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Witnessing the Passion of Digital Documentary
by Martha Ladly
Welcome to WITNESS
In Issue 9, we at HorizonZero have chosen to immerse ourselves in the evolution - past, present, and future - of documentary media: a form which has established itself as a distinctive means of self-expression for Canadian makers. The documentary tradition in this country started with Canadian filmmaker Robert J. Flaherty's Nanook of the North in 1922. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and the National Film Board of Canada then went on to establish and support the tradition. Ever since, the documentary media community in Canada has attained a worldwide reputation for expressing unflinching points of view and passionate opinion.
WITNESS 9.1 (June)
Hot Docs Talks
Peter Wintonick's 1993 film Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media was the most successful documentary in Canadian history: it has played in over two hundred cities around the world, won numerous awards, and been translated into a dozen languages. Since then, Mr Wintonick's, attempts to develop a virtual film festival site (in 1994!) and his views on digital culture have established him firmly as an international provocateur on the documentary scene. And so to the present: this May, we asked Wintonick and our own Editor-in-Chief, Sara Diamond, to co-host a series of interviews with some of the international stars of documentary filmmaking attending the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival in Toronto. The Hot Docs Talks interactive presented in WITNESS 9.1 exposes the views of some of our most eloquent industry movers and makers, and offers insight into the current state of international documentary media.
Also in WITNESS 9.1, you'll find the work of guest artists [murmur], whose sound-based documentary [murmur] in the Market explores the everyday stories of people and places in the Kensington Market area of Toronto. And make sure to check out Sara Diamond's essential essay One Step Forward, which provides a sweeping history of the interactive documentary form and special insight into the present state of digital documentary.
WITNESS 9.2 (July)
In WITNESS 9.2, we proudly present an interactive tribute to the life and career of Alanis Obomsawin. The work of his distinguished Abenaki documentary filmmaker has provided inspiration, and created a climate of social awareness and change, for generations of Canadians. Ms Obomsawin's series of four films documenting the 1990 Mohawk uprising in Kanehsatake and Oka garnered numerous international awards, and brought the subject of Aboriginal land rights into the full glare of public scrutiny. Like other Obomsawin films (for example, the 1986 portrait Richard Cardinal: Cry from the Diary of a Métis Child), the Oka series changed our view of history, and influenced the direction of Canadian government policy in Aboriginal Affairs.
In Alanis Obomsawin: dream-magic, guest directed by award-winning documentary filmmaker Katerina Cizek, Alanis talks about the themes of her work, and the passion which has driven her to place herself repeatedly in situations of great personal risk, in order to tell the story of her people and expose the truth from their perspective. This is a wonderful opportunity to experience Alanis' work for the first time in an online medium. She has graciously offered HorizonZero access to excerpts from her NFB films - both early and recent - as well as the chance to hear her music, see her dream-like lithographic artworks, view rare footage from the CBC and NFB archives, and listen to her tell the amazing story of her life's work, in her own words. Thanks also go to the CBC and the NFB, who have granted HorizonZero the use of rare footage from their archives.
Encounters in Baghdad
Issue 9.2 also features the work of reporter and documentary-maker Alexandre Trudeau. Life in Baghdad during and after the recent war in Iraq is the subject: Trudeau has recreated his experience on the streets of the war-torn city in a specially commissioned series of four mini-documentaries entitled Real People, Unreal War: Encounters in Baghdad. Intimate images of the people of Baghdad - civilians, families, parents, grandparents, children, and occupying forces - create a vivid picture of a city gripped by war and its aftermath.
Issue 9.2 also includes our regular Horizontal feature, devoted to representations of the Canadian land/urbanscape. This time, in keeping with WITNESS's ongoing theme of urban encounters and explorations, we present the work of Mouna Andraos and Ralph Dfouni of Quebec new media company Bluesponge, whose pop-up mini-documentary videos visit the past and present of their respective downtown Montréal neighbourhoods.
The essays contained in Issue 9.2's in-depth Articles section look to the future, where new technologies are making inroads into the documentary medium, changing practices, transforming distribution, and creating new interactive forms.
What are micro-documentaries? How are mobile technologies influencing the way stories are captured and told? Markku Flink of the Finnish interactive cooperative POEM discusses this new format in his "micro-essay" Telephones and Microdocs.
Are new digital cameras and mobile technologies enabling documentary-making to become more participatory and audience-driven? What are the moral responsibilities of documentary artists in our increasingly wireless world? Peter Wintonick knows - and he isn't afraid to tell us in Mediawar vs. Mediaware: An opinionated reflection on documentary, democracy, war and technology. Meanwhile, writer and critic Marc Glassman knows Wintonick well, and offers insight into the auter's films, heart, and mind in his own suitably-titled essay, Manufacturing Dissent: Peter Wintonick's point, shoot, and provoke documentary aesthetic.
Shifting from the political to the personal and back again, documentary maker, human rights Web activist, and political refugee Patricio Henriquez tells the profound story of his flight from the revolution in Chile, and his new life as a young documentary filmmaker and Canadian citizen, in his riveting essay The Travel Agency: A Voyage from Exile into Documentary Filmmaking.
Documentary in Québec
Finally, in Documentary in Quebec: The Auteur Film in Four Movements, writer and filmmaker Marcel Jean surveys the roots, past, and present of the poetic, politically-charged, and personally-impassioned Québec documentary scene.
And speaking of documentary in Quebec: In June of 2003, it was formally announced by the NFB/ONF that the French Program's permanent filmmaker positions would be discontinued. According to the press release authored by NFB President Jacques Bensimon: "The NFB is increasingly getting in synch with the Canadian film and television industry. Accordingly, in this important phase of the NFB's evolution, we must implement a production structure that will support the creators and all those involved in the creative process on a contract basis. In such a framework, permanent filmmaker positions are no longer appropriate."
As a nation, we should hope that this will not be a retrograde move when viewed in the context of the laudable history of documentary film work in Québec and Canada. After all, it is no secret that NFB/ONF filmmakers like Alanis Obomsawin have historically been able to make highly topical works of social commentary in-part because of their secure positions as permanent staff with the National Film Board of Canada. Some of this work would not have seen the light of day had the external exigencies of commercial production planning intervened. Obomsawin's nation-changing film Kanehsatake, 270 Years of Resistance was made possible because she was able to decide, at the very moment that news of the Oka crisis was breaking, that she had to be there with her crew. Let's hope that Canadian filmmakers in the future will be privileged with such flexibility. (Note: Alanis Obomsawin continues as one of only three permanent staff filmmakers remaining at the NFB today.)
Martha Ladly is the Director of HorizonZero.
Special Note :
HorizonZero Issue 09: WITNESS digital documentary and the passionate voice gratefully acknowledges the inspiration that the Witness program for human rights (http://www.witness.org/), and the CBC TV program Witness (http://www.cbc.ca/witness), provide for documentary producers and audiences around the world and in Canada. This issue of HorizonZero is, however, not affiliated with either of these programs.