’s no villain, no ‘mean guy’…it’s just that the structure, the system demands it and no one is willing to take on the formidable task of changing the structure just because it is meaningless.”
-Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
Peter Raymont speaks wearily into the telephone. It’s the irritable voice of a very busy man: a 27-year veteran filmmaker and producer, and founding member of the Canadian Independent Film Caucus. He has some problems with the CBC, and his complaint is echoed by many in the independent filmmaking community. They say there is an unreasonably high degree of homogeneity at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation-particularly in its documentary unit. They protest an implicit policy that favours the same producers and directors receiving assignment after assignment, while others struggle to find an audience. “We have the richest documentary film culture in the world,” Raymont insists. “There’s extraordinary diversity, but we’re not seeing that diversity in the shows.”
Many attribute the “lack of diversity” in documentary-based programs like Life & Times and Witness to a pervasive “CBC culture.” This “culture,” they say-a mix of headline-news focus and heightened economic concern that’s pushed the documentary unit away from riskier, unestablished filmmakers-is sustained, even encouraged, by documentary head Mark Starowicz and the senior producers in his unit.
As “someone who filmmakers come to to give them a hand in getting their films financed,” Raymont hears many complaints of roadblocks from filmmakers trying to work with the CBC. He takes such complaints seriously. “I think the role of a public broadcaster is to be a vanguard-not to follow a trend but to set trends…. The CBC has kind of a lazy attitude. A lot of independent filmmakers feel frustrated.”
So does Howard Bernstein.
In the gruff, timeworn tone of a barroom regular trading life stories with fellow patrons, Bernstein will gladly tell you of his seven years with Canada’s largest broadcaster, first as a senior editor at The Journal, then as an executive producer of news and current affairs at CBC Toronto. He’ll describe the “old days” with glowing idealism, when time and money were plentiful and a documentary like the 1988 film Runaways: 24 Hours on the Street(for which he was executive producer) could be made on a whim and a prayer: “We didn’t get budget approval until a month after the piece was finished!” But for the past 10 years, he’s been an instructor of broadcast journalism in Toronto and, like a host of independent filmmakers and producers, is outspoken about his frustrations with his former employer.
“The CBC works like a club,” he says. “You have to be a member of the club. You have to have friends. Wonderful things go undone or get financed in other ways; terrible things get produced because you have a friend.” He shapes his speech with his hands and emphasizes with tempo. His steady hazel eyes belie a deep resentment. “I tell all my students when they’re going to look for jobs: ‘Broadcasting is not a business in Canada, it’s a club. And like any other club, you have to get along with the other members. That’s far more important than the work you do.'” It’s a mentality, he claims, that most of the major Canadian networks share. “[But] the CBC is the worst offender.”
Look at a list of Witness’ lineup for the past three years and it seems Bernstein has a point. Of 49 original documentaries aired on the prestigious national series in the 1995-96 to 1997-98 seasons, about half were produced or directed by current or former CBC employees, including seven by former producers Brian McKenna and Gordon Henderson (four by McKenna, three by Henderson), and seven by former CBC reporters Jerry Thompson and Josh Freed (four and three, respectively). “How come the same people keep showing up every year?” Bernstein asks. “Are their ideas that much better than everybody else’s? I don’t believe that.
“You see, what they’ve done here is kind of what bothers most people in the industry. If you’re Gordon Henderson or Jerry Thompson, you get to produce one [film] a year-it doesn’t matter what the subject matter is; it doesn’t matter if it’s a good idea, bad idea or indifferent.” The result, he suggests, is programming that fails to meet the CBC’s mission statement (“CBC will lead the way in providing…meaningful programming that reflects the diversity of Canada,” using “people with diverse talents and perspectives”). It also leaves a whole lot of filmmakers with no place to go.
“You have to have what they would call on Broadway an ‘angel,'” Bernstein says, shaking his head, “someone who’s in a position of power, who’s willing to fight for [your story] and make sure that something’s going to happen.” He offers Yosif Feyginberg as an example. Feyginberg came to Canada from the Ukraine 20 years ago; the two met through a mutual acquaintance. “[He] was a theatre director in Russia, has his own tape equipment, wants to do some documentaries and has some ideas that I know if they’d come from Gord Henderson would be produced tomorrow. But because they’ve never heard of this guy, he can’t even get into their doors. They won’t even see him.”
“It’s not that I’m incapable,” Yosif Feyginberg insists. “The film industry here is extremely competitive with budgets, et-cetera. It’s difficult for people not in the inner circle.” His soft voice just barely carries over the din of the lunchtime crowd in the busy food court of a downtown shopping plaza.
He describes his humble beginnings here in Canada, making short technical films and corporate videos 10 years ago with nothing more than a camera and some basic editing equipment. Soon he was producing a short documentary on solar power for the Ontario ministry of energy, coproducing a film for History Television and consulting on a film for Bravo! In 1995, he even chaired a jury panel for Hot Docs, the annual Canadian film festival that showcases international documentaries. Finally, Feyginberg decided to try producing his own independent documentary feature.
With an eight-minute demo tape (“I was blown away by it,” Bernstein recalls), Feyginberg made pitches to various broadcasters, proposing films on the immigrant experience, a subject very near to him. But for all his promise and enthusiasm, he was completely unable to interest a broadcaster in his ideas. “The reasons for the rejection were not specified. I guess they just were not interested in this type of project.” That is, until he met Bernstein and Lon Appleby, Bernstein’s partner in their company, Infinite Monkeys Productions. “They’re better placed to act on my behalf,” the 51-year-old says earnestly. Now, one story, about the experiences of foreign professional actors in Canada, is scheduled for completion in June with possible broadcast on CBC’sRough Cuts in October. Feyginberg knows exactly which angels to thank. “I’m very lucky to have met Lon and Howard. The film industry is a very tight group,” he admits. “Without someone like Howard on my behalf, it would be close to impossible for me [to make a film].”
The prospects for indie filmmakers at the Corporation are grim, but not hopeless.Rough Cuts, for example, is identified by many as a bright spot for Canadian independent documentaries not only on the CBC, but on Canadian television in general. Its goal is to “speak with voices previously unheard or with visions that have not been screened on more traditional news programs,” and the show has built a strong reputation in its four yearsamong viewers and filmmakers alike. But even Jerry McIntosh, the show’s senior producer, concedes that ultimately, “because we’re a news network, we see what we do as journalism. It comes under all of the journalistic policy and practice of the CBC.” It also comes with a particular viewership that has “certain expectations when they turn on the television set about what they’re going to watch…[so] it has to be journalistic in tone and feel.”
Then there are the budget restrictions. McIntosh says he receives around 400 proposals a year from independent filmmakers. “We’re commissioning a dozen, which tells you what your odds are. In a way, I see my job as saying no, not saying yes.”
Not that Rough Cuts has ever had limitless commissioning freedom. It airs on Newsworld, which has only one-tenth the budget of the main English network. Working with inexperienced filmmakers, therefore, can be a liability. “When you work with first-time filmmakers, you’ve got to nurture not only their filmmaking ability, but you also have to guide them through what it is that a journalistic organization and a news network does,” says McIntosh. A filmmaker like Yosif Feyginberg, he says, doesn’t necessarily understand the complexity of producing a film for national broadcast. “It’s not just take a camera, go out there and do it. You’ve got to organize the financing, you’ve got to organize the resources.” Fortunately, says McIntosh, “Feyginberg’s working with some experienced people who’ve done this before…so he’s got the support that he needs.”
But few aspiring filmmakers have that kind of support. For them, the task of finding a broadcaster is considerably more difficult. Ever since the federal government’s jaws tore a chunk from the CBC’s budgetary belly, its conservative/headline-news-driven mandate has narrowed and discontent in the independent filmmaking community has increased. Members of the indie community feel the CBC (and Canadian broadcasting in general) is failing them. The other large broadcasters, CTV and Global, spend little to nothing on original documentaries, while smaller cable specialty channels simply don’t have the CBC’s resources. When the inexperienced, independent or unconventional are denied the opportunity to broadcast their work nationally, the state of filmmaking itself suffers.
Neal Livingston, an independent filmmaker from Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, says the suffering is especially pervasive on the east coast. “In my case,” he says, “there was never a proposal that interested [the CBC] and there was never a finished film that interested them. When I’d sit around with my colleagues at the film caucus and talk about these issues, everybody had the same story!” Livingston has been making documentaries for more than 20 years. He says he’s sold more films to broadcasters in the U.K. than to the CBC, describing a “terminal difficulty” for filmmakers from eastern Canada who try to deal with the Corporation. “I mean, literally, you’re not phoned back when you call these people, they don’t write you back and most of us don’t really bother trying to deal with them anymore.” He calls them “gatekeepers” at a “fortress of programming…keeping this incredible flood of trained, creative talent away from the public.”
These sentiments are shared by Don Duchene, an indie filmmaker for 15 years. Duchene, who lives in Chester, Nova Scotia, describes his experience with Life & Times as “useless,” and tells the same story of discouragement and lack of communication as Livingston. “I think very little effort was made there to make this region feel included.” Duchene has made various pitches to the CBC’s doc unit, none of which, he believes, was even looked at. “When you send them letters, make phone calls and get nothing back, you really do feel on the outside.”
Many trace the decline of opportunity at the CBC to November 22, 1995-the day the Corporation announced a $227-million cut to its budget. At the time, the group Friends of Canadian Broadcasting predicted: “Because they need to cover such a broad swath of issues, individual reporters will be unable to develop the knowledge and expertise they need to do their job.” Today, with that forecast realized, FCB calls the Corporation “extremely fragile” and its programming efforts “relatively weak.” Yet external factors are only partly to blame for this fragility. The problems, many argue, have more to do with ideological myopia at the documentary unit, resulting from the deeply entrenched tradition of its predecessor, The Journal.
“The CBC is not very nurturing of independent documentaries,” says Barri Cohen, a filmmaker and editor-in-chief of POV, a magazine devoted to the interests of the indie filmmaking community. Through her magazine, and as a member of the Canadian Independent Film Caucus, Cohen has developed a strong sense of what is wrong with documentary filmmaking in Canada. And Witness, she says, is a microcosm of this.
“There’s no individual demon. There’s a very particular kind of corporate culture, a professional culture, at the documentary unit there. And in any culture you have a set of beliefs or a set of ideological principles about how you run your department, how you work, how you’re doing what you’re doing.” She feels the amount of material the Corporation produces leaves it little room for examining its “ideological principles.”
“The people there come out of a very journalistic background, they all came out of The Journal [in fact, half the doc unit were producers at The Journal, including head of documentaries, Mark Starowicz]and they have these notions of journalistic balance.” She argues that too deep a commitment to journalistic principles can hinder a documentary filmmaker. The documentary genre grew out of cinema, she explains, and although it has been reshaped by television in the last 30 years, it still should more closely resemble a piece of art (“more open, more meditative, more broadly concerned”) than a piece of journalism. For Cohen, this means following her own “special relationship to the subject” rather than a limited network mandate, where artistry and honesty can so easily be compromised.
“With the best films, it’s a very deep personal passion,” she adds. “One doesn’t talk about passion in journalism.” Or rather, one isn’t allowed, in strictly journalistic reportage, to make the passion for a subject explicit. Cohen may have an old-fashioned view of the craft, but it reveals some larger truths: the disadvantages of a narrow filmmaking approach. “It’s not really trying to get into capturing the difficult or really human moments.”
She contrasts the CBC with TVOntario and its “auteur-driven docs. Some of the best commissioning policies in North America are those driven by commissioning editors who are themselves filmmakers. The people who run the documentary unit at the CBC are not built that way.”
Mark Starowicz’s office seems cluttered despite its spaciousness. Perhaps it’s the boxes of videos, some still in their plastic wrapping, scattered on the windowsill, the sofa, the table. Or it could be the many framed photos and posters (of his family, of his past productions) collected on his end table or lining his walls. But for someone with so chaotic a working environment, the executive producer of documentaries for CBC television seems the picture of composure. One coworker describes him as “very elegant” and it’s easy to see why. He sports a well-groomed moustache-greying demurely-and speaks with grace and nonchalance, articulately addressing the criticisms that have already become familiar to him.
“This is an intensely commercialized public network, which is driven to the point of distortion by the exigency of commercial revenue. That is, itself, inimical to documentary form.” Distortion is inevitable, he suggests, when “reality” is selected for its marketability and shoved into 47 minutes (plus commercials), but it’s the nature of the “Darwinian” world of prime time, where only that which draws ratings survives. So the programming born of the current affairs department is more “current,” more “hard-edged”-drawing viewers with immediacy rather than rumination-an approach that, when it is challenged, is defended with: “If it didn’t come out of the current affairs department, it wouldn’t have come out at all.”
And then there are the unit’s financial restraints, which have decreased its contribution to the production of a documentary by as much as 50 per cent. Today, Starowicz says, one must essentially set up a company to produce a single documentary. “I’ll tell you what’s striking. The sign says Documentary Unit [but] there’s nobody out there who makes documentaries!” Instead, there are people conversant in the language of business plans, who understand professional accounting, production management and external financing.
“It’s sad [that] whether or not a documentary appears on Witness is sometimes a decision made in New York or in London.” In some cases, Starowicz says, a film simply can’t be produced without investment from a large American network like HBO or A&E. Even Telefilm, the federal cultural agency that helps promote and develop films for the Canadian private sector, is an “investment banker,” he says, that expects returns on its ventures. For a broadcaster, this means favouring those films, filmmakers or subjects that stand a chance of earning a profit. It’s a severe drawback, he concedes, but an unavoidable consequence of competition in a global television marketplace.
“Witness is a prime-time program that fights in an environment of 55 channels. It is not there to get 150,000 viewers and thereby disappear off the map and go back to 11 o’clock where it can retain the purity that is accompanied by marginality. What I’m good at,” he says, “is the most unpleasant part of the job: the politics of the CBC.”
“I think the documentary unit’s biggest strength and weakness are the same thing, and that’s Mark,” says a senior CBC producer. “Without him, it wouldn’t exist, but he is a very forceful presence. He’s a very difficult person to work with. He’s arrogant and he has trouble dealing with people.” Starowicz, he suggests, is also acutely aware of the responsibilities of working for the most powerful broadcaster in Canada. “He does tend to take himself too seriously.”
Programming driven by a heightened sense of duty to its country is very much a part of the CBC ethos. At the doc unit, with its added budgetary pressure, this means scrupulously avoiding any departure from the “safe course that producers know will be along the lines of things that have been successful in the past.” This producer believes shows like Witnesscould benefit from having “a little more creative energy. I personally find their documentaries rather predictable in approach.” Still, he confesses, “the problem with films on Witness is a lot larger than the people at the documentary unit.”
“[If] you read the mandate of the CBC and put it into ordinary language,” says the former head of Newsworld, Vince Carlin, “it says: Please be all things to all people. Be a noncommercial, commercial network that operates in the public interest but has to draw ratings. It’s a bizarre notion. The conflict is constant.” Carlin is now the chair of the journalism school at Ryerson, though his office is decorated with signs of his 23 years with the CBC. He says a broadcaster like the CBC, with its public responsibilities, should be a “catalyst. It should be in a position to challenge filmmakers and be challenged by them. The CBC had aspects of that years ago. The Journal served as a great training ground for people to produce considered material over a period of time.” He says it was like “a sandbox to play in. A lot of people gained documentary experience [there].”
It’s ironic that those same people, now heading an entire documentary unit, are criticized for not providing enough opportunity to inexperienced filmmakers. Still, “the realities of producing a prime-time, ratings-driven stream are that you are going to go to people you know will produce material that will survive in the slot. It is not a playground. It is not a place to learn the craft,” says Carlin. He calls it the “economics of broadcasting ….It’s not the stream some people want it to be, but wishing is not going to make it change. When you ask a program like Witness to meet certain audience and revenue targets, you are perforce telling it to take fewer risks. You are in fact ordering the network to make sure the end product will fit into that environment.”
It is an environment filled with tension and reservation-some would say very much like the CBC itself.
“They’re not trained to work with outsiders all that much,” Barri Cohen admits, “so there’s a lot of animosity and misunderstanding and a lack of communication.” In the end, it is this that plagues the CBC’s documentary unit and angers the filmmakers who’d like to contribute to it. “They need a bridge,” Cohen adds. “It’s their job to build it and they’re not.”
It isn’t that the unit is wholly bereft of truly independent, quality programming. In fact, in late March the CBC devoted an entire week to feature-length documentaries in a series called “Five Nights.” And though the films aired at midnight-one a night, far away from prime time-it was a step in the right direction (a “colossal breakthrough” for the network, according to Starowicz). But overall, the “gatekeepers” at the CBC’s documentary unit seem far better at losing friends than making them. The work of a handful of established, mainstream filmmakers does not qualify as “diverse” programming. The CBC’s doc unit must step out of the cozy confines of its restrictive mentality. Only then can it begin to embrace the films and filmmakers that truly reflect the complexity of Canada in our times.
“I mean, it’s only natural for them to commission people they know and trust and won’t have big fights with,” Peter Raymont points out. “It’s a lot harder to encourage up-and-comers and the independently minded. You get surprises that way.”
Guy Leshinski was the Assistant Online Editor for the Summer 1998 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.