Article: Why Rock the Boat?

Why rock the boat

I remember when the Harris conservatives were first elected and the Ontario Film Development Corporation, established by the Liberals under Peterson, was put on the chopping block. The unlucky head of the OFDC at the time was Alexandra Raffe. She came to a CIFC meeting to tell us about the government’s plans and discuss strategies to oppose the closing of the agency.

Someone spoke of the importance of documentary filmmaking to the culture of the province, that films supported by the OFDC were in the public interest and contributed to a well-functioning democracy because they helped the citizens of Ontario debate issues important to the community. Alexandra interrupted and politely said that kind of argument is absolutely pointless. “The ‘cultural’ argument”, she emphasized, “simply does not compute with this government.” The only thing that stands a chance of influencing them, she said, was an economic argument.

The economic argument we are familiar with goes something like filmmakers are entrepreneurs, operating small to medium sized businesses. A relatively small government investment in the OFDC, and the tax credit program, would stimulate economic activity and jobs in the private sector worth several times the amount of the initial public investment.

While the ‘cultural industries’ argument didn’t completely convince the Ontario Tories (the OFDC stopped financing film & TV) — it certainly infiltrated our own minds. It was like a colourless, odorless gas silently washed over everything and we adapted to the new agenda. From this point on, the notion that documentary was something culturally important, in the public interest, and an activity that was best part of (for shame) the not-for-profit sector was left to erode like an old statue of a disgraced leader.

There was a renewed emphasis in our documentary proposals on business plans, producer investments, marketing strategies, and recoupment schedules. Pitching sessions flourished at film festivals around the world and deals for series TV with international broadcast partners became the mark of success leading to the formation of ‘core’ documentary production companies in Canada. Today, a publically traded corporation like Alliance-Atlantis has a documentary unit. And other broadcasters and their (publically supported) affiliated companies are producers and distributors of their own documentary product.

This is some of the history of the Canadian face of free market globalization as it applies to documentary filmmaking. Many documentary filmmakers are no doubt just fine with these developments. They have built relatively successful businesses supplying the global television industry with documentary – a.k.a. ‘factual and reality-based programming’ — and become wealthy.

But what about the others – those critical generally of globalization and its often tragic effects? When it comes to the globalization of the documentary and how its effecting not just what we make and how we make it, but how television is effecting populations and cultural diversity around the world – we are all but blind and mute.

If this was a movie about a community’s struggle to resist what’s oppressing them, we’d be early in act 1 — everyone out for themselves, worrying only about their own projects, getting their own budgets together, and trying to become broadcasters’ trusted suppliers. Carefulness, adaptability, and reading the minds of television executives are indispensable skills to keep being funded. Oddly enough, many still identify comfortably with progressive politics and critical ideas, though when it comes to what they do, they are above all realistic.

It’s something about this kind of trouble free relations between documentary filmmakers and the globalization of the genre that provoked the radical British filmmaker Peter Watkins to write a very critical letter about the Hot Docs! festival’s growing commercialization, wherein he mentioned “false radicalism” and stated, “there is a startling lack (in the documentary community) of political opposition to what’s happening in the world and a reluctance to challenge the crisis in our own profession.”

And what is the crisis in our profession? It has to do with the hugely important role of the mass media as more or less the public relations arm of globalization. Television channels are owned by large multinational media conglomerates, or by national elites, or less often, by State governments, and they are run as big business. They have developed standardized lengths (the universal clock) for their products and a standardized, well-developed, audio-visual language (the Monoform – see www.peterwatkins.lt ). And of course, television delivers a barrage of advertising, all day everyday around the world, whose message is to consume more and more.

The overwhelming dominance of this system in both public and private broadcasting has all but completely excluded alternative documentary practices and has done a fine job too, colonizing our minds. For it’s often us who supply television with documentary commodities and we can hardly imagine, or care, about doing things differently.

Peter Watkins, above all, has evolved a way to make films that challenge the oppressive system in which we are caught. Watkins thinks it’s crucial to work differently with the public, with communities – to get very close to them, to be at their service, and to follow whatever film form automatically comes out of listening and reflecting on your subject. The form has to make room for the complexities of life and be the strongest way to transmit this reality to an audience so they can experience the subject deeply and have the time to work with it.
The universal clock is a terrible joke and the Monoform, a manipulative bore, no matter how well-executed. Together, they fit a strait-jacket over the documentary stifling it’s amazing potential to really make a difference.

The writer John Berger, in an essay in Harper’s magazine titled “Another Way of Seeing” (March/02) taken from his recent book (The Shape of a Pocket) refers directly to both the problem of mass media and its human cost. His essay is mostly about painting but it can also apply to documentary filmmaking. He writes at the end of the piece:

“The Marquise de Sorcy de Thélusson, painted by David in 1790, looks at me. Who could have foreseen in her time the solitude in which people today live? A solitude confirmed daily by networks of bodiless and false images concerning the world. Yet their falseness is not an error. If the pursuit of profit is considered as the only means of salvation for mankind, turnover becomes the absolute priority, and, consequently, the existent has to be disregarded or ignored or suppressed.”

The global television system, almost unnoticed, has inverted the documentary so it too disregards, ignores and suppresses reality. As an engine of consumption, television is very careful not to let us know too much about the human and environmental cost of the goods we buy.

In Berger’s final sentence he writes: “Today, to try to paint the existent is an act of resistance instigating hope.” Again, we could just as well insert the word ‘film’ for the word ‘paint’. As documentary filmmakers we let too much slide, or we’re in denial, or too afraid, to face our own complicity, let alone work out a collective approach to challenge the system. Solidarity is based on shared consciousness and we have none.

If this was a movie about resistance, we would be definitely in act 1, living the solitude, and a long way from instigating hope.