Growing prodco continues to cross borders

It's mid-afternoon on a spring day in Toronto, and Peter Raymont is distracted. He's deep in metro's core, in fiercely unrenovated Parkdale Collegiate, an inner-city high school. Raymont is there as part of Reel Canada, an innovative program that brings Canadian films to Ontario teenagers. At the moment, though, he's on a cell phone, listening intently.

It’s mid-afternoon on a spring day in Toronto, and Peter Raymont is distracted. He’s deep in metro’s core, in fiercely unrenovated Parkdale Collegiate, an inner-city high school. Raymont is there as part of Reel Canada, an innovative program that brings Canadian films to Ontario teenagers. At the moment, though, he’s on a cell phone, listening intently.

‘Yes, yes,’ Raymont says into the phone, as his eyes squint and he realizes that Reel Canada executive director Jack Blum is signaling him to leave the corridor and enter the gym. Inside, there’s a screen at the end of a dark, tiny basketball court. The final credits for Shake Hands with the Devil: The Journey of Roméo Dallaire, Raymont’s internationally acclaimed theatrical documentary about the former lieutenant-general’s experiences in Rwanda, are rolling as Raymont urgently whispers into the phone, ‘Got an emergency. Have to go.’

The lights go up, and a group of youthful students applaud Raymont as he moves quickly to the front of the gym. The audience, a mix of Toronto’s rainbow tribe of kids – from South Asia, the Caribbean, the Far East, Europe and Africa – pepper him with questions. How long has he known Dallaire? Did he and the general ever feel scared while shooting the film in Rwanda? What does he think of the tragedies in Darfur?

Raymont takes it all in, answering questions with a friendly confidence that encourages rapport with the students. He engages them seriously, providing replies that give them the kind of respect teens traditionally crave.

At one point, commenting on how hot the temperature in the gym has become, the silver-haired filmmaker removes his orange jacket. ‘That’s my coat from The Border,’ he says. ‘You might know it – it’s on CBC.’ The crowd murmurs in recognition of the hit TV show and there’s scattered applause.

‘I’m a TV producer now,’ comments Raymont, ‘but my métier is still the same. I’m a documentary filmmaker.’

Actually, at this point, Peter Raymont is both. As president of White Pine Pictures, he’s the head of a company that has grown from six employees 18 months ago to 17 corporate staff today.

Among those newcomers is Susan Morgan, former head of drama at CBC (in the role of drama consultant), and, as interactive and documentary producer, Julia Bennett, who worked with the CBC’s exec director of doc programming Mark Starowicz for years, notably on Canada: A People’s History. Patrick Reed, the director of White Pine’s Triage: Dr. James Orbinski’s Humanitarian Dilemma, which recently received an enthusiastic Canadian premiere at Hot Docs, is now head of documentary development.

Yet Raymont is more than keeping his hand in as a docmaker. A Promise to the Dead: The Exile Journey of Ariel Dorfman, his feature centering on Chilean-American poet and playwright Dorfman (Death and the Maiden), made the long-list for the Oscars and was part of the Toronto International Film Festival Group’s annual Canada’s Top Ten roundup for 2007. Radical Dreamer: The Passionate Journey of Graham Spry, his latest, is a one-hour doc co-directed with Bruce Steele on the virtually unknown ‘father of the CBC.’

When the CBC refused to support the film, Raymont characteristically didn’t give up. A lover of history, he consciously replicated Spry’s famously successful creation of simultaneous radio broadcasts across the nation, which celebrated Canada’s 50th anniversary. (The event spurred the government to create the CBC.) Ever feisty and inventive, Raymont cobbled together a group of provincial public broadcasters, including TVO, SCN, CLT and B.C.’s Knowledge Network, to show Passionate Dreamer on April 30 – across the country.

Although he’s achieved successes with both the CBC and the National Film Board, Raymont has never kowtowed to either. That may go a long way towards explaining why White Pine has prospered while others have failed.

‘Peter Raymont combines a certain bullheadedness with a level of prudence,’ says Jan Rofekamp, CEO of foreign sales agency Films Transit, which represents A Promise to the Dead and other White Pine docs internationally. ‘Peter likes to look across borders for his subjects. Like Ariel [Dorfman], he’s humane but has a great instinct for a good story.’

That instinct has served Raymont well since he started as a filmmaker at the NFB in the early ’70s. After a fine apprenticeship, which included making films among the Inuit and getting to know such top documentarians as Wolf Koenig and Colin Low, Raymont ‘drove down the 401 [from Montreal] and bought a house in Toronto’ in 1979. His reason? ‘I’d watched too many good documentaries not get shown in [English] Canada.’

Naively, Raymont thought Investigative Productions, which morphed into White Pine, would be able to work easily and effectively with the NFB and the CBC. For many years, that wasn’t the case, not only for him, but also for other documentarians like Rudy Buttignol, Paul da Silva and Barry Greenwald. Those four and a few others started the Canadian Independent Film Caucus, now the Documentary Organisation of Canada, as a lobbying group in 1983.

‘The documentary community in Canada too often takes for granted that they’ve always been this diverse and strong,’ says NFB producer Gerry Flahive. ‘And they haven’t been.

‘Peter, quite honorably, sits in the category of pathfinders who have built the infrastructure for the community,’ Flahive continues. ‘Whether it was rattling the cages at Telefilm and broadcasters to include documentaries in their thinking, or spending time on committees for the caucus, Peter paved the way for how things are now.’

Slowly but surely, Raymont – accompanied in the 1990s by life and business partner Lindalee Tracey – and their company began to prosper. The World Is Watching (1985), about the Communist presence in Nicaragua, was an international festival hit, as was the First Nations’ doc Between Two Worlds (1990). A Scattering of Seeds (1997 to 2000), a 52-part TV series about the multicultural roots of Canada, placed White Pine firmly into the league of professional producers that employ a diverse group of filmmakers and craftspeople.

With the recent success of the company’s first dramatic series, The Border, White Pine has hit new heights, even while Raymont, personally, is recovering from the loss of Tracey to cancer in late 2006. Raymont’s office has gone from one room in his house 30 years ago to a highly efficient team working on two floors in downtown Toronto.

White Pine has won literally dozens of awards in Canada and around the globe.

Talking to White Pine VP Janice Dawe, one can see just how far the prodco has come. Moving through the open-concept first floor of the building, Dawe weaves her way effortlessly through film interns, bookkeepers and communications manager Davida Gragor, as she rhymes off the company’s projects.

These include: Eco-Warriors, a drama series about 20-somethings acting as Robin Hoods to fight against pollution and corporate waste; Experimental Eskimos, a one-hour doc about uprooted First Nations kids sent to live in Ottawa, and what happened to them; Unflinching, a feature film that could be considered the Canadian Into the Wild; Three Nights in Havana, based on Richard Wright’s book about Pierre Trudeau’s friendship with Fidel Castro; and a potential feature doc entitled Glenn Gould: A Secret Life.

For now, Triage and A Promise to the Dead are finding their audiences worldwide, while The Border is shooting its second season.

Speaking of Raymont, Kirstine Layfield, executive director of network programming at CBC, says, ‘I think he’s very attuned to his product. Peter comes from the documentary side of the business and he has an inward perspective. He knows the story he wants to tell inside and out and he knows how to translate it to other people.’

With that kind of leadership and talent, White Pine should continue to prosper in the years to come.