Return on Investments: Co-Creative Challenges, Expertise, and Breakthrough in Media Production

What is collaborative media, and when is it truly inclusive?  As frameworks like co-creation and lab-based learning increasingly influence media production, they emphasize non-traditional ways of production planning and working on set.

Overall, documentaries, non-fiction works, even features of community-focused mandates are using intersectional expertise outside production personnel and an intensely consent driven process. There is also a cross-section of projects, often including indigenous leadership, which actively negotiates the terms of collective compensation. Although these deeply involved, logistically taxing projects enter uncharted, challenging territory, they instill overdue trust in underrepresented experts.

LOCKDOWN (2020) is a short film co-created by Brenda Longfellow, focusing on the experiences of formerly incarcerated women in Vancouver. The federally SSHRC funded project had to recently pivot quite significantly in format and length due to COVID-19 restrictions. But the Zoom-based interviews that structure the film mostly retained the underlying, co-creative drive for a few reasons.

Upon speaking to Brenda, she clarified that co-creation is compatible with documentary filmmaking because it is often a "democratizing ethos," focusing on the testimonies of film collaborators (or interviewees). In fact, co-creative documentaries may choose to use testimonies as their only reference, often removing any archival footage.

In theory, co-creation helps documentary expand beyond its expository roots, focusing on the well being of collaborators. But in practice, despite its creative opportunities, there were several challenges to LOCKDOWN. Many of the interviews were scheduled as in-person, healing-centric roundtables. Brenda noted that in her preparation for filming, a lot of these roundtables (pre-COVID) led to people refusing to talk, or taking extensive breaks from sharing intense, often detailed experiences. Oftentimes, they removed their consent to be filmed, halting the production process entirely.


Anita Lee is an Executive Producer of the National Film Board of Canada, and has helped to break barriers for marginalized and underrepresented communities in creative spaces for many years. Through collaborative work with the Ford Foundation, she spearheaded an immersive co-creation lab for indigenous creators, and became involved in the Collective Wisdom study by meeting Canadian documentary director and co-creative pioneer Katerina Cizek at MIT.

Lee is no stranger to the dynamic nature of consent in documentary filmmaking. Oftentimes, she mentioned that consent is reduced to “ ‘well if legally I have participant releases, if legally I have consent,’ ” whereas “what’s happened recently, we’re really questioning even though we may have these legal rights, do we really have the moral right, do we have the ethical right?”

Lee is currently helping to produce XR Parks, a series of VR experiences still in development. As XR Parks attempts to push the form of community first and forward projects, it strives to be what Anita describes as “a real intersection between indigenous approaches and co-creation.” A VR experience working in collaboration with Parks Canada, XR Parks will be accessible on multiple platforms, where those designing the project must “think about the architecture of the piece right from the beginning,” utilizing “multiple experts or multiple areas of creative expertise.”

But like all co-creative projects, XR Parks has an expanded timeline. “We spent the whole year just developing the creative technical and process work, because we are developing a full indigenous community creator approach.”

In general, the balance between creative ownership and intellectual property is undergoing quite serious reevaluation as marginalized creators and collaborators experience greater distribution of their work.

“I struggle sometimes with the question which is who is the right person to tell a story,” Lee mentioned, “there’s also a part of me that feels there needs to be space for racialized creators where they can say we’re the right storytellers for this story at this point, where they might say I’m the right person to tell this story.’ 


For the innovative feature SGaawaay K’uuna (2018) or Edge of the Knife, there was no doubt that the Haida people were the right storytellers. The Haida people are a centuries old Indigenous community who primarily reside on the archipelago of Haida Gwaii, just off the coast of British Columbia. As Edge of the Knife shifted set dynamics to create greater space for indigenous storytelling, the production became a co-creative trailblazer in its own right through Haida trading skills, craftsmanship, and oral tradition. 

In fact, SGaawaay K’uuna created the production company Niijang Xyalaas, which SGaawaay’s producer and director of photography Jonathan Frantz clarified “was really the only appropriate way for me and IsumaTV to be involved in the project as it ensured Haida had complete control and ownership.”

SGaawaay K’uuna is the first feature film spoken entirely in the Haida language, depicting a young Haida man and his community as their lives follow the story of the Gaagiixiid, or the Wildman, told for thousands of years by the Haida Gwaai community. As Adiits’ii grapples with a recent trauma, he retreats into the wilderness, where he becomes emotionally and physically stranded, only to emerge a Wildman. In following Adiits’ii’s story, SGaawaay K’uuna highlights collective healing practices, and the intertwined nature of collective and individual accountability.

Illustration Cocreation Article
Illustration by Nandita Ratan

“We used the term ‘language nest’ to describe the intense language learning that occurred prior to the start of production” stated Frantz. “This was a two week learning session where all the actors and language mentors stayed together at cabins located in Hiellen village. We also created a language learning app that had the full script recorded in Haida language that the actors could use to rehearse their lines.”

In emphasizing the primary expertise of Haida speakers, with Haida writers penning the script and language mentors consistently on set, the remaining 25 Haida that still fluently speak the language helped to facilitate an environment of increasingly democratized seniority. In fact, this greater investment and attention to detail lead production personnel to a co-creative necessity: intersectional method.

“We were assessing what we could use locally and then bringing in some film professionals who had the right mindset to help train and work with Haida nation,” mentioned Frantz. Even Leonie Sandercock, a professor at UBC from the school of Community and Regional Planning “had helped to train Haida crew in different capacities.”

Alongside this intersectional approach, Haida knowledge stood strong as the guiding intention during the filming of SGaawaay. It even highlighted some logistical concerns. “Typically we assumed the style of shooting was to have long takes,” Frantz noted, “not a lot of edits - but this proved harder to do because the actors just couldn’t maintain dialogue for that long, so it was shorter.”

Frantz also mentioned that “even in the editing, we had to have language experts talk to us and say this is he best take from the language perspective, and editors and the directors would have a choice to make, basically between the ‘best language take’ and the ‘best acting take.’”

SGaawaay K’uuna’s co-creative energy also had a certain degree of fortuitousness. When asked about his time on One Day in the Life of Noah Piugattuk (2019), for example, Frantz reflected on the co-creative principles of SGaawaay. “While our Isuma team collaborates and works together, it happens in a very different way than it did with Haida.”


As underrepresented speakers, experts, and collaborators gain a sense of opportunity within co-creative productions and their non-traditional sets, the issue of affordance in creative production remains a larger, cultural dilemma. The term affordance refers to what the environment can offer the individual, but in a turn of phrase, co-creation asks what the individual can offer an environment. Although co-creative projects witness increased logistical issues, they are geared with the experts able to work it out. When discussing the perspective shifts that come about with a more co-creative focused project, Frantz noted that when culture and community are highlighted, it negates the risk of “a loss of context.” 

For Anita Lee, a growing focus in digital co-creation at the NFB and her consistent goal of “breaking barriers for marginalized and underrepresented communities” are both connected by a strong link in her media production career. Anita gestured to the fact that with greater participatory effort, with more complex conversations about the power dynamics in co-creation, “that’s where the value comes in.” “We’re understanding the relationship between ‘subject’ and filmmaker in a different way” Anita went on to note. With these changes, traditional filmmaking power dynamics are growing into a greater space of collaboration and consent, while shifting goals define co-creative projects.

Kathryn Armstrong
Kathryn Armstrong is an independent consultant and media scholar with a body of work driven by the communities and individuals who shape Canada’s diverse media ecosystem. Her most recent publications include her thesis for the University of Toronto’s Cinema Studies Institute on Canadian national film discourse. She also frequently presents at conferences such as the Film Studies Association of Canada, on topics like the relationship between Canada’s independent producers and its national broadcasters. As a connector and intellect, Kathryn has done research for the CMPA and has worked closely with TIFF and Ontario Creates. She holds an MA from Ryerson University in Media Production, as well as both an MA and BA in Cinema Studies from the University of Toronto.
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