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Keeping it Reel

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Canada’s rich history of documentary filmmaking may be fading out, but Gordon Henderson is still rolling

Gordon Henderson thought he was getting a little too old to be embedded with soldiers in Afghanistan. It was 2006 and the documentary filmmaker was touring with the Royal Canadian Regiment Charles Company Eight Platoon as they guarded the construction of a new road. The men bossing him around were younger than his youngest daughter. But when fighting flared up as they were asleep in the trenches, Henderson was thrilled to be in the middle of the action. I’ve got my film now, he thought. The Taliban are shooting at us. This is fantastic! He returned home with hours of footage for The Crazy Eights, which would later premiere on CBC, and a black grenade case filled with chess pieces whittled from bullet casings—a gift from one of the members of the platoon.

Henderson, now north of 60, has lost count of how many docs he’s filmed abroad. But, most of all, he’s a Canadian storyteller best known for his work as a senior producer on CBC’s Canada: A People’s History. For years, he’s been hearing about the end of the documentary: national broadcasters, once a strong source of revenue for producers, are commissioning fewer docs. While many filmmakers are fleeing the industry or turning to other genres to survive, Henderson’s company, 90th Parallel Productions, continues to deliver award-winning documentaries. Canada’s unofficial national art form is in the lurch, but Henderson is pushing forward, exploring new ways to capture this country’s stories.


For decades, documentaries have been idealistically championed as a means of disseminating Canadian identity coast to coast. In 1939, John Grierson helped found the National Film Commission—the precursor to the National Film Board. In 76 years, NFB films have won 11 Oscars and have been nominated 73 times.

Canada’s national broadcaster also has a rich history with documentaries. Peter Herrndorf was head of CBC’s current affairs programming from 1974 to 1977 and helped establish the investigative program the fifth estate. In 1978, John Kastner won an Emmy for Four Women, his fifth estate doc on breast cancer. In his acceptance speech, he remembers calling Herrndorf “totally responsible for the revival of the documentary form at the CBC.” In 1983, Just Another Missing Kid, a fifth estate film by John Zaritsky, won an Oscar.

Herrndorf, now the CEO of Ottawa’s National Arts Centre, became vice-president and general manager of English programming at CBC in 1979 and helped create The Journal, a newsmagazine that aired right after The National from 1982 to 1992. Mark Starowicz was executive producer of the show, which attracted around 1.6 million viewers a night its first year on television. In the 1990s and early 2000s, CBC documentary shows included: Witness, Life and Times, Rough Cuts, The Passionate Eye and The Nature of Things, along with current affairs programs such as the fifth estate.

In 2012, Kevin McMahon, a partner of Toronto production company Primitive Entertainment, lobbied to have documentaries officially recognized as Canada’s national art form. “In the cultural realm, there is nothing so Canadian as drawing images from reality and hewing them into a meaningful shape,” he wrote in the National Post, later continuing the conversation with Marc Glassman in the pages of Point of View, a magazine dedicated to Canadian documentary culture. NFB founder Grierson coined the term “documentary” when reviewing Robert J. Flaherty’s 1926 film Moana, but the genre has more than just history in this country. McMahon and Glassman argued the practice of documenting reality is part of the Canadian cultural fabric.


According to a 2014 study commissioned by Toronto-based Hot Docs, North America’s largest documentary festival, domestic audiences watch 68 percent more of these films than they did three years ago. Sixty percent of respondents say access to Canadian documentaries is important, but only seven percent can easily find this content. Although the Hot Docs festival drew a record-breaking 192,000 people in 2014, Pepita Ferrari, chair of the Documentary Organization of Canada (DOC), a non-profit
advocacy group for independent filmmakers, fears the demise of the feature-length doc.

At CBC, the only documentary shows-—besides the current affairs programs—that remain on air are The Nature of Things, Doc Zone and The Passionate Eye. The network will trim its staff by 25 percent before 2020, thanks to federal budget cuts. And last June, it announced a plan to end its
in-house documentary team. Starowicz, now the executive director of documentary programming, says CBC will rely solely on independent producers, who already create 75 percent of its documentaries. Doc Zone will end this year too, although Starowicz says it will return in a different iteration.

Meanwhile, CTV and Global are also commissioning fewer documentaries. Public broadcaster TVOntario shows feature-length docs, including work by young producers, but with a limited budget it commissions just eight to 12 per year. In order to unlock money from organizations such as the Canadian Media Fund, filmmakers must usually have a broadcaster on board for their project. In April 2013, The Globe and Mail’s Steven Ladurantaye and Simon Houpt questioned the future of documentaries in Canada in an article based on a DOC study outlining the steep decline of the industry, which had lost over 4,000 jobs since 2008.

Like Henderson, the NFB’s director general of English programming, Michelle van Beusekom, remembers when CBC commissioned a lot of work for its roster of programs. In that climate, she says it was more strategic for the NFB to co-produce films, but with fewer slots for docs on all networks these days, she and her team now produce more documentaries fully funded in-house. But in 2012, her organization also fell victim to federal budget cuts totalling $6.68 million over three years. The NFB currently completes 20 to 25 English documentaries each year.

When CBC shuttered its documentary department, about 40 prominent staffers, including David Suzuki, Anna Maria Tremonti and Linden MacIntyre, signed a petition against the decision. Brian Stewart, a former senior correspondent for The National, praised the past success of the department in a Globe article: “The CBC made series of enormous scale that clearly captured a country’s imagination. Canada: A People’s History won universal praise while exceeding the viewing levels of playoff hockey.”

As a senior producer on the Gemini Award-winning series, Henderson (who’s an avid baseball fan) helped history triumph over hockey. In his book Making History: The Remarkable Story Behind Canada: A People’s History, executive producer Starowicz wrote, “The series would have been totally impossible without Gordon Henderson, his respect for the human story and his sense of wonder at Canadian history.”


Henderson, with a mop of white hair and black-rimmed glasses, sits on a green couch in his downtown Toronto office. The exposed brick walls and floral love-seat make the room reminiscent of an Urban Outfitters store. Photographs of Henderson’s family crowd the side table next to his desk. Grateful Dead coasters are stacked beside a custom-made coffee-table book titled Shoots: 90th Parallel Afield.
A caricature of Henderson—drawn by the late cartoonist Jim Unger—sits next to his chess set from Afghanistan.

Henderson, who grew up in Ottawa, was working as a parliamentary correspondent when he read Dan Rather’s autobiography, The Camera Never Blinks Twice. When the CBS anchor travelled, he would pass time by dreaming up questions for the president of the United States. “If I sit there and doodle on an airplane, I’d think up ways to shoot a scene,” says Henderson. “And I realized I was a visual guy.” He quit his job as a political reporter and worked as a producer at CTV’s W5 and The Journal before founding 90th Parallel in 1987. It was a challenging time to venture out on his own, but he says with a shrug, “I wanted to be my own boss.”

His original partner in the venture, the late John Darroch, suggested the name after asking Henderson how far north he’d travelled. Though he’d been up to the 85th parallel, he liked how futuristic and grandiose 90th parallel sounded, along with its obvious connotation to the North Pole. By this point, Henderson had already done a lot of work up North. And the Arctic is entrenched in Canadian doc history—many people consider Flaherty’s 1922 film Nanook of the North the world’s first successful documentary.

Henderson thinks 1994’s The Choirmaster put 90th on the map. It tells the story of choir leader John Gallienne, who sexually assaulted young boys at St. George’s Anglican Church in Kingston, Ontario. “The Choirmaster is so far above most TV fare that I sat watching a preview tape in stunned silence,” Jim Bawden wrote in the Toronto Star. The next day, the Globe’s John Haslett Cuff said, “This is an intelligent, restrained and thoughtful film that poses a number of difficult questions about the case.” After The Choirmaster aired on Witness, international broadcasters picked it up in spite of its local focus.

In 2000, 90th produced Studio: The Life and Times of Alex Colville which premiered on CBC and earned a Gemini nomination. Andrew Gregg, the director, and Henderson, who was the executive producer, consider it one of their most memorable pieces and boast about how the composition of certain frames resemble Colville’s paintings. The Canadian Press said the documentary gave Canadians a more personal look at one of the country’s most prolific artists. Fourteen years later, the film was part of a massive Colville exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto.

Not everyone agrees that 90th’s films have artistic merit. The Regina Leader-Post disparaged 2007’s Crazy Eights for its lack of “style,” but acknowledged that it makes up for that in “interest value.” NOW Magazine’s Barrett Hooper gave the film a coveted four “N” rating and lauded Henderson for “allowing the soldiers to tell their own stories with little editorializing.” Henderson’s documentaries highlight what Gemini Award-winning fifth estate associate producer Lynette Fortune, a former 90th intern, calls his “passion for storytelling.”

For his latest project, The Tea Explorer, Henderson partnered with Bruce Cowley, head of the Documentary Channel and creative head of digital channels at CBC, to secure international interest. “You’ve got to go where people want to run documentaries,” Henderson says. “If the market for Canada is getting smaller, one does have to look outside.” He’s not alone. The NFB is also looking to international co-productions, or “co-pros,” as a way around funding challenges.

The Tea Explorer will follow a Canadian tea expert as he traces the ancient Tea Horse Road in Southwest China. In November 2014, the project was honoured as one of the non-Asian pitches with the most market potential at the Guangzhou International Documentary Film Festival in China. Henderson wasn’t there to receive the award, though. He was in Hong Kong with Michael Alder, former executive producer of The Nature of Things, trying to drum up interest for a splashy new doc on the geologic history of China—Henderson calls it China Rocks.

Though there was some interest amongst Chinese broadcasters, no Canadians went for the project. But the trip ended up being a good one—instrumental for another film that is close to Henderson’s heart. At Hong Kong’s World Congress of Science and Factual Producers, Henderson met with a team of broadcasters and producers from England and the United States. They’re working on a documentary about British explorer Sir John Franklin, whose ships went missing during an Arctic expedition that began in 1845. Henderson is still telling Canadian stories, and he’s selling them wherever he can.


Andrew Gregg eyed international co-productions with a different goal in mind. He submitted a proposal to the Canada-New Zealand Digital Media Fund—a partnership between the CMF and its New Zealand equivalent—for money that would go toward a multimedia project unlike anything 90th has done before. “Everyone is trying to figure out how to not only get a digital presence online, but how to make it pay for itself,” he says. Gregg, who recently learned his bid was unsuccessful, adds this is “a way for us to tap into a fund and give it a try.” He cites the NFB’s Emmy-winning Highrise, a documentary about vertical living, as one such innovative approach to filmmaking. Launched in 2009, it’s a multi-year project that tells a story across a variety of media.

Cowley and John Ferri, vice-president of current affairs and documentaries at TVO, both also know they need to beef up their digital offerings. “People don’t necessarily want to sit down at night at eight o’clock and watch a documentary,” says Cowley. “They want to watch a documentary when they want to watch a documentary. That’s the way entertainment is being seen.” Ferri wants to build up digital content around TVO’s documentaries so audiences can watch them on several platforms.

The NFB began offering free streaming of most of its films in 2009. In that first year, 3.7 million people from Canada and around the world visited its online Screening Room. Audiences are also turning to Netflix to watch documentaries, but the American company doesn’t fall under the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission regulations, so it doesn’t have to support or produce Canadian content. Rogers and Shaw launched the Shomi streaming service in November 2014, but as of January 2015, it offered only nine documentaries. And just one—Jennifer Baichwal’s 2006 film Manufactured Landscapes—is Canadian. Bell Media’s CraveTV was a frontrunner at the time of publication, offering dozens of documentaries.

But wunderkind VICE Media, founded in Montreal, is a popular source for free documentaries made in Canada; its YouTube channel has over five million subscribers, nearly double the Documentary Channel’s cable subscribers. Despite VICE’s reputation for the sensational, documentaries like the films in the series Canada’s Toxic Chemical Valley, about the effects of air pollution in Sarnia, Ontario, and Canadian Cannabis, show Canadian stories to enormous audiences.


While most viewers watch online or at festivals, broadcasters are still central to obtaining cash from organizations such as the CMF. But some young doc makers are finding a way around it: B.C.-based Nimisha Mukerji is getting her third film, Tempest Storm, off the ground by crowdfunding more than $45,000 on Kickstarter. It enabled her to continue filming while waiting for a broadcaster. She also won $10,000 at Hot Doc’s 2014 Pitch Forum. Tempest Storm will now be shown by Canada’s Super Channel, France’s Arte, Germany’s SWR and Israel’s Yes Docu. But while DOC established a partnership with Indiegogo last year, Ferrari says, “We do not know yet if crowdfunding will be the panacea.” NFB’s van Beusekom agrees, saying it can help secure part of a film’s budget, but it’s usually not enough to sustain an entire project.

Henderson is doing his part to support the industry by mentoring young filmmakers such as former intern Lena Macdonald. She knew of Henderson’s historical and political films, but when A Mother’s Ordeal aired on Global in 2011, it drew her interest to 90th Parallel. The doc follows Brenda Waudby, who was wrongly accused of murdering her daughter, largely because of inaccurate findings by disgraced child pathologist Charles Smith. “There’s more going on out of that production house,” says Macdonald. “It’s a little bit more interesting and rigorous.” She directed her first documentary for broadcast, Mom and Me, at 90th. Completed in 2014, it chronicled her relationship with her mother, who was homeless and addicted to drugs. Henderson helped Macdonald tease out her story in the editing suite. “I know the story best,” she says. “But he really could inhabit—as best a 60-something-year-old white man can—my mind and my head and heart and my perspective and my voice.” For Henderson, this isn’t completely altruistic; he likes hearing from the next generation.

Macdonald is now navigating Canada’s funding labyrinth with Henderson’s help. Even though TVO is airing Mom and Me, she’s desperate for a feature-length, theatrical release. But it’s difficult to find a distributor when a film is already attached to a broadcaster. “One of the things I love about Gordon is he’s learning too,” she says. “He’s always trying to figure out: how does the system work now?”


After CBC announced the closure of its doc department, Linden MacIntyre told the Globe that independent filmmakers are more market-driven than the public broadcaster. “Increasingly, they have to produce stuff for an international audience, they have to produce stuff that’s not controversial, and they have to produce stuff that’s not going to get them sued to death.” In 2010, the CRTC tightened its definition of documentaries in order to differentiate them from factual or reality series—such as programs on the Food Network or HGTV—that are cheaper to produce and are more palatable for a larger audience.

Henderson doesn’t look down on filmmakers who’ve stopped making traditional documentaries; he just knows that factual series aren’t for him. “I’m just stubborn and old and crotchety and don’t want to do that.”

For now, he’s busy enough chasing international co-productions and making films for Canadian broadcasters so he doesn’t have to do anything he doesn’t want to. He’s lucky, partly because, as Starowicz wrote in Making History, he has a reputation for running one of the most successful production houses in Toronto.

As Henderson’s student, Mike Sheerin aspired to have a career just like his teacher and they eventually worked together on a CTV documentary celebrating anchor Lloyd Robertson’s 25th anniversary on air. After Sheerin left CTV, he directed 10 films for 90th before starting his own company, Architect Films, where he’s now a lifestyle producer creating series such as Deck Wars for HGTV. While he misses making hard-hitting documentaries—he’s responsible for The Secret Mulroney Tapes and two films on Afghanistan—he knows more people watch his work now.


Henderson describes 90th as an accordion, expanding and contracting based on the number of projects on the go. These days 90th is hitting a high note, especially with the Franklin film.

“It was a big, dramatic story and the most famous Arctic story in Canada,” says Henderson, a self-proclaimed Franklin geek. The international co-production between British production company Lion Films and 90th will air on The Nature of Things, Channel 4 in the U.K. and PBS’s Nova. Henderson is quick to note that the April airdate coincides with the anniversary of Thomas D’Arcy McGee’s assassination. Like Franklin, McGee never made it into Canada: A People’s History.

Now, Henderson gets to fill in the blanks. Though documentaries aren’t yet our official national art form, he knows we excel at them. We have to tell our own stories, he says. “What’s the point of having a country if we don’t tell Canadian stories?”

Photo courtesy Jason Van Bruggen

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