Made-in-Quebec Social Impact Documentaries Behind the Scenes

Quebec social impact documentaries don’t always come with the impact designation. But don’t let that fool you…the genre is alive and well in Quebec even if the necessary institutional support is not. That’s the upshot of the “Changing the World One Film at a Time” roundtable discussion at the 2023 Montreal International Documentary Festival (RIDM) last November.

“Quebec has a solid reputation for connecting political issues with films and getting box-office hits, but it’s not well-documented,” said Documentary Organization of Canada executive director Sarah Spring following a fascinating ninety-minute round of discussions. “Because there are no shared tools, every project has to be started from scratch. And there’s no benchmark,” she said. “Quebec Filmmakers are certainly doing impact producing, it’s just not called that yet.”

Indeed, the work of the roundtable filmmakers provided ample proof. “Every time I get angry, I get another idea for a film,” said Josiane Blanc. She’s made documentaries on fatphobia (Contes d’une grossophobie ordinaire, 2020), on the harassment of minors (Loud & here, 2023), and is currently working on one about people with hearing problems.

According to the Documentary Organization of Canada (DOC), social impact documentary is “that new dimension of documentary practice in which filmmakers mobilize people, networks and resources to create change.”

Ayana O’shun deconstructs the stereotypes black women face in her The Myth of the Black Woman documentary. “I wouldn’t be so bold as to predict that the film is going to shatter any myths,” she said. “But if it manages to start a conversation and raise awareness about the problem, it’ll be a worthwhile initiative.”

Director Émilie B. Guérette’s recent film The Hearing follows asylum seeker Peggy Nkunga Ndona (who’s also co-director of the film) and the barriers she must surmount in immigrating to Canada. “I always film with my subject,” Guérette said as she explained her position on impact producing. “It wouldn’t occur naturally to me to make this kind of confrontational film. I’d rather fight with them on the front lines. That’s why I directed the film with Peggy.”

The Hearing

Good intentions call for concrete strategies

Clearly, the four filmmakers did not confine their efforts to good intentions alone in fighting their battle. They’ve carefully deployed specific concrete strategies based on impact methodology, both upstream and downstream in producing their films. “One component of our strategy was to identify the target audience we had in mind. My sister, Bianca Bellange, (The Myth of the Black Woman co-producer) and I both have backgrounds in marketing. We applied everything we learned about marketing in university in making the film,” O’shun said. “So, when we got around to applying to Telefilm Canada or SODEC, we had a multi-page document outlining exactly what we were going to do in promoting the film, the audience we were going after, and what that audience was interested in content-wise. Where were they going? What was their family situation like? It was all very detailed.”

Myth Black Woman

In keeping with an effective impact methodology, all RIDM roundtable filmmakers went out of their way to create links with their target audiences when their projects were still on the drawing board. “We approached a dozen organizations working in immigration and for those seeking asylum,” Guérette said. “Peggy picked up tremendous experience given her close ties with Action Réfugiés Montréal and PRAIDA (Regional Program for the Settlement and Integration of Asylum Seekers) since arriving in Canada. It was key to include them in our launch strategy.”

Distribution with a difference

By developing links with communities targeted in their documentaries, the filmmakers get the distribution process underway even before a distributor is even involved in the project. In this way their impact documentaries can build an audience without having to take the conventional festival, theatrical, or television route.

“We set out to make the film as a tool for institutions and the community,” said Guérette. “The goal was to help them reflect on the way they do things, while better understanding the situation of asylum seekers. Many of them told us that even though they work with asylum seekers every day they never had access to the hearings.”

The producers of Loud & Here decided to take their film on the road for school screenings. “The film was shown in schools across Canada thanks to the HotDocs in-school program,” Blanc said. This led to them being approached by similar programs in Lithuania, Poland, and Italy. “Not surprisingly, young people all over the world experience being harassed,” she said. “We want the film to become a tool that will help harassment victims talk about their experience and get their stories out.”

Lg Loud And Here 1
Screenshot from Loud & Here, by Josiane Blanc

Ideally, the impact document will open up a space for dialogue. Whenever possible, screenings are followed by a discussion with the filmmaker and the main characters. “Because our film is only ninety minutes long, there were a lot of themes we couldn’t cover,” O’shun said. “Fortunately, the conversations after the screenings allow us to go into the subject in more detail. The film has been very well received especially with female audiences, saying it puts into words what we’re they thinking at the time.”

Seeking better recognition

The only drawback of creating impact documentaries in Quebec is the lack of support from government agencies and industry. According to O’shun, investing a significant amount of time and money in developing sound impact strategies has little influence on project evaluation. Such investments are also rarely included in production budgets.

Funding for impact strategies should not be treated on a case-by-case basis according to Guérette. “There’s always a line item with a percentage reserved for male and female directors and there should be the same thing for impact strategies,” she said. “Production budgets should be set aside for filmmakers and protagonists taking part in public screenings. Filmmakers shouldn’t have to choose between accompanying their film or paying their rent.”

There’s still a way to go before impact documentaries are fully recognized and supported in Quebec.

Philippe Jean Poirier
Philippe Jean Poirier is a freelance journalist covering digital news. He explores the day-to-day impact of digital technologies through texts published on Isarta Infos, La Presse, Les Affaires and CMF Trends.
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