Shine a greater light
In an era of “fake news,” documentary is alive and well
It’s no secret that throughout the Western world, newsrooms are being hollowed out and budgets for investigative journalism are being slashed. On social media, deliberately misleading and downright fraudulent news items spread like wildfire, while the current president of the United States regularly dismisses articles by mainstream outlets like The New York Times and The Washington Post as “fake news.” In the media, it would seem the truth has fallen on lean times.
But take heart: as traditional news media finds itself under siege, documentary filmmaking has never been more relevant—or popular.
“Documentaries are gaining momentum,” asserts Mathieu Dagonas, executive director of the Documentary Organization of Canada (DOC). “There’s a greater demand. And the analytics I’ve seen indicate that people search for documentaries by theme, often political themes. They’re watching closely, as engaged citizens.”
Indeed, in Canada alone, dozens of documentaries are produced every year. The genre is thriving on services like Netflix and Amazon. And attendance at Hot Docs, Toronto’s annual documentary film festival (the largest of its kind in North America), has never been higher, with more than 223,000 attending screenings this year, up 8,000 from the previous year.
In Canada, our relationship with documentary is long and storied. John Grierson, the first commissioner of the National Film Board (NFB), coined the term “documentary” in the 1920s; for its part, the NFB is considered a pioneer for its production of technically and stylistically groundbreaking non-fiction films, particularly in the post-war era. Today, the nation’s cultural landscape is dotted with documentarians making films of all stripes, from a history of water’s uses (Watermark) to a defence of the Inuit seal hunt (Angry Inuk).
One such documentarian is Peter Raymont, who—after seven years at the NFB—founded Investigative Productions (now Toronto’s White Pine Pictures) in the ’70s. There, he began to make films like History on the Run and The World Is Watching, concerned specifically with the obstacles faced by journalists: interference from corporations or political parties, editorial distortions, a loss of audience or stakeholder interest. Truth in the news is an issue he’s “been consumed by [his] whole life,” and he sees a crossover in the aims of journalism and documentary.
“I think a lot of people are turning to documentary as a place to get much closer to the truth than what they’re seeing and hearing in the television news, because people who make documentaries often have more time and more resources to dig in,” Raymont explains.
He cites Michelle Shephard as a person who occupies both spaces: an award-winning investigative journalist with the Toronto Star, she also produced Under Fire: Journalists in Combat and Ughyurs: Prisoners of the Absurd (about 22 Chinese Guantánamo survivors). In addition, she codirected Guantanamo’s Child, a film by White Pine Pictures, based on her own book about Omar Khadr, the Canadian citizen convicted of war crimes and released in 2015.
So do documentaries do the same work as investigative journalism? To some extent. But, for his part, Raymont doesn’t consider himself a journalist: “I’ve always been a filmmaker and I see a distinction between the two. People expect documentary filmmakers to have a strong point of view, to express it in their films, and not to try and be balanced, fair and objective, like they used to teach in journalism schools. They don’t use the word ‘objective’ anymore.”
Trish Dolman, head of Vancouver’s Screen Siren Pictures, whose documentary credits include Canada in a Day (a video collage illustrating the diversity of Canadian experience) and Bud Empire (a docuseries about a marijuana entrepreneur), echoes the sentiment: “The idea that news media is objective is a myth that the public has been served. Everything goes through a lens of personal bias. So if you are a middle-class white male journalist, you’re going to look through that lens. If you are an Indigenous journalist, you’re looking through that lens. If you are Chinese-Canadian, you’re looking through that lens.”
Where documentary and journalism diverge is the way that documentary tends to lean into, rather than downplay, the impossibility of objectivity. “I certainly believe that people are turning more and more to documentaries because they want in-depth information,” says Dolman. “They want more exploration than they get from the clickbait of the social media world. But people—myself included—need to understand that documentaries are always looked at through a certain lens. Most documentary filmmakers don’t purport to be objective.”
“You try to be fair,” adds Raymont. “I think it’s wrong-headed to even imagine you can be objective.”
Dolman believes that documentary offers another fruitful opportunity: to broaden representation in the media at large. She says, “One of the things I really wanted to do with Canada in a Day was to represent the actual fabric of Canada. Vancouver and Toronto, for example, are close to 50% non-Caucasian, and that certainly is not what our media is representing.”
While documentary may be enjoying, in Dolman’s words, a “massive resurgence,” it can’t avoid the same waves that are threatening to sink traditional journalism, like scarcity of funding and apathy from the broadcasting powers that be. For all its claims to documentary ascendancy, Canada has nothing comparable to ARTE, the public Franco-German network that produces hundreds of hours of documentary each year. There are fewer public and private Canadian broadcasters than there once were, and even fewer that are committed to a strong documentary presence, whatever the public interest may be. Increasingly, Canadian producers are turning to international co-productions and big-spending services like Netflix to get their projects made.
Whatever the shape of documentary in the years to come, keeping it alive is no low-stakes game. Says Raymont, “In this era of fake news, we’re at risk of losing our ability to understand what’s happening in the world and in Canada. We’re at risk of losing our ability to appreciate differences and better understand each other and the big issues of our day.”
“There’s always room for more stories to be shared,” adds Dagonas. “At DOC, our core mission is to advocate for increased funding—not only to to create more jobs in the documentary sector, but to share more stories. Because while the news may be important, and to many it is, documentaries have a way of shining a greater light on topics.”