Doc U.

Journal Entry. Winnipeg
January 19th, 2008

I teach a class at the University of Winnipeg: Documentary Writing and Directing and although the pay is crap, for six hours a week it's usually a lot of fun; this week however it was a real downer.

We played the "Name Your Favourite Canadian Documentary" game.

Here's what they came up with "--------"

Nada. Zero. Not a clue.

Now remember, these are A list students who WANT to make docs. And they've never heard of Don Brittain or John Grierson or Bill Mason or Budge Crawley or Michael Maclear -- or even Robin Christmas, for God's sake !

They knew Michael Moore. They knew Ken Burns. A few of them even knew DA Pennebaker and Errol Morris. But not one kid in this top-of-the-gene-pool class could name a Canadian documentary film maker.

So, for the past few days I've been wondering -- why ? After all, I thought this was supposed to be the "golden age" of documentary making ?

Here's what I think:

1. The death of regional programming at the CBC has had a much more insidious effect than anyone ever thought it would. It has effectively removed one of the very few career paths for people looking to get started.

Even worse - it has driven them into the rapacious arms of prodcos (like mine) where most of them burn out fast - and end up writing know-it-all blogs.

2. While the NFB does commission films from first timers, the board has not had a real dollar budget increase in almost 20 years. So first time film makers come and go like fire-flies.

3. And the Specialities ?? Well, they've fed me for the past decade so I'd better pick my words carefully. But it's no secret that they program for a very specific slice of the market. They know their demo and most of them do good business. Which is what they are -- businesses.

So where DO young documentary makers go to learn their craft ? Where do they get their first and then crucially their second chance ?

I had the incredible luxury of being able to evolve as a documentary maker at CBC Edmonton, CBC Calgary .. and at that wonderful grad school, The Journal.

Kids today have nowhere to go. So, they simply lose interest. And the Michael Burns approach of finding a film that touches your heart then pitch, pitch, pitch ... doesn't help when you're 23 years old and have rent to pay.

It's time for someone in a leadership position at a J-school to step up and embrace our documentary tradition. To celebrate the Brittains, the Griersons, the Crawleys, the Jutras, and the Starowiczs.

After all these people are our nation builders. If we were Americans they'd have Schools of Journalism named after them.

We need somebody at Ryerson or at Carleton .. BCIT, SAIT, Kings College, or Concordia to take an active role in championing the documentary form - and to agitate for its preservation. Like you would any other endangered species.

Why is there NOT a Donald Brittain Chair of documentary making at Ryerson or McGill?

Why is there NOT a Bill Mason "Best Outdoor documentary" student award at Carleton ?

Why is there NOT a Beryl Fox "Best Social Affairs documentary" at BCIT ?

Why does Newsworld NOT hold an annual Barbara Frum "Best Student Documentary" contest and then run the winning film coast to coast ?

I know we'll never have a "Doc U". But if we're to keep our magnificent tradition of making great documentaries alive, someone has to step forward.

This would also give me something else to tell my class other than to ... "marry well"


Eric said...

What an opportunity to shape young minds! So, what are you going to show them?

Amanda said...

You're forgetting that there is one Bob Culbert shaping young minds in Ryerson's doc class.

We were also privileged to have a class called Documentary Survey, taught by one Canadian documentary man named Gord Henderson, where all we did was watch documentaries and talk about why they were good and why they were not. We compared Beryl Fox and Errol Morris, scrutinized Warner Herzog and Wade Davis, and even learned how to formulate our own pitches and our final exam was to meet up with Gord at his office and pitch to him.

All is not lost!

"The Book of Don" said...

ah yes ... I know them well. You're indeed one of the lucky ones. Bobby and Gordon are as good as it gets. But my overall point was that we (as a country which claims to be proud of its doc making heritage) need much more than just the occasional evening class taught by me, or Gordon or Bob.

daughter said...

FYI there is absolutely no journalism program at McGill. Apparently as an undergraduate student you have to make the choice between going to a bad school with a good program or going to a good school with no program.

iNudes said...

I'm glad someone mentioned Gord's class. I loved that course. Now I can feel very knowledgeable when I tell people "you have to see Mills of the Gods".

Right now I'm working in the north, and we've formed our own Canadian documentary group that meets once a week. The NFB ships us films (for free) and we get together with a group of other young professionals, watch and critique them. It's a good way to pass the winter, although the NFB does produce some bad documentaries!

"The Book of Don" said...

get them to send you some Don Brittain stuff. Start with "Memorandum" (about post war Germany)...then get "Paperland" (which is about the civil service)... listen to the script in the very opening scene...it is pure poetry, which goes something like

"...here he comes HOMO BUREAUOCRATIS. More resilient than the cockroach"

funny, smart .. and true. Brittain was primarily a writer and became a director because he was irritated by the people at the Board he was working with a felt he could do it better. He was correct.

Allan said...

Maybe you could offer a comment about Harry Rasky, who offered me some encouragement when I was taking courses.
I really liked his Leonard Cohen doc, but was disappointed with his Robertson Davies which I saw him shooting. I especially didn't think it necessary to insert himself into the film.
You must have run into him. What did you think of his work.
He seemed to have a secure job with the CBC doing docs. So how come they don't have those jobs any more for guys like you, Don.
Oh yah, and every year it's a drag that we get to see so few of the docs nominated for Academy Awards.

Damien... said...

Don, Don, Don....
I wanted to say John Grierson but I thought that he was only the head of the NFB. Although I've never seen a doc of his... uhhh...