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'Our community is under threat,' say Canadian documentary makers

Documentary director Michael Ostroff

Dan Maruska/Dan Maruska

For every Michael Moore or Morgan Spurlock out there, there is a Michael Ostroff. Or a legion of Ostroffs, really, trying to make Canadian documentaries.

"I haven't had a day's work since I finished Winds of Heaven in January, last year. Not in film," Ostroff, 60, said in Vancouver last week, where he was screening his Emily Carr documentary.

"For me, it's a catastrophe. It's a crisis, absolutely."

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Winds of Heaven, with an $860,000 budget, had its broadcast premiere on Bravo! in January - the Ottawa-based filmmaker's fourth documentary to run on the channel over the last decade. But a year ago, when he tried to pitch a follow-up project, he was told that Bravo! was not accepting documentary proposals.

The current climate is what the Documentary Organization of Canada (DOC) calls a "perfect storm" for its sector. Along with the changes at Bravo!, there was the cancellation of The Lens by CBC in 2009 (which presented 63 original Canadian documentaries in three-and-a-half years) and a reduction in so-called one-off documentary programming elsewhere. There's also been the recession, the disappearance of the Canadian Independent Film and Video Fund, new requirements for Canada Media Fund financing and so-called genre creep - where reality TV has been classified as documentary.

"Our community's under threat," says Lisa Fitzgibbons, executive director of the DOC. "We are seeing a dramatic decline in the production volume."

According to the DOC, English documentary production in Canada has fallen below 2000-01 levels, and some 2,000 direct and indirect jobs have disappeared over the last five years.

At the same time, documentary festivals such as Hot Docs, which opens on Thursday in Toronto, and Vancouver's DOXA, which opens next week, are growing.

"Production is down and yet audiences for this genre are going up, and going up exponentially," says Fitzgibbons, whose group appeared before the CRTC this month during private English language renewal hearings.

The CRTC is implementing changes. Beginning in September, the major English language players in Canadian television (CTV, Shaw Media, Rogers, Corus Entertainment) will face an expenditure requirement for Programs of National Interest (PNIs): documentaries, dramatic programming and award shows.

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Also, the CRTC has amended its definition of documentary to specify that reality television does not qualify - putting an end to the practice of labelling shows such as Canadian Idol "documentaries" in independent production reports.

But it's uncertain whether these changes will help filmmakers who want to make single documentaries.

"It's been very hard for six or seven years to make one-off documentaries, frankly. It's hard to get them financed and get people to put them on the air," says Harry Killas, whose documentary Picture Start - about Vancouver's renowned photo-conceptualists - will air on Bravo! May 16.

"We were extremely lucky to get our film supported with Bravo! and [B.C.'s] Knowledge [Network] particularly with Bravo!, since they haven't really been commissioning since they commissioned our piece."

Bell Media acknowledged in an e-mail that documentary commissions "are not as robust as they have been in the past" as it re-evaluates its plans for Bravo!, but said it's still taking proposals and making "strategic choices in commissioning docs."

For broadcasters, single documentaries present a scheduling and marketing challenge. "I know documentary filmmakers are still searching for the opportunities to make one-offs, but what's driving ratings are series," says Christine Shipton, vice-president, original content for Shaw Media.Shaw's History Television, for example, runs an average of 120 hours of original commissioned documentary programming per year, but it's mostly made up of series such as Ice Pilots NWT and Blowdown.

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Documentaries certainly aren't disappearing from Canadian airwaves. CBC says post- The Lens, it still commissions about the same number of docs and spends more on them than ever.

In British Columbia, Knowledge Network has increased investment in documentary programming by about 50 per cent since President/CEO Rudy Buttignol came on board four years ago.

Knowledge has become a "crucial player" when it comes to one-off, point of view documentaries, according to Fitzgibbons, along with TVOntario.

But TVO can only fund eight to 10 docs per year, on average. It receives more than 500 proposals.

For filmmakers like Ostroff, it comes down to fewer places to pitch ideas, and get funding.

To make ends meet these days, he's teaching at Carleton University. On Canada Day, he'll close his studio and begin working out of his house for the first time in 30 years. He's travelling with Winds of Heaven, selling DVDs at screenings, and waiting on $21,000 in tax credits for the production, which was completed last year. "What a way," he says, "to make a living."

Or not.

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