Docs

Reinventing the word ‘documentary’

Five years ago the National Film Board of Canada (NFB) launched a Filmmaker in Residence project which involved sending a doc-maker into Toronto's St. Michael's Hospital to build relationships and, eventually, develop media around programs within the hospital's walls. Upon the release of the DVD box set of the project, realscreen spoke with filmmaker Kat Cizek and senior producer for the NFB, Gerry Flahive, about the endeavor and how it has redefined the word 'documentary' for each of them.
November 12, 2009

Five years ago the National Film Board of Canada (NFB) launched a Filmmaker in Residence project which involved sending a doc-maker into Toronto’s St. Michael’s Hospital to build relationships and, eventually, develop media around programs within the hospital’s walls. Upon the release of the DVD box set of the project, realscreen spoke with filmmaker Kat Cizek and senior producer for the NFB, Gerry Flahive, about the endeavor and how it has redefined the word ‘documentary’ for each of them.

The Filmmaker in Residence project is hard to describe. This is why part of its three-disc DVD box set contains an entire disc devoted to explaining it. Entitled The 7 Interventions of Filmmaker-in-Residence, the 80-minute feature includes the filmmaker in residence herself, Kat Cizek, talking to doctors she encountered while working with St. Michael’s Hospital in downtown Toronto, as well as the NFB staff that supported and produced the project, about their feelings surrounding the media they created. The title ’7 Interventions’ refers to the seven experiments in collaborative media undertaken by Cizek while working with the hospital.

‘Instead of going in to look for stories at St. Mike’s, it was about going in to meet people and develop relationships,’ says Cizek. ‘So it was really out of those relationships that the project emerged. It was a really different process from conventional documentary filmmaking.’

A few of the seven experiments in media include ‘video bridging’ in which interviews with doctors and their patients – in this case homeless mothers – are conducted with the subjects talking about each other, and then showing the footage to each to facilitate communication that otherwise may not take place. A photoblog and photo exhibit was also created by homeless mothers in which they told their own stories through images facilitated by Cizek and the NFB. Also, short and web-based films tell the stories of a psychiatric nurse and police officer who formed a mobile crisis team, a rural HIV/AIDS health worker in Malawi and a support group for suicide survivors. Working on these multimedia projects often involved putting the tools in the hands of the doc subjects, which in turn gave Flahive, a 28-year NFB veteran, a new perspective on documentary filmmaking.

‘It’s a strange thing to say about a project where we developed and produced a lot of very serious social issue content, but it’s probably the most fun I’ve ever had as a documentary producer because it just allowed for so much innovation and spontaneity,’ he says. ‘I also find it interesting to have our processes challenged and to challenge ourselves.’ Flahive firmly believes that this project couldn’t exist anywhere other than the Film Board because the focus was never on the product, but on the process.

Cizek agrees. ‘In some ways it was a very liberating process because it wasn’t product oriented, so we didn’t have to think, ‘We have to fill 52 minutes of a television documentary, the subject has to be weighty enough to fill that slot,” she says. ‘The stories and the goals and the ideas drove what the product became and that was a really wonderful process for me.’

Previous to her work on the Filmmaker in Residence project, Cizek made a film with fellow Canadian documentary filmmaker Peter Wintonick about new technologies and human rights entitled Seeing is Believing: Handicams, Human Rights and the News. The film looked at what Cizek calls the handicam revolution, the evolution of media over the past 20 to 30 years and how this has democratized communication. ‘With [the Filmmaker in Residence] project we’ve been lucky enough to be able to engage with those tools as they were developing.’

Inspiration for the project partially came from the NFB’s Challenge for Change program from the ’60s which shed light on social problems through film and a video-advocacy organization Cizek and Wintonick focused on in Seeing is Believing, Witness.

In the first year and a half of the project Cizek found that she was getting frustrated trying to explain its complexity, so she developed a ‘Filmmaker in Residence Manifesto.’ The manifesto includes such directives as, ‘The original project idea and goals come from the community partner,’ ‘Use documentary and media to ‘participate’ rather than just to observe and to record. Filmmaker-in-Residence is not an A/V or a PR department,’ and ‘The social and political goals – and the process itself – are paramount. Ask yourself every day: why are you doing this project?’.

Now, Cizek is collaborating with the NFB on a new multi-year, multimedia project entitled High Rise which tells the stories of high rise development and dwellers in 10 cities around the world including Beirut, Nairobi and Toronto.

About The Author
Selina Chignall joins the realscreen team as a staff writer. Prior to working with rs, she covered lobbying activity at Hill Times Publishing. She also spent a year covering the Hill as a journalist with iPolitics. Her beat focused on youth, education, democratic reform, innovation and infrastructure. She holds a Master of Arts in Journalism from Western University and a Honours Bachelor of Arts from the University of Toronto.

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