A quarter century of rooting for the little guy

If one were to look for a theme, a string of pearls, that connects the projects of Barna-Alper Productions through a quarter century of production, it would have to be its focus on social justice issues.

If one were to look for a theme, a string of pearls, that connects the projects of Barna-Alper Productions through a quarter century of production, it would have to be its focus on social justice issues.

From the recently released feature documentary The Take, which probes the takeover of a shuttered automotive plant by laid-off Argentine workers to the prodco’s earliest industrial films commissioned by the Canadian Auto Workers, documenting the quest by underrepresented segments of society to get a fair deal has been a preoccupation for Barna-Alper.

And it’s not just on the documentary side. A quick scan of Barna-Alper’s dramatic projects reveals a return to the same themes, from its first MOW, Diana Kilmury: Teamster to Gemini winner Milgaard to the recently aired Choice: The Henry Morgentaler Story.

For Barna-Alper president and executive producer Laszlo Barna, the reason for this fixation couldn’t be clearer. Born in Budapest in 1949, Barna’s early experiences as a Jewish boy growing up in post-Holocaust Hungary had a lifelong impact on his worldview and left him forever sympathetic to the struggles of the individual against the power elite.

‘I come from a Holocaust background. Some of the underlying questions about power and how it’s wielded, and what a society’s obligation is to its citizenry, have been part and parcel of the way I was raised and my personal history,’ he says. ‘I love our shows that inquire, that keep exploring the relationship between those in power and those who are powerless, and the interchange between the two.’

Perhaps nowhere is this clearer than with multiple Gemini winner Da Vinci’s Inquest, a CBC series coproduced with Vancouver-based Haddock Entertainment, now in its seventh season, which follows a coroner working in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, a marginal drug-infested community where poverty, prostitution and desperation are the way of life. While crime investigation is the vehicle, the show never misses a chance to explore the deeper social issues at the heart of the thing.

While it’s the brainchild of executive producer Chris Haddock, it has a sensibility that can be found at the core of many Barna-Alper productions. In fact, Barna and Haddock’s relationship stretches back to their early days working in a Vancouver theater company putting on plays about the social issues set in the same Downtown Eastside.

Growing in a time of contraction

Through 25 years, Barna-Alper has leveraged its focus on social issues and the struggle against oppression to grow into one of the most successful TV producers in the country, managing to buck the trend that has seen many contemporaries, including major players such as Fireworks and Alliance Atlantis, contract or shut their production operations in the face of a toughening market.

In 2003, the prodco shot $17.7 million in drama series, MOWs and minis and $5.3 million in one-off docs and factual series. In total, the company was responsible for $24.5 million in production and development.

Of course it was not always this way.

The husband-wife team of Barna and Laura Alper founded the prodco in 1980 after moving to Toronto from Vancouver in the late 1970s. Alper, a lawyer, and Barna, a one-time stand-up comic and theater director, were looking for a change and felt they could contribute to society by making thoughtful documentaries focused on social issues.

‘We were both very interested in the way things happen in the world,’ says Alper. ‘There was a lot of exciting work being done in documentaries. That was what drove us. We weren’t looking around for a genre. I think that it was really an inevitable and obvious choice right from the beginning.’

The deal was Alper would write, Barna would direct. But the early going was not always smooth.

‘It used to be so bad that if you made two calls in the morning, you were done all your phone calls for the year,’ says Barna. ‘Now you can have the illusion of movement for months at a time without actually achieving anything, but in those days you had to face the hard fact that it was the CBC and it was the National Film Board, and the CBC was likely to turn you down.’

So, to make ends meet, Barna-Alper generated revenue by producing industrial films, often for the labor movement. ‘It was usually about social issues. It wasn’t that much of a stretch either doing a film for the Canadian Auto Workers, or pitching the same film to the National Film Board. They were both in the same category of wanting to look at the underbelly of Canadian society,’ says Barna.

‘It was clean work. I never did corporate work. I never had to take a polluting company and make a video that purported to show that they were environmentally friendly. We always did films about healthcare, films about aging, films about privatization.’

One of the first projects Barna-Alper was commissioned to produce was for the CAW about plant occupations, a striking foreshadowing of the themes central to The Take. Along the way there were a number of one-offs for the NFB, but it wasn’t until 1989 that the company got its first big break, when the CBC launched all-news specialty Newsworld. Barna pitched a weekly current affairs show to CBC brass, called WorkWeek. ‘That was our first broadcast series,’ says Barna. ‘And even though it was a little talk show, it turned all our fortunes around.’

Over the next decade, more factual series followed, including Frontiers of Construction, one of the first shows commissioned by Discovery Canada in 1994, and Turning Points of History, one of the first programs commissioned by History Television in 1997. During this time, Barna-Alper was building a reputation as a finisher – a production house that could deliver the goods on time and on budget, as well as an organization ready to make the kinds of shows that specifically addressed the needs of a broadcaster.

Through this very successful period, Alper welcomed the chance to take a less active role in the day-to-day operations of the company. There was now a full-time staff handling operations and finances, and the company had a full slate of factual one-offs and series. Alper saw her place more and more as an advisor.

‘Right from the start, I was always more the backroom person. Laszlo was always the front-room person, and as Barna-Alper evolved, that kind of commitment became the priority. Laszlo does it really well, much better than I ever could. And I wasn’t interested,’ she explains.

And, so, she settled in as her husband’s sounding board and a strong voice in the major decisions.

One of these decisions stemmed from Barna’s determination to enter the field of dramatic programming, with the story of Teamster leader Diana Kilmury, another in a long line of labor movement stories close to Barna’s heart.

‘I thought it was absolutely fantastic. Drama was his first love, and the subject of Diana really blended his interest in drama and his interest in social issues,’ says Alper. ‘That’s how things happen in life. You do the same things over and over again, and then you have a new idea, and you say, ‘Why didn’t I do that before? It’s a great idea.”

The MOW was an instant success when it aired in 1996 on CBC and on Turner Broadcasting in the U.S. under the moniker Mother Trucker: The Diana Kilmury Story. It garnered seven Gemini nominations (Barbara Williams won for lead actress) and a Cable Ace Award for best international movie. Immediately, the company began developing a slate of new dramatic projects, including early sketches of Da Vinci’s Inquest.

But Barna-Alper quickly became a victim of its own successes. Now with an expanding full-time staff putting pressure on the payroll and more projects on the horizon, Barna needed a quick cash infusion to keep the company afloat through this rapid growth phase.

Enter Robert Lantos.

Lantos, a fellow Hungarian, had long been a supporter of Barna, both as a friend and as the head of several newly launched Alliance Communications specialties in the early 1990s, including History. Lantos was a partner in Da Vinci’s Inquest and gave Barna the rights to both At the End of the Day: The Sue Rodriguez Story and Milgaard, both major MOW successes for Barna-Alper.

But now Barna needed help meeting his financial obligations. So he called his old friend.

‘I said, ‘I need a favor done. I need you to sign for half a million dollars for me.’ And he paused for two seconds, didn’t ask me why I needed half a million dollars, whether I was going blow it on drugs or use it for some good business purpose, and he said, ‘Okay. You’ve got it.’ Then he said, ‘My CFO will call you in five minutes.’

‘Then the CFO called and said, ‘Barna, shave your ass.”

Those familiar with Barna know the blue humor. They also know that such commitment and loyalty is not the exception but the rule, and they’ll talk to you about a sharp wit, integrity, professionalism and that ever-present dedication to those less fortunate.

Barna is equally generous when asked which people played key roles in building up Barna-Alper. And while he insists that much of the credit must go to the ‘directors, the writers and the coproducers that I’ve worked with,’ Barna also notes the contributions of Pat Schofield, an early head of drama; Julie Lacey, current head of drama development; NFB director general Tom Perlmutter, the first person to head up Barna-Alper’s documentary division; Sidney Suissa, another head of docs; and Janice Tufford, the current VP of documentary development and production.

Barna reserves a special place in that list for Margaret O’Brien, the company’s CFO/COO. ‘I didn’t breathe easily until I had a CFO I could rely on. Everything gelled and solidified when she arrived,’ he says. ‘I couldn’t have survived without her.’

In 2001, Barna took his now-well-established reputation as one of Canada’s top TV producers and joined the board of the CFTPA. Since 2003, he’s been the association’s chair. Like so many other endeavors, Barna is motivated in this role by a need to fight for the underdog, in this case Canadian producers, who for the last few years have been facing blow after blow in the form of a collapsed international marketplace, SARS, the rising Canadian dollar, declines in public funding streams and low licence fees.

Looking forward, Barna sees a very significant opportunity in the departures and contractions of the likes of AAC and Fireworks.

‘If the competition says ‘uncle,’ I think there is opportunity there,’ Barna says. ‘I think there is opportunity in distribution. There’s an opportunity in all kinds of other ancillary businesses… Is the company going to get bigger? Well, as long as I’ve got anything to do with it, it probably will.

But the reasons he wants to see the company grow do not stem from a deep, insatiable need for corporate growth, says Barna.

‘I want to find a vehicle by which I can in the long term ensure that there is going to be a place for the creative voice to go first and be protected… so when a new or tried writer walks into my office and says, ‘I have an idea and a story I want to do,’ we can actually deliver the means by which to realize that project,’ he says.

Barna-Alper recently expanded into features with the Avi Lewis and Naomi Klein documentary The Take, coproduced with the NFB. The prodco has also developed a feature called The Bang Bang Club, based on the novel by photojournalists Greg Marinovich and Joao Silva, chronicling the strife in South Africa in the final, bloody days of apartheid.

Whatever else the future may hold, you can bet that the plots will somehow involve the little guy struggling against the system, rising up to shake off some oppression, and holding firmly to their ideals.

‘Our shows, if you look at them, are largely about people who ought not to have succeeded under certain circumstances. Milgaard should still be in jail, if it were not for his mother, who actually had the strength to fight for his release… Joyce [Milgaard] wouldn’t take no for an answer. Diana Kilmury wouldn’t take no for an answer. Da Vinci doesn’t take no for an answer.

‘So in general terms, I’m happiest and most content when our programming illuminates that side of humanity.’