Often overshadowed by their fictional-narrative counterparts, Canadian documentaries enjoyed a sizable spotlight at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival.
Director Robert McCallum’s tear-jerker, Mr. Dressup: The Magic of Make-Believe, took home TIFF’s coveted People’s Choice Documentary Award over such higher-profile U.S. docs as Errol Morris’s The Pigeon Tunnel. Chelsea McMullan’s ballet doc, Swan Song, earned raves that should deliver strong results, as the film enjoys a theatrical release this month before airing in an expanded four-part form on CBC in November. And James Burns and Stevie Salas’s Boil Alert, which examines the water crises in various Indigenous communities, sparked nationwide headlines.
But despite these success stories, there has been a dramatic drop in feature doc film production in recent years, as examined by the seventh edition of the Documentary Organization of Canada’s “Getting Real” report, released last week during the height of TIFF. It notes that while there is a strong appetite for homegrown feature-length doc cinema – Canadians watched 11.2 million hours of domestic English-language docs in 2021, an increase from the last time that metric was measured in 2018 – production is increasingly favouring small-screen series over films.
According to the report, between 2016/17 and 2020/21, Canadian feature doc production dropped from $29.6-million to $19.4-million, while the number of feature docs produced each year plunged from 60 to 35. Meanwhile, series now represent the majority of Canadian documentary production, with 81 per cent of the genre’s 2020-2021 production volume.
“When we talk about documentary production in Canada, we are increasingly talking about series. A healthy production sector needs balance, in terms of format and access,” said Sarah Spring, the DOC’s executive director, in a statement. “Within the current system, feature documentaries are falling off the map, and our report documents that members are still facing institutional and regional bias.”
The report emphasizes that feature-length docs remain expensive to produce, yet are essential to disseminating the country’s stories and values both inside Canada and around the world. The DOC also warns that budget ranges for doc projects have dropped over the five years examined across the board.
Noting that the implementation of Bill C-11, the Online Streaming Act, will play a large part in the industry’s future, Spring added that “we need to ensure that our cultural policy survives our commercial policy.”