Helel Bagshaw

Point of View

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Peter Raymont makes documentaries that call for change - but the CBC thinks he protests too much

Director Peter Raymont’s most recent documentary The World is Watching is much like Raymont himself: earnest and passionate, it argues that the American news media slant their coverage in response to political pressure and advertising revenues. At the heart of the film is a scene at a Nicaraguan farming cooperative devastated by Contra rebels in which a farmer tells an ABC film crew that the rebels cut a leg off his two-month-old son, killed his wife and left her intestines beside the body. After the report is filed with newsroom editors and anchor Peter Jennings in New York, all that remains on the six o’clock news is an abbreviated 20-second clip, the farmer calling for vengeance and a voiceover commenting that the war continues. The powerful sequence documents how field reports get distorted in the news-making process and presents Raymont at his best; according to Kay Armatage, a film professor at the University of Toronto, Raymont’s films about the media are his most interesting because “it’s where his voice speaks most strongly.”

The World is Watching premiered at Toronto’s Festival of Festivals in September 1988 and since then has won two prizes at the Nyon International ~ Film Festival in Switzerland and a Gold Hugo from the Chicago Film Festival for best social/political documentary. Although critics in Canada have praised the film, most Canadians may never get to see The World is Watching. Private networks rarely show documentaries, and so far TVOntario is the only public broadcaster to air it. At the CBC, Bill Morgan, director of TV News and Current Affairs, rejected the film because he feels it omits important facts: “The difficulty for us is that he wants to sell one side of the story. We have an obligation to sell both sides of the story.”

Raymont does not accept Morgan’s criticism. To get his film on the CBC, however, he has offered to change the ending-an especially sore point for Morgan-but the CBC won’t bite. In his 18-year career as a filmmaker, Raymont has made 30 documentaries and won 15 national and international awards: although many viewers and critics find his point-of-view documentaries stimulating and praiseworthy, his approach is unacceptable to the CBC.

After years of battling TV News and Current Affairs on behalf of point-of-view documentaries, Raymont will soon be knocking on other doors at the CBC-this time to get funding for dramatic films. His desire to gain access to larger audiences for his work has driven him to feature filmmaking. “I’m a politically committed filmmaker,” Raymont says. “I’m just trying to broaden myself out so I have more tools at my disposal, to help people understand the world better-to make the world a better place.”

Raymont’s films are an extension of the documentary tradition that started in Canada with John Grierson at the National Film Board in the forties. Raymont also worked at the Film Board and, like Grierson, he believes films should have a social purpose. Although his earlier work was closer to reportage, his later films developed more defined points of view, ranging from the destructive effect of television on the Inuit culture, also rejected by the CBC, to a flattering portrait of Bill Mulholland, the CEO of the Bank of Montreal.

Now Raymont’s quest has brought him to the Canadian Centre for Advanced Film Studies where he is learning to develop a script and direct actors for a fiction film. In the sitting room of the huge, old stone mansion that houses the Centre, Raymont sprawls out on an armchair as though it were his own. With his legs stretched across the coffee table, he looks more likely to face an adventure in the wilds of northern Canada than a day of filmmaking in Toronto. He wears scruffy jeans and a rough red-plaid shirt with an undershirt peeking from under the edge. Unruly, wavy hair frames his face. The khaki fedora on the table with driving gloves beside it are the only clues to his urban roots.

“I think everybody has a point of view and for any journalists anywhere to think that everything they do is balanced and fair and equal is crazy,” Raymont says dogmatically. “I don’t believe in the notion of journalistic objectivity.” He goes on to say that documentaries are valuable because, unlike news reports, they give a wider perspective on a subject and can express a point of view. “The tragedy in this country is that people cannot see documentaries on Canadian television,” he says. “Documentaries are the soul of Canadian filmmaking, and when the soul dies, that’s it.”

Not surprisingly, Raymont has been described as “arrogant” for his forthright opinions. Usually calm and reserved, he loses patience when talking about petty bureaucracy and what he considers the closed minds at the CBC. Raymont’s concern about preserving the documentary spurred him to co-found the Canadian Independent Film Caucus in 1983 with six other filmmakers. The small but persistent group now has 80 members across the country who lobby provincial and federal governments and their agencies to ensure funding for independent documentaries. Partly as a result of their efforts, Telefilm Canada has begun to fund documentaries, one of the first being The World is Watching.

Despite these apparent successes in obtaining more funding for documentaries, Raymont is now moving into features. But the shift is typical: throughout his career he has avoided being pigeonholed and has tried to work only on projects that were true to his beliefs. Born in 1950, he grew up in Ottawa where his father is still a civil servant. The activism of the sixties had a profound effect on him and his turns of phrase often reflect that era. “There really was a revolution. I’ve kept that going,” Raymont says. “I’m just lucky I’m in a profession that allows me to be expressive, creative and an activist.”

His film career started after seeing two art films in an English class at Queen’s University-Federico Fellini’s 81/2 and John Schlesinger’s A Kind of Loving. “They really blew me away,” Raymont says dreamily. “I’d never seen films like that in my life.” He made films at Queen’s and after graduating became an editor and later a producer and director on contract to the National Film Board in Montreal. In 1974 he spent a year teaching film and video production to the Inuit in the Arctic, and has returned there on several occasions to make documentaries. “CBC news guys think that by living with people you’re losing your objectivity,” he says. “But I’m of the other school, like George Plimpton-1 believe in living with people to report on them.”

Eventually Raymont felt stifled at the Board and left to become an independent filmmaker, forming his Toronto-based Investigative Productions Inc. in 1979. From 1980 to 1985, Raymont also produced nine radio documentaries for CBC’s Sunday Morning -including profiles of filmmakers and a report on the Iran/Iraq war-but he never had problems airing material that expressed a point of view. One of Raymont’s Sunday Morning assignments took him to Nicaragua in 1984 to pick cotton with a brigade of Canadians organized by Canadian Action for Nicaragua, whose mandate is to educate Canadians about that country. In the few months they were in Nicaragua, Raymont and his friend, writer Harold Crooks, were struck by how different the reality there was compared to what they were accustomed to seeing on television. It was then that they decided to make The World is Watching.

Crooks and Raymont, along with co-producer Jim Monro, approached various funding agencies as well as public broadcasters in Holland, Sweden, the United States and Britain’s independent Channel 4. But the obvious choice for funding and airtime was the CBC where Raymont talked to Paul Wright, then in charge of purchasing independent documentaries, about a presale. Wright rejected the proposal on the grounds that it was difficult to get hard data on a subject on which there were so many different opinions. Wright also said that, although the subject might interest journalists, it would not interest the general public.

The three producers secured enough funding from other sources, however, and Raymont shot the film in Nicaragua in the fall of 1987. Returning to Canada with 30 hours of film, he edited it down to 59 minutes and again tried to sell it to the CBC but was repeatedly turned down. “The film is flawed and untruthful in its one-sidedness,” says Morgan. ‘The people who stand accused have no chance to answer for themselves.” He points out that the CBC’s obligation to “sell both sides” derives from its own journalistic policies, the terms of the Broadcasting Act and CRTC regulations (see p. 43). “I get fired up when journalistic techniques are used to promote one point of view,” he says. “Raymont’s trying to do journalism and that’s not the way to do it.”

Morgan’s rejection of point-of-view documentaries concerns journalist Ann Medina, who also studied feature filmmaking at the Centre and appeared on a panel after a public screening in Toronto of Raymont’s film. A former correspondent and anchor at the CBC, Medina criticizes The World is Watching because Raymont “didn’t get his facts straight.” But she also feels that the CBC policy of rejecting point-of-view documentaries could reduce the number of controversial items aired by the corporation.

Raymont’s film is controversial, not just in its subject matter but in his treatment of it. Morgan’s objection is justified in that none of the ABC executives accused of pandering to advertising revenues and to the Reagan administration ever comment on how much these factors influence editorial decisions. And Raymont can be his own worst enemy. The film’s most powerful evidence for his case is the whittling down of the sequence at the farm cooperative to focus on a familiar cry of vengeance in order to fit a story line ABC editors had preconceived in New York. Unfortunately, Raymont blunts his argument by using this sequence to make the larger-and less credible-case that every news judgment reflects compliance with the Reagan administration. Nevertheless, the film does provide excellent insights into the world of journalists in the field as they make difficult decisions, flub their lines and worry about the competition. Moreover, by dissecting political and editorial pressures, the film breaks down the mystique of television-the public’s most trusted source of news.

Now Raymont’s power as a producer will be tested in the big leagues of feature filmmaking. The first dramatic film he hopes to make, On the Line, reflects many of his own political interests: a sixties radical is drawn back into political activism when he helps refugees from Central America enter Canada. Producing feature films in Canada means Raymont will still be making the rounds to various funding agencies, including the CBC. Perhaps his point. of-view approach will be more acceptable there when it reflects his own life rather than the lives of others.


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