Christina Clark: No, we aren't making documentaries you want to watch. Here's why.

Woke ideology is killing Canada's national art form: documentary filmmaking

By: Christina Clark

I’ve been working in documentary film and television in Canada since I graduated from university in Montreal nine years ago. I climbed the ladder from production assistant to story producer. I even got to direct. I’ve worked with a lot of talented people — many of whom now feel trapped in an industry that is stagnating, writing and directing an endless feedback loop of predictable storytelling formats. 

Last fall, I decided to stop. 

Somewhere along the way in my career, I became part of what we call in Quebec a “machine à saucisse” — a sausage factory — churning out content to fit predetermined narratives to please public broadcasters who don’t actually have to satisfy their audience to earn revenue. In the last few years, I’ve noticed a not-so-subtle shift in the documentary industry: we have begun to tell stories that serve ideological narratives, instead of telling stories that enlighten curious audiences. 

Many of the stories now told through documentary skew the truth by reinforcing the viewpoint du jour. Interviews and scenes that break with the chosen narrative, that offer something other than a black-and-white approach to society and the complexities of humanity, happen off camera or end up on the editing room floor.  This is all in an effort to promote diverse voices and the political opinions that allegedly support them. But when we lay claim to a singular viewpoint or dismiss a perspective because the creator’s or the subject’s skin tone or gender does not fit the narrative of inclusion, we are actually removing diversity from the storytelling equation. And what we’re left with are one-sided storylines that reinforce an echo chamber of virtue signalling.

I can no longer deny the dysfunctional approach to telling half-truths and undermining alternate viewpoints in my industry in the name of securing public funding for programming that fails to resonate with the public that is paying for it. Over the last year, I’ve been turning down contracts and finding an exit strategy. I’m pre-emptively cancelling myself.

Documentary was once considered Canada’s national art form. Part of our country’s success with the medium can be attributed to the creation of our National Film Board (NFB), established to “make and distribute films designed to help Canadians in all parts of Canada to understand the ways of living and the problems of Canadians in other parts.” The NFB was founded to provide public funding to storytellers to show us who we are, as a country, as citizens. 

To secure public funding for a documentary film or program in Canada, producers typically need to have a broadcaster already signed on to the project. Then, they can apply to funds like the Canada Media Fund, Telefilm or Rogers.  Without a broadcaster licence, you cannot apply for public funding. The criteria for licencing a film or television series has narrowed in recent years — not unlike the audiences these programs are targeting. 

Take, for example, the Creative Relief Fund that the CBC put together during the early months of COVID to award $2 million in development and production funding for new projects, ranging from fiction and non-fiction television to documentary shorts to plays and podcasts. This was an enticing invitation for creators in lockdown. During this time, friends and colleagues of mine in the industry were messaging each other back and forth, offering feedback on each other’s ideas, as we were all intending to apply. These are some questions we all wondered aloud, in the safety of our private chats: “Do you think this story is diverse enough?” “This story might be too white…” “I don’t think the language is woke enough, do you think they’ll see the bigger story here?” That's because many broadcasters have “Inclusion and Diversity Plans” that you have to fill out for your project, that track the racial and gender makeup of your crew and your interviewees. While it is not explicitly mandatory to accommodate broadcasters’ criteria for diversity, a lot of filmmakers already know before they even pitch an idea that their chances of getting greenlit are greater if they do. 

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What many filmmakers and storytellers fear to admit publicly is that, as a result of these shifts, they feel beholden to perform wokeness in the way they pitch their stories. I have felt this way, too, often at the expense of the story. This is done with the hope that we might appeal to the current wave of broadcasters, who are equally afraid of failing to choose projects that mirror the ethos of woke ideology.  But it contravenes the original mandate of the National Film Board to promote a plurality of voices and opinions. 

It’s been somewhat amusing watching producers scramble in the wake of every progressive movement to pump out content that bolsters their allegiance to causes that are still unfolding — the #MeToo movement, LGBTQ2S+ issues, Black Lives Matter. Documentary is a deeply reflective medium, ill suited to keeping up with trends. But because we are all working in this industry — mostly as freelancers — and because we want a shot at creating something in a field we’re passionate about, we bend and flex our storytelling principles to fit the sensibilities of the morally righteous gatekeepers of public funding. 

Some of us express our discomfort — it feels incredibly condescending and disingenuous to hire someone or interview them because they check a box on a diversity mandate. Some of us are afraid to lose work. Some of us are now part of what I call the “converted,” for it has indeed begun to feel like a cult-like mentality has taken over the airwaves. 

Ironically, many people who work in the film and television industry are highly critical and dismissive of Canadian society as racist, homophobic or sexist. They are also the people who make their living off of cultural institutions funded by Canadians. And there is something very insidious and hypocritical in that that makes me wonder how it’s possible they can demand more money from the government to fund their creative aspirations while showing such disdain for “the system.”  

Diversity plans are well intentioned methods to address the gaps in the system. Stories told from different demographics of people across the country are essential. But human beings aren’t reducible to their gender, skin colour, sexual or cultural orientations. A powerful story is not defined by identity politics — it transcends them. 

There are two documentary films I’ve wanted to make in the last four years. One story connected the lives of three different men living in different parts of Canada to the opioid epidemic, tracing its history from prescription painkillers to fentanyl-laced recreational drugs to intravenous drug use. This is a crisis that has been blowing up in the United States for decades. In 2018, data revealed that 128 people die every day of an opioid overdose in the U.S. In Canada, someone dies from an overdose every two hours. Most of those people are young men. And it is massively underreported.

The other story was about the declining fertility rates in Canada, its consequences on our society and how this reflects a growing global trend that will have major impacts on our country in the not-too-distant future. Having worked on a short documentary about Quebec’s former public in vitro fertilization (IVF) program, I was curious about the story we’re not telling about fertility, the rise in average age of first-time mothers, and the cultural framework that sends a very mixed message to young women in the workforce.  

For the first story, I was told “now is not a time for stories about white men.” My three main participants were — are — white. They also represent the demographic most affected by the opioid epidemic in North America. Meanwhile, in the documentary on declining fertility rates, we cut most of the serious discussion on women's infertility and the mixed cultural message on family formation in favour of a simplistic viewpoint that subsidizing IVF for women and freezing eggs is ultimately the progressive thing to do. 

Through these experiences, I slowly learned that the stories we fund for public broadcasting also cater to the biases of people living in Canada’s wealthiest cities. The divide between issues that matter to rural populations and those that matter to urbanites is growing, across Canada and the United States. By comparison, there is little room for Canadians to openly debate issues of public importance because there is no major platform here that has managed to avoid this callow, creatively stifling ideology. This is another consequence of having state-run and state-funded media that decides for us. Important, nuanced stories — stories that speak to all Canadians — remain untold. 

We pay taxes for media funding because it was deemed necessary in service of a unified Canada, and as a bulwark against American cultural imperialism. But when your prime minister states that his country “has no core identity,” it’s a contradictory message to digest. If there is no core identity, why bother having a public funding model at all? And what's the value in a publicly funded cultural organization that reinforces tribalism over universalism?

In our current public-funding model, if no one watches the films or docu-television series we pay to make, there is no accountability for failure. Our own national broadcaster doesn’t need positive ratings for renewal. Documentaries that get funded are watched mostly at film festivals attended by industry folk, and a dwindling number of devoted Canadian movie-goers. And now there’s a tax credit to buy viewership. Instead of creating genuine incentive to watch Canadian programming, we are paying people to subscribe and avoiding the embarrassing question of why there’s little interest in what’s on offer. 

Yes, Schitt’s Creek recently cleaned up at the Emmys, and The Handmaids Tale before that — but when was the last time a Canadian television program received international recognition without lead actors who rose to fame in America first? For every Canadian hit, there are dozens of American and British programs that outrank us. Further, hiding the system's dysfunctions behind the rare successes of fictional series obfuscate the possibility that more of these kinds of shows could be produced if we weren't so complacent with the status quo. 

As a storyteller, I understand, now more than ever, the anger and frustration expressed by Canadian viewers who feel disaffected. Many of my colleagues have expressed the same dissatisfaction, from the creator’s side. Should we be funding cultural institutions purpose-built to tell Canadian stories when we’re unwilling to affirm a national identity based on shared values? And how is it possible to forge a vision of community and unity when we’re determined to fixate on pathologized grievances forged in academic theory? 

We’ve come so far to think so little of ourselves, only to use that as fodder to tell stories that demand inclusivity through an exclusionary ideological narrative.  And if we continue to choose ideology to define who we are, the price we pay for this may be our sense of national unity.

Christina Clark has worked in various roles in the television and film industry in Canada.

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