Rudy Buttignol: Passion for documentaries

Rudy Buttignol may be Canadian broadcasting's documentary guru but don't expect him to be pretentious or boring.

Rudy Buttignol may be Canadian broadcasting’s documentary guru but don’t expect him to be pretentious or boring. The bearded, bespectacled Knowledge Network president and CEO is an affable, quick-witted presence. A family man with a wide circle of friends, the Italian-born TV exec belies his expansive appreciation of life when he talks about his singular passion: to foster the creation of independent, point-of-view documentaries.

Buttignol is doing just that in British Columbia through his leadership at Knowledge and committed work with the Vancouver International Film Festival. At both institutions, he’s branded the name Storyville to the creation and dissemination of exciting auteur documentaries. Aficionados of the nonfiction genre know that the finest strand of independent docs in the world is the BBC’s Storyville, whose main commissioning editor is Buttignol’s great friend, Nick Fraser.

Thanks to Buttignol, B.C. now has two Storyvilles. Starting last spring, Knowledge’s Storyville programming strand has been broadcasting creative documentaries and is commissioning some, too. Storyville Vancouver, Buttignol’s other innovation, is a forum for creative documentaries, which will have its first session at this year’s VIFF.

‘I first came up with the phrase ‘creative documentaries’ back when I was the head of programming at TVO in 2000,’ he recalls. ‘I thought, ‘Why not riff off the European model, which accepts the idea that documentaries can be as creative as nonfiction novels?” Buttignol pauses for dramatic effect. ‘It’s my multi-year mission.’

No one who has met Buttignol would want to stop him from completing any mission. A friendly, easygoing style masks a strong-willed figure who demands and expects results from his colleagues. And, as it happens, his twin initiatives have been embraced both by VIFF’s director Alan Franey and the Canadian Television Fund, which increased Knowledge’s fiscal allocation 37% to invest in independent production.

When asked for a definition of a creative documentary, Buttignol pulls out a journal from nine years ago, and reads: ‘A work of non-fiction emanating from a filmmaker’s passion or desire or singular drive to tell a meaningful story or express a particular point of view and stands the test of time.’

Buttignol’s zeal for educational television and the documentary certainly hasn’t abated over the years. A filmmaker from 1975 to 1993, his indie work includes docs on the artist Jack Bush and an innovative look at neon lighting. He hit his stride in 1993, when he became the commissioning editor and creative head of independent production at TVO. In 2000, he became the Ontario public broadcaster’s programming head, a position he held until 2006.

During that time, he was the executive producer of the series The Human Edge, Saturday Night at the Movies and the founder of the multiple award-winning The View from Here. The documentaries he commissioned are of global significance: Dying at Grace, The Corporation, Manufactured Landscapes, Black Coffee, The Bodybuilder and I, The Champagne Safari, Hitman Hart and Yo-Yo Ma: Inspired by Bach.

Buttignol’s knowledgeable advocacy of the acclaimed International Documentary Filmfestival Amsterdam and its brilliant pitch sessions inspired Hot Docs to create the highly successful Toronto Documentary Forum. He has worked tirelessly on the international scene, heading up workshops, panels and forums in countries as diverse as Israel, India, Holland and Germany.

The BBC’s Fraser became Buttignol’s friend as they both traveled the doc circuit. ‘Two and a half years ago, Nick and I were doing a workshop in Germany,’ recalls Buttignol, ‘and I said, ‘Do you mind if I steal the name Storyville?’ And he said, ‘Go ahead. Maybe we should do more projects together. Send more of our programming your way.’ Which was great. And the first year we acknowledged Nick Fraser’s Storyville in our credits.’

VIFF’s Storyville Vancouver also arises out of their friendship. Says Buttignol: ‘Nick once said to me, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we went to a forum and all the projects pitched could go on Storyville?’ So I said to him, ‘If I invited you to come to Vancouver to hear pitches from B.C. filmmakers all for Storyville projects, would you come?’ And he said yes.’

The results should be known within a few years. Judging from Buttignol’s track record, it seems a fair bet that the Storyville VIFF sessions will produce winners.

Buttignol’s projects for the Storyville session at VIFF 09

• After Mao’s War Against Nature (Director: Gary Marcuse. Producer: Betsy Carson. Face Face Media)
• Bongo (D: Leah Nelson, Jay Grandin. P: Leah Mallen. Twofold Films)
• Elephants Never Forget (P/D: Patricia Sims. CanazWest Pictures)
• Family Portrait in Black & White (D: Julia Ivanova. P: Boris Ivanov. Interfilm Productions)
• Media Rising (D: Mandy Leith. P: Barbara Hager. Arrow Productions)
• Rajaneeshpuram: The Battle for Antelope (D: Lawrence McDonald. P: Barbara Hager. Urban Media)
• Shutter (D: Sally Aitken, Jessie James Miller, Dan McKinney. P: Peter Klein. Moose Productions)