DOC on Docs: Canada’s National Art Form

Have you seen a Canadian documentary lately? Not a series, but a feature-length film? Sarah Spring, executive director of the Documentary Organization of Canada (DOC), worries finding one may be getting harder.

When DOC released the latest edition of its “Getting Real” report at TIFF last year one bit of data set off alarm bells for Spring. “There was a drastic drop in feature doc production and a massive increase in low-budget documentary series,” she says.

That seventh edition of DOC’s survey of Canada’s documentary sector covered the fiscal years from 2016/17 to 2020/21. While there was a lot of good news—overall documentary production went up approximately 32% in that period, in part led by those low-budget series—the creation of feature-length documentaries shrank from 5.1% of Canada’s overall doc output in 2016/17 to a paltry 2.4% in 2020/21.

To note, it was only in the final two years of that study that features declined as a percentage of all doc content in Canada. In 2018/2019 features actually spiked to 6.1% of the whole, then dropped to 4.6% in 2019/2020 before reaching 2.4% in 2020/21, the first year of the Covid pandemic.

DOC won’t have data about the years following 2021 until the next “Getting Real” report comes out in 2028, but anecdotally Spring says, “From what I can tell the downward trend has continued in terms of financing for feature or long-form documentary films.”

Spring says if the decline continues it’s a problem because in that same study 43% of DOC members said they make films about their family and community. “You know, very personal stories, so this is one of the ways that we see ourselves in Canada and that we can look back and see what Canadians thought about our world.”

Sarah Spring
Sarah Spring, executive director of the Documentary Organization of Canada (DOC)

Lessons from the south of the border

Spring is watching what she calls a “rapid contraction” in the American documentary feature-film industry. In April, Participant — a long-time, major supporter of docs including An Inconvenient Truth, John Lewis: Good Trouble and Food, Inc. — shut down. “We're looking at some real canary in the coal mine stuff in the U.S.,” Spring says.

A Hollywood Reporter article published in the wake of Participant’s demise noted “the options for documentaries about weighty subjects appear to be narrowing after major mergers and an industrywide contraction.” It listed CNN Films, Showtime, HBO and Netflix as broadcasters that have cut back on documentary films.

What can the Canadian documentary industry learn from this?

Spring says we have to lean away from an American-style model, “which is purely market-driven and not driven by cultural policy.” She laments that in the current climate, where streamers and broadcasters are competing for eyeballs, documentary features are often left behind.

“Documentaries operate on a much, much, much, much longer relationship with audiences. So we'll have audiences watching a documentary over a period of 10 years rather than measuring it as how many people are watching it tomorrow on a streaming platform,” she says.

And with streamers now prioritizing profits—laying off employees, introducing more advertising and shying away from political content—what was once a boon for documentary filmmakers has gone bust. Spring says a survey conducted at this year’s Hot Docs Festival asked feature filmmakers where they got their funding. They received 20 responses. “And none of them had streamer money.”

The Hot Docs situation

Speaking of Hot Docs, the organization is facing its own crisis, with possible repercussions for the sector at large. Amid financial woes and mass resignations stemming from allegations of a toxic workplace, the organization is shuttering the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema and temporarily laying off some staff for approximately three months this summer to “conduct an extensive review of the Cinema—its mission, programming and operations—to determine a path back to profitability,” according to its press release.

Spring says she can’t overstate Hot Docs’ importance to the community, recalling that the organization was founded by DOC in 1993 so documentarians would have a place to show their films.

“DOC is going to do everything possible to ensure that Hot Docs makes it through,” she says. “We were very public about the fact that we believe there's some real reflection, internal reflection, that has to happen in order for Hot Docs to emerge from this stronger and more responsive to the community.

“You know, these things don't happen overnight,” she adds. “It takes many years for an institution to get to this level of crisis. But working together we can get through it. I don't believe we're at risk of this institution going away, but it's going to take a lot of hard work to get it back to a place where it’s thriving but also in alignment with its core values.”

Positive news from the funders

Spring believes supporting documentary features via cultural policy is how we protect a genre many see as Canada’s national art form.

She points to permanent funding announced this year for both the Indigenous Screen Office and the CMF’s Program for Racialized Communities as major gains, along with the Rogers-supported Canadian Independent Screen Fund for BPOC Creators. “A lot of our documentary community are from Indigenous, Black and racialized communities and so when there are funds that are specifically targeted for these communities, documentaries are very well represented,” Spring says.

And she was heartened when Valerie Creighton, President and CEO of the Canada Media Fund (CMF), announced at January’s Prime Time conference that documentaries would be a major strategic focus this year. “Not series, but features,” emphasizes Spring.

The CMF also added an obligation within their guidelines that broadcasters must support documentary features. “So when they're getting their envelope of money from the CMF they can't just put it all into series,” explains Spring. “They do have to put part of it into one-off or feature docs.”

Telefilm has also stepped up by increasing their funding cap. “A couple of years ago they switched their model to fund 35% of a doc up to $500,000,” says Spring. “Before it was $125,000.”   

More good news came when the CRTC announced streamers operating in Canada will be required to contribute 5% of their Canadian revenues to support Canadian productions.

Spring says she hopes streamers put the maximum amount possible towards Canadian content via the CMF, rather than acquisitions and commissions that aren’t owned by Canadian companies.

“The CRTC ruling was also a huge win for the Indigenous Screen Office and we are thrilled to see that carve-out which is so important for DOC’s Indigenous members,” she says. “Our Francophone members, OLMC [Official Language Minority Community], and Black and racialized creators are all prioritized and this is a key step towards an equitable, accessible industry.”

“A bumper year for Canadian docs” 

Spring is hopeful about the future of documentary features in Canada in large part because of the quality of films she’s seen on the festival circuit this year.

“I was talking to Alex Rogalski, who's the senior Canadian programmer at Hot Docs,” she says. “In January, he told me it was a bumper year for Canadian docs — really high-level, high production value, incredible films being made and some of these have been percolating throughout the pandemic.”

She mentions Pablo Alvarez-Mesa’s The Soldier’s Lagoon and Lisa Jackson’s Wilfred Buck. Then she points to writer/director Nisha Pahuja’s documentary To Kill a Tiger, about a farmer in India who seeks justice after his 13-year-old daughter is raped.

Premiering at TIFF in 2022, To Kill a Tiger toured the festival circuit before a limited U.S. release this past fall. Earlier this year it was nominated for Best Documentary Feature at the Academy Awards. 

“Absolutely breathtaking. It's beautiful. It's powerful. It's important,” says Spring. “She went all the way to the Oscars. This is it. Is it a Canadian documentary film? I would argue that it very much exemplifies a Canadian cinematic language. You know, no matter where it's filmed, this is a Canadian's perspective and creative approach developed over 20 years of making films supported by our public system here. So yeah, that was huge.” 

“We went to Ottawa and did a documentary day on the Hill and met with [Prime Minister Justin] Trudeau and [NDP Leader] Jagmeet Singh and everyone was so excited to meet with Nisha…. They were so happy that a Canadian documentary had made it all the way to the Oscars. This genre has an enormous amount of success in Canada and internationally every year.”

Nisha Pahuja Ottawa
From the left: To Kill a Tiger producer Geeta Sondhi, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, director Nisha Pahuja and DOC executive director Sarah Spring during “Doc Day on the Hill” in February

Marni Weisz
Marni Weisz is a Toronto-based writer and editor with a passion for movies, TV, comedy, and travel. For more than 20 years she served as Editor in Chief of Cineplex Magazine, where she interviewed fancy folk like Jennifer Lawrence, Mark Hamill, Margot Robbie, Keanu Reeves, Kumail Nanjiani, Donald Sutherland, and Tom Cruise. Her favourite question is, “When are you happiest?”
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