Friend of the auteur, in Canada and abroad: TVOntario’s Rudy Buttignol

When Rudy Buttignol, creative head of documentaries, independent production and science at Toronto-based pubcaster TVOntario, finally got Erotica: A Journey Into Female Sexuality on air early this year, he could have sat back and reveled in the victory. The Canadian film,...
May 1, 1999

When Rudy Buttignol, creative head of documentaries, independent production and science at Toronto-based pubcaster TVOntario, finally got Erotica: A Journey Into Female Sexuality on air early this year, he could have sat back and reveled in the victory. The Canadian film, directed by Maya Gallus and produced by Julia Sereny, is both provocative and edgy, with subjects ranging from 60-year-old French dominatrix Jeanne de Berg to the one-woman show of former porn star Annie Sprinkle. It’s a prime example of the creative, auteur-driven docs Buttignol aims to showcase in TVO’s two doc strands, The View From Here (Canadian-produced films) and Human Edge (international acquisitions) – and far from the typical fare one might expect of a small, regional public broadcaster.

In order to get Erotica on air, however, Buttignol was forced to make some tough decisions. ‘I had to edit it for broadcast. I had to cut out four different shots from four different scenes that I considered the community wouldn’t find acceptable,’ he says. ‘I, who hold freedom of expression to be at the top of the pyramid of rights, had to censor this film in my role of responsible public broadcaster.’ In six years, it was only the third film he had cut.

Buttignol could have left viewers unaware of the cuts, but instead he marked the scenes as edited for broadcast, and immediately after the film he sat on a panel with Gallus (among others) to field questions from viewers. ‘This is one of those cases where I went on the panel myself to take the heat for cutting it,’ he says. ‘That’s the whole part of being responsible. Each film is supposed to represent the point of view of the filmmaker…and in this case, I cut it.’ But he has no regrets. ‘I thoroughly debated it. I had had hours of debates with the filmmaker trying to explain my role. I mean, people appeal to me saying, `But you’re a filmmaker.’ And I say, `Yes, I am a filmmaker, but in this case I’m a public broadcaster.”

This sense of responsibility to both the filmmaker and the public is vintage Buttignol. He has few qualms about commissioning cutting-edge docs other North American broadcasters shy away from. But he respects the fact that, unlike cable, TVO is beamed directly into the homes of all Ontario residents, whether they like it or not.

The phone-in panel gave viewers the chance to congratulate Gallus – and to take Buttignol to task for editing the film. Ultimately though, he feels it proved that the program had engaged the audience. ‘It was a feature-length documentary, so it went from 10 p.m. till 11:15 or 11:20 p.m.,’ Buttignol says. ‘Then from 11:20 to 12:30 at night, half the audience stuck with it for a phone-in – a phone-in which debated issues of portrayal of female images in the media, censorship, the nature of censorship, people’s sexual experiences…. And I thought, `Now this is exactly what television can be as an enlightening experience.”

Producer Julia Sereny (of Toronto-based Sienna Films) holds no grudge with Buttignol over Erotica, although she would have preferred that the film run uncut. ‘I think he really went all out to try and get the film on the air,’ she says. ‘And I also think the way in which he handled those cuts was very good in the end. He did make sure they were minimal…. It was the best compromise of the situation, I guess I would say.’

Sereny, who has known Buttignol for more than 15 years, says she values his insight as a filmmaker-turned-commissioning editor. ‘There’s a point at which we do connect about material and we can discuss it, even when we do disagree. I know that I can go there and have the discussion, whereas there have been other commissioning editors where you go there, and you just feel that you’re on different planets.’


Buttignol’s filmmaking background has given him an insider’s edge at TVO. He had 17 years experience as an indie under his belt (his company was called Rudy Inc.) when he joined the provincial pubcaster six years ago. Peter Herrndorf, then TVO’s chairman and CEO, says he had been searching for someone who ‘had both the skill and sensibility of a filmmaker…somebody who was really prepared to let the filmmaker’s vision come rushing through in the films that they did, who would help, guide, assist, but would not impose their own vision on somebody else’s film.’ In Herrndorf’s opinion, Buttignol fit the description to a tee.

During Buttignol’s time as an independent producer, he made docs for Discovery, A&E, PBS and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, as well as for TVO. His personal masterpiece is a doc called Neon: An Electric Memoir, about the resurgence of neon in art, commerce and architecture. The film, which Buttignol made between 1980 and 1984, wasn’t so much a commercial success as a labor of love. ‘Whenever I had some money, I’d get in the car and drive around North America and shoot neon signs or neon artists,’ he recalls. ‘It was a film I ended up doing a little bit of everything on. I did the camera work on parts of it, I edited the film, and I think I even made some sound effects.’

In the early part of his career, Buttignol also worked as a film editor. ‘I actually know how two shots come together to create a different meaning,’ he says, a skill he willingly shares with less-experienced filmmakers. Later on, he spent seven months working for the National Film Board of Canada (‘giving out money to independents…which was easy’), and also taught briefly at the Ontario College of Art. Together, all of these experiences paved the way for his transition to life at tvo.

Does Buttignol miss his old life? Not really, he says. ‘I’m having a really great time helping other people make their films and get them onto broadcast.’ His only personal project now is a film about his cousin in Italy (a former heroin addict and manic depressive), which he’s been shooting on Hi-8 for the past six years. These summer vacations in the old country give Buttignol the chance to put on the filmmaker’s cap, without the pressure of funding or deadlines. And if the film never materializes, he’ll have expended only the cost of a few dozen video tapes.

Buttignol maintains strong ties to the independent community, though, particularly through commissions for The View From Here. ‘It’s not like I left one world and went into another,’ he says. ‘I probably spend about 80% of my time dealing with the independent community on a daily basis.’ Sometimes he’s tempted to get involved with a filmmaker’s project, but he tries to remain mindful of the show’s mandate. ‘All I can do is cajole and persuade filmmakers with my notes. I can’t hold the heavy on them, I can’t take it over like most broadcasters can. And that’s because it’s a point-of-view strand.’

Buttignol programs a mix of docs, some by experienced doc-makers and some by virtual unknowns. For The View From Here, he commissions ten major docs each year (major in terms of budget and commitment), putting up around CDN$50,000 per film. He also chips in CDN$10,000-$15,000 for each of a half-dozen films, which are either docs from new and emerging filmmakers or more experimental works from established filmmakers, ‘done on a wing and a prayer.’ In addition, Buttignol acquires five or six more Canadian docs throughout the year. For Human Edge, he makes around 20 international acquisitions, which cost anywhere from CDN$6,000-$12,000 each, depending on the current market rate.

When Buttignol first joined TVO, Human Edge was already well established (it begins its 11th season in the fall), but The View From Here was merely a twinkle in his eye. ‘They [TVO] had set aside the money [CDN$3 million] and they knew that it was for independent documentary filmmakers,’ he says. ‘I was asked to come in and design something that would make sense for TVOntario, and fit in with what the needs of the community were.’ He decided those needs were for Canadian, feature-length, one-off docs that generally address social issues. The View From Here is the result.

The two programs currently share the 10 p.m. Wednesday night slot on TVO; Human Edge generally runs from the fall until early in the new year, then The View From Here takes over and continues through to the summer.


In terms of competition, TVO goes head-to-head with a range of channels. Pubcaster CBC and its affiliate CBC Newsworld are the local challengers, while such specialty channels as Discovery, Bravo!, Showcase and History Television vie with TVO for audience share in specific genres. Buttignol sees TVO’s edge being in its role as an alternative public broadcaster. ‘We have to provide the kind of things that people aren’t going to get elsewhere, so I think we tend to do more provocative things,’ he says. ‘We provide something for everyone at different parts of our schedule, but each part of our schedule is dedicated to providing an alternative to what’s out there.’

From the filmmakers’ perspective, TVO has an appeal unlike any other broadcasting outlet. While the Ontario pubcaster can’t always offer the most money or the biggest possible audience relative to its competitors, it does have two significant advantages: its devotion to the filmmaker’s voice and the fact that programming runs commercial-free.

‘Some of the documentaries really require the viewer to sit down and watch it uncut, with no breaks,’ Buttignol explains. ‘They have the kinds of narration that are totally dictated by the story. That conflicts with commercials a lot of times. And so, working at a commercial-free broadcaster, that’s when I know I’m a lucky guy…because I already have one huge pre-condition for a great showcase for this kind of doc.’

TVO’s commercial-free structure is one of the bonuses of its status as a government agency. On the downside, however, is the constant threat of privatization whenever there is a change of government in Ontario. For example, when the current provincial government (the Progressive Conservatives) came to power in June 1995 with a mandate for fiscal restraint, TVO was one of several public agencies placed under scrutiny. The provincial powers-that-be were considering whether or not they should continue to own and operate a television channel, Buttignol says. ‘We had to make the case to the government…that the value of our service is in being public.’

For now, TVO’s position as a public entity has been reaffirmed. The most recent government evaluation came to an end last summer, after three uneasy years for TVO staff. In Buttignol’s opinion, the regional pubcaster was saved by support at the grassroots level. ‘When we went under formal review, the rank and file, the regular citizen, spoke up and said tvo was one of those services that they really valued.’ But with elections every four or five years – one will likely be called this year – the issue is never put to rest for long.

Although the provincial government continues to fund TVO, Buttignol says it has no direct say in programming. ‘TVO’s credibility with the public comes from the perceived notion of an arms-length agreement from its funding source.’ But he does acknowledge that indirect influence is not easily avoided, especially when controversial docs are on the slate. ‘It’s perceived political,’ Buttignol explains. ‘It’s all the perceptions you get within your organization because they’re worried about the government that funds us. It’s the body politic.’ In his role as commissioning editor, Buttignol must constantly consider how far he can push the envelope without stepping over the line.


TVO’s recognized presence amongst bigger, international non-fiction programmers is no small achievement. By global or even Canadian standards, the provincial pubcaster is a small network. An exceptionally popular film, such as Allan King’s Warrendale, can grab an audience of up to 200,000, but the weekly average for The View From Here and Human Edge is closer to 100,000 viewers.

Still, TVO has established a solid reputation both at home and abroad. Buttignol credits Herrndorf for his vision in making docs a priority at tvo. ‘[Herrndorf] identified in principle that the documentary was one of those areas that is an indigenous Canadian art form, and that the needs of those creators were not being addressed.’

Herrndorf, who left TVO in February to become a senior visiting fellow at the University of Toronto, says: ‘It just seemed a complete natural for TVOntario, which had a tradition of documentaries and an educational mandate, to move back into that in a major way.’

Buttignol has followed through with Herrndorf’s vision, and continues to raise TVO’s profile at any and every opportunity. He travels constantly – ‘I participate in every panel and workshop I’m invited to’- and he uses the buying power of Human Edge to illustrate TVO’s commitment to provocative, creative docs. Past acquisitions include: Victor Schönfeld’s It’s a Boy, a controversial U.K. film about infant male circumcision; Nancy Tong’s In the Name of the Emperor, a U.S. doc about the Japanese ‘rape of Nanjing’ during World War II; and Bertram Verhaag’s Blue Eyed, a German film about racism and ‘diversity training’ workshops. Next season is equally cutting-edge, with such films as Divorce Iranian Style by Kim Longinotto and Ziba Mir-Hosseini. ‘People see that kind of line-up and are kind of envious,’ Buttignol notes proudly.

While the high-calibre programming on Human Edge is important for TVO’s international rep, Buttignol considers it a useful service to Canadian doc-makers as well. ‘We were laboring under the illusion for some time in Canada that Canada was the best producer of documentaries,’ he says. ‘So with being able to buy international docs, it’s great because I’m constantly aware of the trends around the world, where the form is being pushed as an art. And I think more Canadian filmmakers have to be exposed to that. One of the frustrating things with filmmakers is that sometimes they come to me and pitch me an idea, and I say `Yeah, that is a good idea. It was so good that three weeks ago I ran a doc from Sweden on that very subject.’


Buttignol’s commitment to filmmakers and the filmmaking community extends far beyond his work at TVO. Most recently, he has been elected to represent educational broadcasters on the board of the Canadian Television Fund (a public/private partnership that provides financial assistance for Canadian programming). This appointment is only one in a long list of board positions he has held over the past 20 years.

Back in 1980, Buttignol got his first taste of board dynamics with the Canadian Filmmakers’ Distribution Co-op. ‘It let me know what I was good at, which is structuring these kinds of organizations and finding focuses for them,’ he says. Since then, he’s sat on one board or another non-stop, and even helped found one or two.

The Canadian Independent Film Caucus, for example, was the brainchild of Buttignol and seven or eight of his peers in the early ’80s. It was formed in reaction to the structural funding problems faced by independent Canadian doc-makers at the time. The particular spark was a new government-sponsored broadcast fund that Buttignol says ignored both documentary and children’s programming.

‘In order to get the rules changed, we started a lobbying campaign, and before we knew it we had 40 people join the group. Now the group’s like 300 or 400,’ Buttignol says. As the founding chairman, Buttignol handled the initial set-up procedures, such as creating by-laws and getting a federal referendum to make it a national group. Though Buttignol is no longer involved, the Caucus continues to serve as a voice for indie producers.

Buttignol’s next stop was the rules and regulations committee of the Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television in 1984. ‘I felt that documentaries weren’t being recognized on the same level as fiction,’ he says. ‘I felt it was important for the industry to recognize, and the public to recognize, that docs are a legitimate art form, worthy of equal treatment.’ Buttignol, who remains chairman of the Academy’s board, notes that now the organization does support docs, in both film and TV.

Buttignol is also a founding and current member of the board of directors for the Hot Docs! international documentary festival, an annual event in Toronto that is entering its sixth year. With Hot Docs!, his goal has been to broaden the horizons of filmmakers. ‘My feeling is that my contribution to Hot Docs! is to internationalize [it], so Canadian filmmakers become exposed, in a festival setting, to what’s out there,’ he says, ‘both by bringing people in, and in stimulating our own filmmakers to be outward-looking.’

While Buttignol’s level of involvement in the doc industry may strike some as curious, to him it’s no mystery. ‘If you’re a living, breathing member of the community and you’re involved and this is your life, it becomes obvious what problems there are,’ he says. ‘So it’s like, let’s either stop complaining or do something.’

Quite simply, Buttignol is committed to the world of documentary film. ‘Even that part of my career which is my private life is devoted to reading non-fiction and to collecting documentary portrait photography,’ he says. ‘And it’s because it’s a medium, a genre, that I love.’ He can’t see himself getting out of the business anytime soon, as it would be like walking away from family. ‘For me, the film and television community around Canada…these are, in fact, the people that I’m going to spend the rest of my life with,’ Buttignol explains. ‘It may be a dysfunctional family, but it’s our family.’

And while docusoaps and shock-u-mentaries proliferate, Buttignol remains steadfast about providing the viewing public with an alternative. Some may argue that such docs as Meema Spadola’s Breasts or Barry Greenwald’s High Risk Offender depict provocative or violent images, but the difference, Buttignol argues, is context. ‘What separates a responsible filmmaker or storyteller from one who may be less responsible is that one tries to give meaning.’ And the questions and comments that invariably follow these shows prove to him that viewers aren’t watching in a vacuum.

‘It’s always easier to go to those things that will give you a bigger audience, things that appeal to our baser instincts,’ Buttignol says. ‘The harder thing to do is to take the high road because you think it’s important. Unfortunately, the high road takes more effort to climb. That’s why public bodies, public service television, public funding agencies have to be there to support documentaries. To say there is this other path that could lead to meaning and enlightenment.’




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