TIFF Doc Conference 2017

It's a good thing to continue learning. I have been in the documentary industry for more than three decades. This past week I had the opportunity to refresh my thinking and learn some new perspectives about the craft, the business and documentary education.

The occasion was the 9th annual TIFF Doc Conference, part of the Industry component of the Toronto International Film Festival. Moderated ably by programmers Thom Powers and Dorota Lech who is also associated with Toronto's Hot Docs festival, the day featured a swift moving and well paced series of interviews, panel discussions and key note speakers.

Anjali Nayar, director  Silas

Anjali Nayar, director Silas

Anjali Nayar a Canadian filmmaker now based in Africa presented a keynote address on ethical considerations surrounding appropriation. She rhetorically posed the all important question: how do I as a first world person of privilege tell stories out of Africa? In a thoughtful way, Nayar, whose current film Silas premiered at TIFF17, both defended her story telling liberty and underscored the collaborative approach, empathy, listening, open mindedness and respect that she must be sure to employ abroad. She called for telling each other's stories "with imagination and skepticism." Without backing down from her right to free speech, she drew attention to moments in her own work where she thought she might have done better.

Nayar examining her conscience about representation of the so-called developing world

Nayar examining her conscience about representation of the so-called developing world

Filmmakers Brett Morgan Jane & Kurt Cobain - World of Heck ,Denis Côté and Sam Pollard traced the arc of their careers and motivation in interviews. Pollard who had a distinguished career as an editor with the likes of director Spike Lee and who teaches at NYU is now primarily a director. His latest film I Gotta Be Me about the singer-dancer-entertainer Sammy Davis Jr. had its premiere at TIFF17 and will be seen on the American Masters strand on PBS.

TIFF17 Pollard.jpg

Morgan Spurlock who rose to fame with his Supersize Me doc was joined on stage by the team from his company Warrior Poets, Entertainment Weekly and A&E network that are responsible for a new pop culture doc series that will launch soon across A&E media platforms. Spurlock emphasized his creative and entrepreneurial bent. He and his colleagues stressed that the digital space provides documentary producers with unprecedented opportunity.

Moving beyond specific projects, financier Geralyn Dreyfous of Imact Partners and the film & TV career consultant Peter Broderick proffered useful tips about private financing for documentaries and the approach one might undertake to ensure longevity and a decent income in the independent documentary production industry.

Consultant Peter Broderick

Consultant Peter Broderick

As a filmmaker and educator at Toronto's Seneca College, I felt my time at the 2017 TIFF Doc Conference was well spent. Each year's conference has its strengths, but this one avoided transparent, shallow promotional gambits that can sometimes mar such industry affairs. Each session was distinctly thoughtful.

As for improvement for the 10th annual TIFF Doc Conference in 2018, one might suggest a better mixing up of American-Canadian-international speakers. As in other years at this particular event, it occasionally seemed we were attending a conference in New York or Los Angeles because Canadian or international context was missing for significant stretches of time. That being said, it was an informative day and I look forward to next year.

Toronto Mayoral Debate 04/09/14

Toronto Region Board of Trade and The Globe And Mail newspaper sponsored the latest Toronto mayoral candidate debate yesterday. I watched it live on-line.

A bit of context for Canadians not living  in Toronto and those outside Canada:  many of you know of our city in recent years primarily because of Mayor Rob Ford.  His misadventures are well chronicled elsewhere. For immediate purposes know this.  Ford, whose political career would have ended in disgrace months ago in many jurisdictions, remains mayor of Toronto albeit with curtailed powers. He is also a viable candidate for re-election.

As for yesterday’s debate:

John Tory, an experienced broadcaster-business person-politician, did well. It’s as if he’s suddenly on political steroids. Good to see him being energetic and (amazingly) funny.

Lamentably, Ford did well (again.) He has the corporate, right-wing populist thing down to a T-dot. He’s overtly ant-intellectual, aggressive and refers to himself in the 3rd person like a professional athlete. His approach will continue to work with significant numbers of the disaffected and angry. The good news is that he did not flat out win this debate as he had done previously (very evident to those who watched.)

Olivia Chow who gave up a seat in the Canadian parliament to seek election as mayor seems about to make herself an also ran. She thinks being nice will make her mayor. Odd because her late husband Jack Layton, NDP leader and briefly federal opposition leader before his untimely death in 2011, was, among many other things, a tough, but usually fair and rational, political street fighter of the first water. Like Layton, Chow had a previous  career in Toronto municipal politics, the milieu where the couple met and first worked together.

Entrepreneur and former city councillor David Soknacki is smart and well informed but irrelevant.  Someone should tell him acronyms are meaningless to most people.

So…unless Chow throws her support to Tory in the next few weeks, it could shape up to a tight two person race. Team Ford clearly wants and expects a duel with Tory. Who better to slander with their ‘elitist’ tag?

 A poll from earlier this week showing Tory with a substantial lead is one of a kind. If that’s a trend, good. However, most polls that I have seen show Tory leading Ford by 3-5 points – that’s almost a statistical tie.

Scariest ‘take away’ from yesterday’s debate: addiction, homophobia, serial lying and misogyny are not at issue. Only in fordlandia.

It says here Ford can still win because he can out campaign and out bully Tory from here to the finish line.

Worth Repeating (1)

From Marcus Gee, The Globe And Mail, Toronto in regards to Rob Ford and the polity that spawned him:

“Despite everything that has happened over the past year, there have been few examples of open public outrage at the humiliation and turmoil Rob Ford has visited on the city. Where are the marches and demonstrations? Where is the outcry from leaders of the business, the universities or the arts?

A city like New York or Chicago would long ago have found a way to hustle a person such as Mr. Ford off the stage. In Toronto, we sigh and wait for someone to do something.”

Toronto: Year of the Bully

Rob Ford has been mayor of the city I live in for over a year now. It’s an odd experience.  You see I am convinced that Rob Ford doesn’t even like Toronto.

When he’s not insulting his opponents for being “left of Stalin”, Ford simply lets his brother pile on the dirt.  Can you think of another city in North America, in which the mayor’s henchman, in this case, his brother Doug, would gratuitously goad a leading cultural figure such as Margaret Atwood? Wouldn’t a writer of Atwood’s stature be part of the Toronto brand to any sensible mayor?

In recent days, Ford has insisted he’s restricting development of public transit to the building of subways. This in opposition to any credible analysis of Toronto gridlock and even, recently, to the dismay of some of his own followers on city council as well as the head of the Toronto Transit Commission. Some even believe the mayor overstepped his legal authority in signing a death warrant for a long negotiated transit plan that sat on his desk when he assumed power.

As he travels into work from the western edge of the city in Etobicoke in his now famous van, Ford must be blind to the prevailing situation. In his warped perception, the answer to too many cars is… more cars.

Ford knows his constituency: a  largely suburban based pocket of resentments about taxes and elites that’s an approximation of the American ‘Tea Party’. Yes, the city requires better management. It also requires a twenty-first century system of public transit. It also cries out for a political discourse based on more than posturing and bullying.

A lot can be learned about politicians by observing how they address their own. Ford uses The Toronto Sun newspaper and right-leaning talk radio to deliver the raw meat to his true believers. His self congratulatory year end interview to the Sun (Dec. 18, 2011) and the infamous Stalin comparison on AM640 in Toronto are classics of a kind.

Some commentators, like the Star’s Chris Hume, believe that the bully has had his day and that his powers will be circumscribed by council. I’m not so sure. His cringe worthy public weight loss campaign is a publicity master stroke.  And, above all, let’s not forget that this is the city that elected Mr. Ford in late October 2010.

What I do know is when Toronto’s competitors are getting in stride with a human agenda for the twenty-first century, our mayor is determined to go backwards. Ford’s election was an embarrassment to progressives in 2010. He shows no signs of changing his stripes even as he gets leaner.

Hollowing Out the Blue Jays

From our sports desk: a wintery baseball flash report:

The Toronto sports media is oddly quiet about the evisceration  of a team that won 85 games last year in the formidable American League East. As I write this post, the dismantled Toronto Blue Jays squad that will arrive in spring training in just over two months time would be fortunate to win 75 once the regular season begins in April.

Let’s review: Pitcher Shaun Marcum traded for Brett Lawrie, a Double AA player; catcher John Buck signs as a free agent with the Florida Marlins, a team that no one watches; lefty relief pitcher Scott Downs takes his talents to Malibu; closer Kevin Gregg cut loose to free agency… The Blue Jays also added a player in the speedy outfielder Rajai Davis, but he is a minor addition in comparison to the flood of losses of established major league players.

Blue Jays management mollifies by talking about ‘talent accumulation’ and creating a mild buzz about the aforementioned Double AA player, Lawrie , because he’s a Canadian. It’s a public relations mirage.

At the moment, the Jays are a team without an experienced every day catcher, an experienced first baseman or a proven closer.  GM Alex Anthopoulos is the happy face on a movement to limit player costs while waxing smilingly about a brighter future ahead.

Yes folks, your 2011 Toronto Blue Jays: younger, cheaper and worse.

Rob Ford: The War on Cars?!?!?!?!

So Toronto’s new Mayor reported to work on December 1, 2010. It was and will remain  a sad day indeed for a wannabe ‘world class’, wannabe NYC North, backward-looking city.

Disturbingly, Ford ran against public transportation; and for cars. He bellowed throughout the campaign that ‘The war on the car is over!’ He repeated that mantra when he assumed office.

Mayor Ford vows that ‘Transit City’, a plan that took close to a decade to negotiate and fund, is also “over”, He claims that under his administration Toronto will build subways, rather than the ‘Light Rail Transit’ (LRT) streetcars favoured by the plan he says he’ll put an ice-pick into. Subways would cost two to three times as much as LRT. It is highly unlikely that there will be the kind of massive subway construction that could substitute for the planned LRT lines. Subways are too expensive.

What a Rob Ford administration probably foretells is more cars and more freeways in Toronto.  To suggest that Toronto ever experienced a “War on cars”, is laughable. Toronto is the hub of southern Ontario which suffers from car addiction economically, aesthetically, environmentally and in terms of public health.

Ford was also elected by campaigning openly against immigration. In Toronto, one of the world’s most multicultural cities, you say? Yes, that’s right.

It gets worse. In victory, a member of his staff slyly all-but-admitted that team Ford had staged calls to a radio phone-in program in hopes of scaring off one potential opponent; and investigative journalists seemed to show how the campaign team had created a false Twitter account to locate and fend off a citizen who had experienced a potentially highly embarrassing encounter with Ford.

In political terms, his victory means that suburban voters and their municipal councilors, largely right-leaning Ford supporters, will significantly determine political life for the minority of voters who live in what most of the rest of the world considers Toronto – its downtown. Downtown areas voted overwhelmingly for Ford’s opponents, but thanks to urban amalgamation, the suburban majority rules. That’s democracy Ontario style. Ford’s victory might foreshadow an American-like economic and cultural hollowing out of downtown Toronto.

Ford ran a sophisticated campaign built on resentment of elites, real and imagined. Good luck to him if he’s serious about rooting out waste and ending the “gravy train” for entrenched interests at City Hall. However, his victory appears to represent nostalgia for a Toronto that ceased to exist 30-40 years ago. His mastery of his opponents in what passed for an electoral contest was astonishing and instructive.  Toronto’s pretense of sophistication has been laid bare by a political campaign that made mockery of environmental concerns, insulted the city’s immigrant tradition and displayed contempt for those who rely on public transportation. World class, eh?

Deer along the Don

An update for readers of my Don River musings: I just spotted two deer at a distance of 10 metres along the Don ravine about 20 minutes on foot from the centre of downtown Toronto. Thanks to the Don River reclamation activists for years of tree planting and pushing back rapacious developers and car addicts!

Giambrone - The Real Losers

So Adam Giambrone decided to blow himself up before the Toronto mayoralty race even got truly underway. Of course in some jurisdictions (Brazil and France come to mind), Giambrone’s sexual indiscretions would not have been considered the purview of politics. In settler, retro-puritan Toronto, the revelations were killing.

One hopes that Mr. Giambrone, his family and friends can move forward with their lives. What’s left for the voters of Toronto?  That’s actually the bad news.  Giambrone as TTC Commissioner and former New Democratic Party official had a social democratic agenda. Significantly, he believed in public transit, an underfunded service in Toronto which is deteriorating in front of the citizenry’s eyes.

Front runner George Smitherman, last seen as a ministerial acolyte of ‘The Premier Who Most Resembles Norman Bates’, seems determined to show that he can be a tough guy by fancying himself a budget slasher.  With that mindset, the concern here is that Toronto can kiss much needed rapid transit and subway expansion goodbye.  Smitherman was an integral part of a McGuinty government that fell over itself giving taxpayers’ money to automobile manufacturers.  There’s slim chance Ferocious George will change those stripes now. Rocco Rossi, the erstwhile Liberal whiz kid once deemed capable of saving federal Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff from himself, argues that bike lanes and public transit just get in the way of cars.  That’s just what Toronto needs – more cars on its roads! How’s that for a visionary twenty-first century campaign in a ‘world class city’?  PUH-LEEEZ!!! Of the remaining viable candidates for mayor, only Deputy Mayor Joe Pantalone demonstrates an interest in public transportation. Pantalone has served Toronto well. He will never be elected mayor.

I don’t care what Adam Giambrone has in his pants or what he does with it when it’s removed. He’s not a priest, an elementary school teacher or a psychiatrist…he’s just an idiotic politician who self-immolated. And with him burns his agenda.  Sadly, it is a banner that no one with a chance to win next autumn wishes to embrace.


Free the Don River

Toronto has a river through it: the Don. Today it ends ingloriously in concrete via an underground channel below an expressway just north of its natural destination at Lake Ontario. In the nineteenth and early twentieth century boaters, fishers and families on picnics would stroll by a river that was flowing and full of fish, including salmon which would travel the Don seasonally. In the 1950s, Torontonians decided the Don’s path would be the site for a 6 lane freeway, the Don Valley Parkway. To the south near the edge of Lake Ontario the hideous Gardiner Expressway bars the Don and effectively blocks the citizens of Toronto from Lake Ontario.

As in many North American cities in the age of automobile tyranny, the construction of these freeways was truly the darkness before the dawn. The Don River was almost killed in the process.

In the past twenty years or so, citizens and governments have planted thousands of trees and pollution into the Don has been abated. There is still a great deal of work to do. The proliferation of grotesque condominiums near the Toronto shoreline in the name of ‘harbourfront renewal’ means it will be difficult to clear the Don’s path to Lake Ontario. All the same. it should be done.

Toronto likes to think of itself as a ‘world class city. That’s a pathetic conceit. No city of such stature can afford to wall itself off from its primary natural asset as Toronto has done with Lake Ontario, one of North America’s Great Lakes. Rivers like the Don that flow into Lake Ontario must be part of the equation as living centres of greenery and recreation. Anyone from Toronto who has traveled to Chicago in recent years and seen its waterfront might be shocked to see a city that actually embraces its location on Lake Michigan. The continuing recovery of the Don River and the arresting of further plans to devastate Lake Ontario’s Toronto shoreline might suggest a change of heart in what the Canadian cultural theorist Northrop Frye called the “garrison mentality” that Canadians, even the wannabe sophisticates of Toronto, often demonstrate.