Julian Sher on narrating curious stories through documentaries

Workshop series invites students to explore documentary filmmaking

The Department of Journalism held a workshop on Nov. 18 led by Julian Sher, veteran of investigative journalism and former senior producer at the CBC, on making crime and war documentaries.

The workshop was the second of a visual series organized by Francine Pelletier, the department’s journalist-in-resident. The focus of the workshop was on using documentaries to tell stories of unfamiliar persons and nations and demystifying their lives.

Although Sher has been making documentaries for 35 years, he still finds it challenging.

“Every time you do a documentary, you get into this hellish situation in the edit room,” he said, “[where you tell yourself,] ‘This is the worst piece of crap I’ve ever made.’ And then somehow, miraculously, it turns out usually well.”

Sher analyzed three of his TV documentaries during the workshop. The first one was Steven Truscott: His Word Against History. When he was 14 years old, Steven Truscott was convicted of murder and spent 10 years in jail. Thirty years later, in 1999, Sher made a documentary about his story. “I said, ‘Steven, I’m a journalist, I am here to dig for the truth. I’m not here to prove you innocent,’” Sher said. “And [Truscott] said, ‘I have no trouble with that.’”

In 2007, Truscott’s conviction was overturned.

The film starts with scenes from the actual prison where Truscott spent 10 years. “The visuals of the prison are stunning,” Sher said. “It was one of the most — no pun intended — arresting scenes.” The film recreates some scenes from 1959, but Sher said it’s best to avoid recreation, because it would look fake. “Avoid it at all costs,” he said. “And if you have to do it, then do it in a minimalist way,” adding that, in this case, they had no choice but to recreate.

“The music should never tell you what you’re supposed to feel,” he said.

“Music is one of the trickiest things in documentary,” Pelletier added. “One of the most frequent errors is overusing music.”

The second documentary, A Mother’s Ordeal, narrates the story of Brenda Waudby, a mother accused of murdering her toddler. Sher said that to have a story, the character must go on a journey. In other words, they must grow and change over time. The difficulty is that when the documentary is being made, the character is usually at the end of their journey. So, to illustrate the journey, the trick is to ask the character to talk about their story from the beginning to the end.

“So in the pre-interview, when Brenda said ‘I was a bad mother,’ I said, ‘We have a story,’” said Sher. “We take you on a journey too, where you thought she was guilty until the end of the movie.”

The third documentary analyzed was Afghanistan: Between Hope and Fear, filmed in Afghanistan. Sher filmed the parts which take place in Kandahar. It was particularly challenging because of what he called the 20-minute rule.

“You can never be outside for longer than 20 minutes. Because that’s when … you could get kidnapped,” Sher said, so he had to make a very detailed list of exactly what shots he needed.

Documentaries that discuss an issue — war in this case — and have no specific protagonist are called issue documentaries. “I hate issue documentaries,” Sher said. “They can be exceedingly boring. They’re a nightmare to make.”

For character-based documentaries, you follow the story of the main character, but for issue documentaries, it can be difficult to know where to start, he explained.

Sher encouraged workshop participants to start making documentaries. “You can do your own filming and put your stuff on YouTube,” he said. “Just keep doing it until you get better.” To make good documentaries, you have to think about what makes you special, Sher said.

“[For example,] you come from a certain community that nobody has access to,” he said. “Or leave Montreal and go somewhere nobody has gone to. Think how you can be a foreign correspondent in a way nobody else could be.”

Pelletier added that there is a huge appetite for documentaries.

“There are documentary film festivals. People want to see documentaries,” she said. “The problem is it’s hard to finance”

“It’s a nightmare,” Sher agreed. “It is really hard to get financing, even when you are an established filmmaker. But don’t give up!”

The workshop was the second in a series of three. The last one will be on Dec. 9 with David Gutnick about radio documentary and podcasting.


Photo credit: Julian Sher


Veteran journalist Francine Pelletier on making documentaries

Documentary journalism workshop series invites students to become creative storytellers

The Department of Journalism held a workshop on Oct. 21, led by Francine Pelletier, the department’s journalist-in-residence, about different forms of documentary making, what makes a good documentary and what makes it a unique form of storytelling.

The workshop was the first of a visual series, through which Pelletier plans to increase the profile of documentary journalism within Concordia. Documentary filmmaking lies at the intersection of journalism and arts, where the artist uses creative storytelling to raise awareness and make an impact in the world.

“Documentary filmmaking combines the best of journalism, telling great stories, and the best of you, finding the creative side in you,” said Pelletier.

After leaving her job at CBC in 2001, Pelletier became an independent documentary filmmaker and has made 11 films so far. She made the switch because documentary making “had exploded” in the 1990s and was a hot medium. She also found it to be a more creative type of journalism and more satisfying to work independently.

Pelletier said the oldest feature-length documentary is perhaps Nanook of the North (1922), which captures the struggles of an Inuk man and his family in the Canadian Arctic. It established the cinéma vérité form, where the filmmaker is but a passive watcher. Pelletier said the film Harlan County, USA (1976), which narrates a coal mine strike in the US, is a notable example of this form. She emphasized that this does not mean the filmmaker is neutral.

“In fact, documentary filmmaking is often called point-of-view filmmaking,” she said. “In this case, [the filmmaker] is definitely on the side of workers and not employers.”

Michael Moore, with his first documentary Roger & Me (1989), invented a new documentary form, in which the filmmaker is the main character. Another documentary form, which is simply an extended television news item, shows an orthodox correspondent who represents the audience and interviews affected people of the story. An example is the Canadian film Just Another Missing Kid (1981), which won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 1982 (Pelletier said it is “too corny” for today’s taste and would never win an Academy Award today).

Pelletier said that the 1990s was a wonderful decade for documentaries, as the equipment required to make one became more accessible, causing the number of independent documentary makers to explode. Digital cameras were invented, which are much smaller and lighter than analog ones. 

“[So] little women like me can go out and actually use a camera and not die from the 50-pound weight of the television cameras,” she said. Also, many documentary film festivals, like Toronto’s Hot Docs festival, the largest documentary festival in North America, started in the 1990s.

Today, documentaries have various ways of reaching people; they appear on newspaper websites and services such as Netflix. Pelletier said the first documentary she watched on Netflix was Blackfish (2013). It is about the consequences of keeping whales in captivity, and narrates the story of Tilikum, a captive whale at the marine park Seaworld, who was involved in the deaths of three people. The film was quite impactful, and in 2016, SeaWorld announced it will end its live performances involving whales.

“What’s amazing about documentary filmmaking is that anyone can do it; if you’re really passionate about something, it’s possible to do a great story and really make a difference,” Pelletier said. “I always joke that it is the easiest way for a nobody to become a somebody.”

Another reason to make documentaries is to keep the light shining in the right direction, Pelletier said. 

“There is a truth in the documentary because you aren’t telling people what to think; they’re seeing it for themselves.”

To make a good documentary, “The story is key,” Pelletier said. “The essential ingredient to any good story is conflict or tension.”

One does not need a huge scandal — even telling a personal story compellingly can make an effective documentary. For example, Dick Johnson Is Dead (2020) describes the decline of the filmmaker’s old father in a creative, playful manner.

Pelletier said that another ingredient of a good story is a strong character.

“Any story is carried by a character,” she said.

Finally, she stressed that there are many ways of making a documentary about a given story; the filmmaker needs to be creative and find a suitable form for their message.

The workshop was the first of a series of three. The second will be on Nov. 18 with Julian Sher, about making documentaries amid conflicts and wars, and the third will be on Dec. 9 with David Gutnick about radio documentary and podcasting.

Student Life

A new chapter for documentary films

Envisioning inclusion and documenting the imagined future of marginalized groups

At first glance, ‘Documentary Futurism’ might seem like an oxymoron—if the future has yet to happen, how can it be documented in the tradition of nonfiction storytelling? In their newest project, Cinema Politica seeks to answer that question the way they know best; through the creation and sharing of radical, independent documentaries.

“We came up with this idea of documentary futurism through being inspired by all of the Indigenous film programming we’ve been doing, in collaboration with Indigenous filmmakers and curators,” said Ezra Winton, co-founder and director of programming of the Cinema Politica film network.

“It’s bringing together documentary conventions and ideas of speculation and the imagination, even the fantastical.” Winton noted that, while nonfiction and speculation has been brought together in other forms, the combination has largely gone untouched in the documentary world.

Enhior:hén:ne [Tomorrow], directed by Roxann Whitebean. Enhior’hén:ne explores Mohawk children’s predictions about the state of mother earth 200 years into the future.
“The idea of being forward-looking with documentary has partially come out of 15 years of programming documentaries where the vast majority have focused on the past and the present, and the future part is always just the last 10 minutes,” said Winton. “We’re more interested in the whole thing being more forward-looking and that means not just envisioning inclusion, but ideas about social justice.”

After receiving the Canada Council for the Arts (CCA) New Chapter grant, the project itself started to shift from an imagined future to a reality.

“We called [the CCA] right away to ask, is this just to celebrate, or can this be critical?” recalled Winton. “And they told us they’re calling it the New Chapter for a reason. That they’re more interested in critical perspectives and less about national chauvinism.”

Project coordinator James Goddard came on board not long after, bringing with him knowledge of afrofuturism and experience working in the interdisciplinary speculative arts.

Enhior:hén:ne [Tomorrow], directed by Roxann Whitebean.
Goddard points to the work of Indigenous futurism and afrofuturism, the latter having garnered much attention since the recent release of Black Panther, as the driving force behind the new genre. “[People] are interested in the ways in which marginal groups tell stories about the future,” he said.

“The importance of that, especially for Indigenous groups in Canada, is that there have been literal legislative maneuvers right up until the 90s that the government was doing to erase Indigenous people, to eradicate the possibility of a future. So when Indigenous people tell stories about their presence in the future, it’s an important form of resistance. And that’s true of almost every marginalized community that has experienced a history of erasure.”

Cinema Politica put out a call for film proposals in September 2017. They received over 70 applications, which were then passed on to a panel of jurors for deliberation.

“It was doubly experimental because we removed ourselves from the selection process too,” added Goddard. “Had we played more of a role in the actual selection process, more of our pre-existing ideas about what we wanted from the project would have bled into that.”

We might have been heroes / Nous aurions pu être des héros, directed by Andrés Salas-Parra. In a world with nothing left to mine, communication has become the main resource for humanity to exist. The challenge? To stay connected.

Among the jurors is Nalo Hopkinson, a prolific author of six novels, including Brown Girl in the Ring, which Goddard described as a “landmark text for speculative fiction and afrofuturism.” Joining her is Skawennati, a media artist whose work addresses the past and present from an Indigenous perspective, and award-winning filmmaker Danis Goulet, who produced, wrote and directed the film Wakening, a source of inspiration for the project.

The jury deliberated based on their collective interpretation of the project goals, finally arriving at the 15 films commissioned to inaugurate the new genre. “There’s a lot of variation in the themes they deal with. Obviously a lot of the films deal with environmental collapse, one film in particular focuses on exploring sexuality and gender variants, there’s a film that looks at corporate culture, and a number of the Indigenous films engage with the idea of what happens after the settlers leave,” said Goddard.

“We really encouraged the artists to interpret it as they wanted to, politically, aesthetically, everything. We just basically set the canvas, and even then the edges of the canvas can still unfurl,” said Winton. “My expectations were just that this was going to be interesting and hopefully, probably, amazing. And my expectations were met.”

In the tradition of Cinema Politica, Winton hopes the films will not only start conversations about the alternate realities they present, but serve as a catalyst for grassroots social movements unafraid to look towards an imagined, brighter future. “We’re always tackling present, day-to-day issues, and that’s important, but also imagining a post-capitalist, post-colonial, post-gender binary, post-whatever it is, it’s exciting and it can be politically transformative.”

Featured film still from Lost Alien, directed by Tobias c. van Veen.

Student Life

A passion for justice through filmmaking

Dipti Gupta has been teaching for 17 years and directed the South Asian Film Festival

“During my 20s, I used to constantly read about things that were happening in India, and it made me feel extremely angry and uncomfortable,” said Dipti Gupta, an independent documentary filmmaker, researcher and multidisciplinary artist. “I wanted to do something which would lead to justice—to a fair society for all. I thought that the pen as well as the camera were two very significant and strong tools that could bring change.”

Gupta used her writing and passion for film as tools to shape her career. In the 1980s, she regularly contributed to magazines and won many writing competitions, but she said there were no university programs in India that offered courses in filmmaking or journalism at that time. While she was studying political science and commercial art at the University of Delhi, however, she met Siddharth Sanyal.

At the time, Sanyal was producing magazines under an organization called Workbench, and he took Gupta on as a proofreader. Workbench’s office was in the same building as the production company Cinemart Foundation, which produced political and socially relevant documentaries. The company was headed by documentary filmmakers Suhasini Mulay and Tapan Bose, who became inspirations to Gupta.

One of the first documentary films Gupta saw was An Indian Story (1981), a story about the suppression of civil and democratic rights in a democratic nation. Created by Mulay and Bose, the documentary focused on a series of incidents that took place between 1979 and 1980 in Bihar, India where more than 30 people on trial were blinded with acid by the police. “It made me angry and moved me no end,” Gupta said. “At 20, it made me aware of the many injustices in our world.”

An interview with Bhavna Pani. Photo courtesy of Dipti Gupta

Gupta said she was very keen to work for Mulay. “I had seen her work and had admired her immensely,” she said. Despite her ambition, Mulay was reluctant to give Gupta a job. She told her: “Do you see any other women working in this organization?” When Gupta replied that there were only men, Mulay said: “Well, then you will not survive here.”

Nonetheless, Mulay ended up hiring Gupta because “she realized that, even though I looked really scrawny and small, I had a lot of guts.” Gupta got most of her training in the field while working for Mulay and Bose. “I learned a lot while working with her. She became my mentor, and today, she is a very dear friend,” Gupta said.

In addition to giving Gupta some challenging assignments—one of which required her to travel to a remote part of Delhi to interview a Hindu fundamentalist group—Mulay was also the one who introduced Gupta to her husband. He was working as a playwright in Canada, and Gupta eventually moved to Montreal in 1991 to be with him. “When you look back in life, you realize that there was some kind of a path,” Gupta said. “All the dots connect now.” Gupta’s husband runs the Montreal theatre company Teesri Duniya Theatre, which is dedicated to producing socially and politically relevant plays. Gupta has been on the company’s board since arriving in Canada.

When she first moved to Montreal, Gupta wanted to work for Studio D, a National Film Board of Canada studio dedicated to producing women’s documentaries. Unfortunately, the studio closed in 1996 due to a lack of funding. Around that time, “there wasn’t much work for new immigrants and someone who had very little or no Canadian work experience,” Gupta said.

After working for a short time with a few documentary filmmakers, including Martin Duckworth, Gupta decided to go back to school. She completed a bachelor’s degree in communication studies and got her master’s in media studies, both at Concordia University. During her studies, Gupta had a special interest in social and women’s issues. For her 1998 master’s thesis, “Confronting the challenge of distribution: Women documentary filmmakers in India,” Gupta interviewed several female filmmakers in India about the challenges they faced.

“I focused on women who had addressed issues of poverty and violence, women who were focussing on everyday struggles in society, be it education, social injustices, gender discrimination,” Gupta said. “There were so many things happening, and that’s what inspired me to do my master’s work.”

A group photo with the committee members and organizers of the South Asian Film Festival. Photo courtesy of Dipti Gupta.

Twenty years later, these challenges are still prevalent. “I just came back from India a few days ago, and what is really sad is that not a lot has changed,” Gupta said. “People are making good films, but there is still very little funding, and today, many artists are also facing state censorship.”

After completing her master’s, Gupta began her PhD studies at McGill University in art history and communications. However, Gupta’s daughter made her realize she wanted to work in a system that would allow her the flexibility needed to take care of her child while doing research and teaching.

Gupta has now been teaching in the cinema-video-communications department at Dawson College for 17 years. She is also a part-time faculty member at Concordia where she teaches art forms of Bollywood cinema. However, she still feels sad that she never completed her dissertation at McGill, despite finishing all her course work. She said she hopes her current work may help her eventually finish it.

Gupta’s pedagogy has always focused on exploring situations or moments in history that have brought about change. “I have consciously created courses which highlight and focus on the evolution of society and the community,” she said. “I always recognize that we are ever fortunate to have an education, and we need to use this privilege to create a fair democratic society in every way.”

According to Gupta, teaching at the CEGEP level has been an extremely humbling experience. “I always remember and recognize how I was at that stage of my life as I teach these young minds. I was idealistic and had huge dreams. It is an impressionable age. Hence, we as teachers have a huge responsibility towards this age group,” Gupta said. “My focus on my teaching has always been to make sure that I can inspire students and give them tools to prepare them for their future studies and careers.”

A portrait of Dipti Gupta, an independent documentary filmmaker, researcher and multidisciplinary artist. Photo by Sandra Hercegova.

At Concordia, Gupta’s art forms of Bollywood course focuses on the study of the construct of mythology—marriage, motherhood, masculinity and misogyny—within Indian cinema, especially films coming out of Mumbai. “My aim through that is to look at this particular construct and also to break certain stereotypes that exist while viewing and engaging with popular culture from India,” she explained.

Currently, Gupta is working on a new documentary film which explores these topics. “I think cinema gives us that window to explore and study the trends—after all, art imitates life and life often imitates art.”

These are ideas Gupta promotes outside of the classroom as well. For the last seven years, she has been on the organizing committee for the South Asian Film Festival. Hosted by the Kabir Cultural Centre, a charitable organization in Montreal, the festival highlights the work of South Asian filmmakers that focus on contemporary issues in India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal and Afghanistan. In 2017, Gupta worked as the festival’s programming director alongside her friend and fellow director Karan Singh.

One film featured in last year’s festival that particularly stood out to Gupta was A Billion Colour Story. Directed by Mumbai-based filmmaker N. Padmakumar, the film discusses communal tensions and identity issues in India. It was voted Best Film by the festival’s audience.

“The film took my breath away—with its story, it’s beautifully composed shots and the acting,” Gupta said. “[N. Padmakumar] made one of the most incredibly humane stories I have seen on screen, and it is a must-watch.”

The work Gupta does for the south asian film festival is entirely voluntary as it is a volunteer-driven festival. According to Gupta, teaching at Dawson and being a part-time employee gives her more time to contribute to other projects, such as the festival. “I am growing older, and I am realizing the urgency to contribute as well as give back to the community that has really supported me,” she said.

Dipti Gupta alongside filmmaker N. Padmakumar.

In terms of support, as a part-time faculty member at Concordia, Gupta said she feels that the Concordia University Part-time Faculty Association (CUPFA) is supportive and generous when it comes to providing grants for research. However, the research grants are not very large. “Often, as teachers, we end up putting in our own money to pursue the work,” she said.

According to Gupta, even if part-time professors only teach one or two courses, the number of hours that one puts in to create a course, to mentor or give feedback to each student is still the same as any full-time teacher. “The sad part is that, often, we are not even sure if we will continue to teach the class the following term—so you can be putting in all this work for just one term or maybe two,” Gupta added.

According to Gupta, the vice-president of CUPFA, Lorraine Oades, has created interesting forums/micro-talks on campus for part-time faculty. “Every time we get a CUPFA grant, we come and talk about our research work and the kind of contributions we are making in our discipline,” she explained. “This is very helpful.”

Aside from the film festival and teaching, Gupta is an independent filmmaker herself. Using funding from CUPFA, she made a short documentary film in 2014 alongside Karan Singh called At Home in the World. The short film celebrates over 100 years of Indian cinema in the multicultural city of Montreal. It explores Montrealers’ love of Indian cinema and their understanding of films from that country.

Gupta said establishing connections with people has been important to her life and her success. “One encounter can create a lifetime of great bonds—that is what I have learned through this entire journey,” she said. “You just have to have love in your heart and respect for people, and you will go a long way.”

As for women who aspire to become documentary filmmakers, Gupta had one piece of advice: “The key as a filmmaker and as an artist is to identify what inspires you, what drives you. I think, in your heart, you always know.”

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