"People keep saying to me 'this is the Golden Age of Documentary,'" sighs Lisa Fitzgibbons, executive director of the Documentary Organization of Canada (DOC). "But there's a huge disconnect between what people think and the reality."
What Fitzgibbons is referring to is the storm of recent bad news that's shredding up the documentary industry in Canada. In the weeks before the Hot Docs Festival in Toronto (April 26 to May 6) -- the largest one in North America -- the industry was hit with announcements of colossal cuts at the NFB, CBC and Telefilm.
Fitzgibbons agrees with the idea of the "Golden Age" as can be evidenced by the high quality and profound reach of documentaries that have sprouted in recent years. Yet funding is drying up. She calls the recent cuts to cultural agencies as "speeding up the extinction of the genre."
Death by a thousand cuts. DOC -- a registered charity and not a lobby group -- reported last year that documentary production between 2006 and 2009 had dropped to its lowest level in six years. Networks have turned their energies to reality and lifestyle shows.
"The shelf space for documentaries on TV is radically different from seven years ago," Fitzgibbons adds. "You're talking about a sector that has lost the equivalent of 1,500 full-time jobs in the past two years. Filmmakers in the prime of their careers are leaving. It's a loss of a vital voice every time a documentary director or producer quits."
Conversely, attendance at documentary film festivals has shot up almost 80 per cent. There is a hunger out there for docs but the financial support to go with that is dwindling.
Cultural sector bears 'larger hit'
CBC has reduced its documentary section. Commissions are not being replaced with acquisitions either.
The NFB is dealing with a $6.68-million cut, slashing positions across the country, eliminating grants for festivals and reducing aid by a whopping 30 per cent to the Filmmaker Assistance Program.
The cruellest cut came from Telefilm: gouging out $700,000 in development financing, $500,000 from its emerging filmmakers training fund and most radically, lopping 50 per cent off its $1-million production fund for theatrical documentaries.
Amazingly, that's the part of Telefilm that makes a return. The theatrical fund has supported award-winning features including Last Train Home, Reel Injun, Le Coeur d'Auschwitz and Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glen Gould.
"With the federal cuts there were three scenarios possible -- a 5 per cent cut, a 10 per cent cut or no cuts at all. CBC, NFB and Telefilm were told to cut 10 per cent. I find it distressing the cultural sector was required to bear a larger hit yet their effect on the deficit is quite small," said Fitzgibbons.
More storms on the horizon are predicted with Shaw Communications lobbying for the end of the $100-million Local Programming Improvement Fund -- some of which is used to finance short documentaries.
DOC is fighting back by pushing to have one of the main requirements for production funding to be dropped -- that a broadcaster be attached.
"The funding model is predicated by broadcasters [and] we'd like that lynchpin extracted."
Fitzgibbons remains resolute: "Filmmakers are a stubborn bunch. We'll just dig in."
One of the best ways for anyone to support documentaries is to just go out and see them -- or buy them, download them, hold community screenings or recommend them. Check out the 2012 offerings at Hot Docs.
Engaging and gripping documentaries
Many of these films are available to teachers through the Hot Docs classroom outreach program as well as featured in other festivals across the country and broadcast by the likes of PBS, CBC and other networks. Oftentimes, you can purchase them off the production's website.
Big Boys Gone Bananas!* by Fredrik Gertten is a jaw-dropping examination of 1 ½ years he spent trying to free his 2009 film, Bananas!* (available for download on Netflix, iTunes and Distrify), from the grips of court action by Dole. The first film was about the lawsuit brought on by 10,000 Dole workers in Nicaragua accusing the company of using pesticides that destroyed their health. The Dole powers-that-be sought to suppress the film, threatening suits against the Swedish filmmaker, the Los Angeles Film Festival and the American lawyer representing the Nicaraguan workers -- essentially, tying up the film in the courts for almost a year. Gertten, a former foreign correspondent, dug in his heels and decided to detail his David-and-Goliath battle. The film is a stirring condemnation of corporate bullying, journalistic failure (Canadian media gets a fat "zero" here) and the power of spin. At times shocking, the film is a rallying cry for free expression and an independent media. Big Boys will also be screened at Vancouver's DOXA in May. Gertten will be in Toronto.
Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry features an equally fierce subject -- the avant-garde Chinese artist whose works flout China's rulers and whose campaign to gather the names of the thousands of students that died in the Sichuan earthquake of 2008 got him on the government's enemies list. He's been beaten, held in detention (mysteriously disappearing in April 2011 and then charged with tax evasion) and watched 24 hours day -- the government installed cameras inside his home and studio. Ai is unrepentant: "I am more brave because the danger is there and if I don't act, the danger is stronger." An aggressive Twitter user, Ai is a force that cannot be stopped. This is a charming, engaging look at a hero of our time. Oh, and it has lots of cats. Expect a theatrical release soon.
The Waiting Room is one of the best non-narrated docs I've seen in a long time. Lovingly filmed by director Pete Nicks, the main "character" is the emergency room of a hospital in Oakland, California. It's a public hospital and therefore, gets the gamut from simple prescription refills to bullet-wounds and strokes. Nicks is a compassionate cinematographer, whose lens exquisitely captures the nurses, doctors and patients in the most agonizing circumstances. With every patient comes a personal history fraught with complications and tragedies. Many self-diagnose (to their detriment) and large numbers have lost their jobs or are woefully underpaid.
Here are a few other films to round off my Hot Docs 2012 honour list:
Detropia: a gorgeously-rendered requiem for Detroit representing the decaying cavity of The American Dream with radiant scenes and compelling characters including a retired teacher and bar owner and the Detroit Opera. From the Oscar-nominated team behind Jesus Camp.
5 Broken Cameras: this Sundance winner chronicles one West Bank family's six-year odyssey fighting the encroachment of an Israeli settlement. Facing daily arrests and threats from the Israeli army, the Palestinian father's resolve to preserve on film what is happening to his community and family portrays the power of bearing witness.
Canned Dreams: a poetic journey tracking the ingredients for canned ravioli as they travel to their destination. The eight-country epic is a fascinating study of modern food production, linking the people around the world who contribute to our edibles and whose personal lives we never consider. Devour this film as it takes you from Brazil to Finland and gives you nourishing food for thought.
Other docs to consider: The Punk Syndrome, Crayons of Askalan and The World Before Her.
June Chua is a Toronto-based journalist who regularly writes about film for rabble.ca.