Canadian docs seek international eyeballs

Four Canadian feature documentaries are making their world premieres at TIFF 2005, and they are all looking for an international audience. The lineup includes Allan King’s Memory for Max, Claire, Ida and Company (in the Masters program; see sidebar right); Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey, from Sam Dunn, Scot McFadyen and Jessica Joy-Wise (Midnight Madness); Souvenir of Canada by Robin Neinstein; and Astra Taylor’s Zizek! (Real to Reel).

Documentaries have long been a dominant force in Canadian film production and have shaped our cinematic identity, but they’ve never been so popular globally as they are today. It is a burgeoning industry, averaging a 12% growth rate in production volume over the past seven years, and the art form has changed significantly since Robert Flaherty made Nanook of the North in 1922.

Docs were initially not recognized as art ­- they were factual, non-fictional. Steve Gravestock, TIFF’s associate director of Canadian special projects, notes that, today, ‘filmmakers are playing with form more, with art more, toying with ‘Why can’t you create a documentary using animation?’, like in Zizek! and Souvenir of Canada. Metal also has some effects that are mind-boggling on the large screen.’

Director Robin Neinstein (Le Mozart Noir) agrees, and in adapting Douglas Coupland’s book Souvenir of Canada, which combines images and text, tried to capture some of the bestseller’s sense of formal innovation. ‘Documentaries are becoming more malleable as an art form, more creative,’ Neinstein notes. ‘We’ve used animation and music composed by New Pornographers front-man A.C. Newman to make Souvenir as visually [and aurally] stunning and engaging as Douglas Coupland’s book.’

Souvenir of Canada, which explores what it means to be Canadian and features readings by Coupland, is produced by Robert Cohen and Sheri Cohen (Media Headquarters) and Gerry Flahive (National Film Board) in association with CBC.

But will a film about Canadian identity appeal to an international audience? ‘Definitely,’ says Neinstein. ‘To Canadians, it is a connection to our pop culture, humor, a reference to who we are… To international audiences, they’ll learn more about Douglas Coupland the man.’

The makers of Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey are similarly looking to get their debut doc seen around the world. (They say they expect to make an announcement soon about a U.S. and international deal). ‘We were lucky – we had star power [members of Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden and Motley Crue] and a hook. Also, there is no way we could have made this film without the technology out there.’

Dunn, a 30-year-old anthropologist and avowed ‘metalhead,’ wanted to write a book about heavy-metal culture. McFadyen, a music director and friend of Dunn’s, thought it would make a great film. What started out as a DVD project five years ago, with backing by music label Sanctuary Records and U.S.-based Eagle Rock Entertainment, along with a broadcast licence from Bravo!, snowballed into 150 hours of footage shot on a 24-frames-per-second video camera and a $1.3-million budget. ‘As the project grew, we realized Sanctuary wasn’t the right way to go,’ says McFadyen. ‘So we bought it back from them and signed on with [distributor] Seville Pictures.’

McFadyen doesn’t see the film as segregated from mass appeal by being screened as part of Midnight Madness, a TIFF program for oddball pics screened at the witching hour. In fact, he’s excited by its placement.

‘This is a great venue for us,’ he says. ‘People will be able to see features that aren’t normally seen in a festival context.’

Astra Taylor also could not have made her directorial debut Zizek!, about an eminent Slovenian philosopher, without today’s technology. Animation and the Internet both played a key role.

‘I’d met Slavoj [Zizek] many times, and he stuck in my mind as a great, dynamic talking head – perfect for a documentary film,’ Taylor notes. ‘So I e-mailed him in Slovenia and two hours later he replied with a yes.’

With a grant from the Canada Council and private funding, Taylor followed the eccentric Zizek, ‘the Elvis of cultural theory,’ to New York, Buenos Aires and Slovenia.

‘It’s an unconventional biopic that will fascinate even those who think philosophy is a bore,’ says Taylor, who seems to conduct a lot of business over the ‘Net. She initially applied to the festival looking to land a distributor, ‘but since then, I e-mailed [New York's] Zeitgeist Films, and two months later they signed us up.’