The Case for Can Pol Docs

Sixty characters: that’s what WordPress, the software I use, decrees the maximum length a title should be. And 18 are already taken with “by Sandford Borins.” So I resort to well-known abbreviations. The full title of the post is “The Case for Canadian Political Documentaries.”

Some of my posts in recent months and weeks have been sections of the chapter in Public Representations on Canadian political narratives. This post presents the conclusion to the chapter. If the public sector is to continue investing in moving-image narratives about Canadian politics, it should focus on documentaries. Let me explain how I reach this conclusion.

Moving-image texts are important because of the large and growing proportion of the population that gets cultural and historical information from moving image, rather than written word, texts. If we want Canadians to understand political institutions, culture, and history, moving-image texts are essential. They are also ideal for reaching Canada’s large communities of recent immigrants.

I begin by evaluating narrative texts with a market test. Is a text sufficiently appealing to an audience that it covers its costs? Federal grants to cultural institutions have been declining in recent years and creators of cultural products are increasingly expected to cover costs with sales or advertising revenue. And the more expensive the product, the bigger the audience necessary.

There are two subgenres of political narratives that generally haven’t met the market test, satirical television series and historical docudrama.

The CBC has produced successful satires about reality television (Schitt’s Creek) or ethnicity (Little Mosque on the Prairie, Kim’s Convenience). It has also produced successful series lampooning current-day politicians (This Hour has Twenty-Two Minutes, Royal Canadian Air Farce, Rick Mercer Report), though only the first of the three is still on air. But there is a long list of the CBC’s fictional series about life in politics that have been cancelled after, at most, a season or two. Does anyone remember Not My Department (1988), In Opposition (1989), Rideau Hall (2002), XPM (2004), Snakes and Ladders (2004), Dan for Mayor (2010-11), She’s the Mayor (2011), InSecurity (2011), or The Best Laid Plans (2013)? This is not a rhetorical question. Maybe some of my Canadian readers of a certain age do, and I hope they will send me their recollections.

In the Aughts, the CBC supported docudramas about Pierre Trudeau (first as Prime Minister, followed by a bildungsroman prequel), Rene Levesque, Tommy Douglas, and the October (FLQ) Crisis, as well as a documentary about the 1995 Quebec referendum on sovereignty-association. The first Trudeau docudrama was very successful, with an audience of 2 million, but the others were less so.

It happens that Richard Stursberg, who was appointed head of the CBC’s English language television in 2004, disparaged the docudramas bequeathed by his predecessor, and ran them at times when they would not be noticed. Stursberg’s big idea was opera buffa – comic opera about politics. He commissioned two, one about Brian Mulroney, the other about Jean Chretien. After he was fired in 2010, the CBC deep-sixed both projects. If you think I’m making this up, consult Stursberg’s 2012 book The Tower of Babble, about his experience at the CBC. The Mulroney opera was briefly shown in cinemas and is still available for rent or purchase on YouTube.

Whether one agrees with Stursberg’s pessimistic assessment or the more optimistic views of the showrunners, the big problem with political docudrama is cost. The Tommy Douglas docudrama cost $8 million and the Trudeau prequel $10 million, both for 3 hours (excluding commercials) 15 years ago. Wayne Grigsby, writer of the Trudeau docudramas puts the cost of one hour of docudrama today at $5 to $10 million.

Eliminating political satire and political docudrama as the way forward brings us to political documentary. Here are several factors that support my case for Canadian political documentary.

  1. Documentary is enjoying a global renaissance right now, with new distribution channels (Netflix, YouTube, and specialty streaming channels) in addition to broadcast television, new documentary film festivals (eleven in Canada), new production companies specializing in documentary (such as Participant Media), and growing audiences.
  2. Documentary is much less expensive to produce than docudrama or satirical television, still below $1 million for a feature film. This makes it an ideal medium for creators beginning their careers. And documentaries can succeed commercially with smaller audiences than are required for docudrama.
  3. The National Film Board of Canada has a strong tradition of supporting documentary, including political documentarists like Donald Brittain and Peter Raymont.
  4. In addition to government funding, Netflix has begun to invest in and show Canadian film, including documentary. Perhaps the other FAANGs will follow.
  5. Docudrama is usually structured as a morality tale, with a heroic protagonist and evil antagonist. As I discussed in a previous post, Canadian audiences prefer not-so-heroic politicians. Fact-based documentary is a much better medium for nuanced portrayals.
  6. There are a wide range of topics in Canadian politics and public policy that can be explored, from successful or unsuccessful individual politicians, to issues of gender and race, to policy issues.

Canadian culture and politics need more Canadian political documentary. And the conditions now are right for it to happen.


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