Sep 1, 2013

ELLE World: Meet 8 Canadian documentary filmmakers telling stories from around the world

By: Sarah Laing

Author: Elle Canada

Sep 1, 2013

ELLE World: Meet 8 Canadian documentary filmmakers telling stories from around the world

By: Sarah Laing
Prachi Trivedi in Nisha Pahuja's The World Before Her.

For Nisha Pahuja, meeting Prachi Trivedi was like falling in love. “She was simply mesmerizing,” says the Toronto- and Bombay-based filmmaker about the girl who became the protagonist of her award-winning film, The World Before Her (2012).

At the time, Trivedi was sitting in the office of a right-wing Bombay newspaper with her fellow Bajrang Dal and Durga Vahini members, young militants committed to the strictest interpretation of Hinduism, even to the point of death. “She was outspoken, charismatic, funny, irrepressible,” recalls 46-year-old Pahuja. “The men were trying to dominate her, but she simply could not be controlled.”

This bright 21-year-old eventually helped the filmmaker broker access to a never-before-filmed world: the camps where young Hindu women are trained in combat, to be ready to fight Christians, Muslims and “the West.”

“As a filmmaker, there’s an amazing moment when you find a subject and you go ‘Oh, my God, wow—I can’t believe you’re real. I couldn’t write you; you’re so extraordinary,’” says Pahuja.

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Trivedi also made the perfect juxtaposition to the other story Pahuja was weaving into her film— that of the beauty contestants in the Miss India pageant. Threaded into one narrative, these stories reveal the extremes (and complex choices) that modern Indian women face.

“The film reflects my confusion and my discovery of how enigmatic that country is,” says Pahuja, who has made two other documentaries, Bollywood Bound (2003) and Diamond Road (2007), about the Indian film industry and blood diamonds, respectively.

For Pahuja, unravelling these two contrasting narratives became an obsession, one that would consume three years of her life. “These films become about you, your quest, what you’re trying to discover and say,” she says. “Once your curiosity takes hold, you don’t let go.”

Pahuja is part of a wave of female Canadian documentary filmmakers who are bringing back incredible stories from the ends of the earth— while battling nearly insurmountable obstacles to do so. “In Canada, we have a more multicultural documentary community, which gives us access to stories in other countries we otherwise might not know about,” says Brett Hendrie, executive director of Hot Docs, a Canadian film festival that showcases documentaries from around the globe.

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Hendrie says that our filmmakers are known for selecting international topics, citing films such as China Heavyweight, directed by Yung Chang, the story of Olympic-hopeful boxers in China, and Blood Relative, directed by Nimisha Mukerji, about the health-care system in India, both released in 2012.

“I think people would be surprised by the large number of films that are by Canadian filmmakers and focus on international subjects,” says Hendrie. (This year, 14 percent of the films submitted to the festival were Canadian.)

Lisa Fitzgibbons, executive director at the Documentary Organization of Canada, a non-profit that advocates for independent documentary filmmakers, has a theory as to why we’re so good at telling global stories: “Documentary is a quintessentially Canadian form of storytelling,” she says. “We’re self-effacing; we’re an empathetic country that is comfortable with a multiplicity of viewpoints—and those are qualities that lend themselves to listening and letting someone else tell their story, whether that’s next door or around the world.” Fitzgibbons also points to our long-standing “tradition of excellence in the genre,” thanks, in large part, to the National Film Board of Canada, a unique government-funded cultural institution that has been supporting homegrown filmmaking since 1939. Hendrie also believes that female documentarians are leading the way worldwide, pointing out that the big success stories lately have been from female directors, like American Alison Klayman’s Ai Weiwei (2013), about a Chinese artist, and Brit Lucy Walker’s Waste Land (2010), an Oscar-nominated story about garbage pickers in Rio di Janeiro.

Meet a woman garnering international buzz on the film festival circuit on the next page...

Ann Shin working on The Defector.

One Canadian woman garnering serious buzz now on the international festival circuit is Toronto-based Ann Shin, whose film The Defector (2012) is about the people-smugglers who are paid to help North Koreans escape their totalitarian state. (It was a finalist for the 2013 Sheffield Innovation Award at the British Sheffield Doc/Fest.)

This film had a personal pull for the 44-year-old—her own uncle was tortured and killed during the war between North and South Korea. But it’s her Canadian identity, she says, that inspired her interest in the world. “Canada has a privileged, cosmopolitan identity, and I’m able to work from my cultural heritage yet I have the freedom of mind and intellectual curiosity that was cultivated because I grew up here,” she says.

Shin, whose background is in television production, has a catalogue of hair-raising experiences from her documentary work, such as crouching in the back of a van with defectors during a harrowing 12-hour drive along a police-patrolled highway. “It made me much more aware of their terror and the courage it must take,” she recalls. “If they’d been caught, they would have been tortured.”

During the filming of the documentary, Shin said she was both repelled and fascinated by her main character, a people-smuggler (and a defector himself) named Dragon. A charismatic man who undertook considerable risk to help her film, he was also capricious and unpredictable.

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“On the one hand, you’re a journalist and you don’t want to influence the outcome of your story. On the other hand, you’re a human being and it’s very hard to keep a distance. In fact, I didn’t.” Shin ultimately felt compelled to intervene when Dragon began intimidating the women he was helping escape, demanding payment and threatening their families. She later discovered that while the majority of defectors pay up, some do renege on payment when they reach safety.

Shin’s documentary was commissioned by Television Ontario, which allowed her access to other sources of funding, such as the Canada Media Fund. In an environment where acquiring funding for feature-length documentaries is increasingly difficult, she’s one of the lucky ones.

Traditionally, this is how you make a documentary film in Canada: You pitch your idea to a broadcaster, and a commissioning editor grants you a broadcast licence, which, if it doesn’t cover all your costs, at least “triggers” further funding from places such as the Canada Media Fund. But, increasingly, broadcasters are using a fuzzy definition of “documentary” to instead create “factual programming” (industry speak for reality TV), which is perceived as cheaper and quicker— and more likely to attract an audience. Fitzgibbons finds this frustrating. “I think people are thirsting for the content that true documentaries offer.”

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It’s a sentiment Hendrie echoes, calling the decline in funding for traditional documentaries “counterintuitive.” Hot Docs had 180,000 attendees in 2013, its highest number ever. But, Fitzgibbons says, if Canada wants to keep producing great directors who create great documentaries, then people need to change their digital-viewing habits. “The industry needs to come up to speed with the way audiences are consuming content, and the marketplace needs to develop the means to support that.”

Here’s a possible option: In 2014, the National Film Board is planning to launch what it’s billing as “the Netflix of documentaries,” a legal online subscription service that will enable filmmakers to get paid for the films people are watching (read “pirating”) anyway.

Find out the statistics on documentary filmmaking in Canada on the next page...

A still from Gabrielle Zilkha's (still in progress) documentary From the Four Corners of the Earth.

In the meantime, documentarians are looking to inventive fundraising. For example, filmmakers like Toronto’s Gabrielle Zilkha are turning to crowd-sourcing to fund their projects. In 2010, the now 29-year-old was volunteering with a women’s organization in Ghana when her mother told her that there was a “lost tribe” of Jews living there. Zilkha spent Rosh Hashanah in their village and listened as these African Jews told her about their dream of travelling to Israel. She immediately decided she had to film the story of that journey.

In December 2012, Zilkha returned to Canada, quit her job at an ad agency and, with only an acting degree and a few comedic indie shorts under her belt, set about making the documentary titled From the Four Corners of the Earth. For funding, she turned to crowd-sourcing website Kickstarter, where she raised the $15,000 she needed for an initial shoot in Ghana, which she completed in early 2013. She estimates that the total budget will be close to $300,000, which she plans to raise through grants and private investors. She hopes to complete the film in spring 2014. “There’s no excuse not to do it. If it’s just me taking an iPhone to Africa, this film is going to get made.”

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But even for the films that do get finished and go on to be “successful”— attracting audiences and critical acclaim—the payoff is rarely in dollars. Unless they’re made by Michael Moore, most docs don’t make money. Pahuja, for instance, doubts that she will get rich—or break even, for that matter—on The World Before Her, despite the film’s numerous award wins, including Best Documentary Feature at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival and Best Canadian Feature at Hot Docs 2012.

But for Pahuja, making money was never the point. After years of trying, she has finally secured a distributor for her documentary in India, despite the potential for controversy that a film about pageant girls and fundamentalist women will raise in this traditional society. “At the screening in Bombay, there was this amazing feeling in the room,” she says. “All you get there is Bollywood and bad TV, and with all the issues with women’s rights, it’s even more important to find things that speak to you on another level. It was like ‘Oh, God, we really, really need more films like this!’”


Average full-time salary in the Canadian documentary industry.

Average cost, per hour of finished film, to make a feature-length Canadian doc.

Percentage of female members of the Documentary Organization of Canada.

Less than 1
Number of films most Canadian documentary filmmakers produce per year.

Number of Canadian documentaries produced in 2011.

Source: Documentary Organization of Canada

Who are the filmmakers to watch? Find out on the next page...

WORLD-1-ec0913.jpgThe Artist: Liz Marshall on her cinematographic focus.

Marshall’s newest documentary—which sold out its premiere at Hot Docs 2013—is a little bit meta: It’s a film about a photographer. The Ghosts in Our Machine follows Canadian Jo-Anne McArthur as she documents the hidden lives of animals in our world— from fur farms in Europe to the beagles used in medical research. The film is visually arresting: In one memorable sequence, the sun-filled pastures of an animal-rescue centre are contrasted with the near-unwatchable torture of sows under the fluorescent lights of a factory farm. Marshall is a firm believer in the ability of images to communicate narrative. “I’m in love with the craft of filmmaking as much as I am with content—for me, the two go hand in hand. As much as it is about ideas, it’s about how it’s told—sound and picture and the juxtaposition of images,” she says.

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Marshall, 44, is a Toronto-based director of two feature-length docs, including
Water on the Table (2010), about the crusade to prevent the privatization of water.

The Detective: Ric Esther Bienstock on meeting the two girls that changed her career.

The journey that led Bienstock from a paid gig as a producer to a documentary passion project was unexpected. She was in a remote Chinese town shooting a series on street magic with illusionists Penn and Teller when they discovered the surprisingly comfortable hotel they were staying in was actually a brothel. Even more surprising were the two blond women they met in the basement nightclub. “They were Russian girls who thought they were coming to China to work as domestics in hotels, but their passports were taken away and they were raped and trafficked,” says Bienstock. She tried to help the girls, offering to call the police—but that wouldn’t work since the local force actually used the women’s services. This incident was the catalyst for Sex Slaves, her 2006 documentary about human trafficking—but she was never able to find or free those two Russian girls.

Bienstock, 53, is a Montreal native who now lives in Toronto. She’s the director of 18 films, among them Tales From the Organ Trade (2013), about the morally ambiguous black market in human organs.

The Fundraiser:
Tiffany Hsiung on how she “kickstarted” her first film.

To start funding for Within Every Woman, her first full-length film, Hsiung posted a trailer on Kickstarter—and raised US$56,525 in 30 days. “A campaign like this is a full-time job—you have to use social media very strategically,” says the Ryerson University film-program grad, who estimates that the film’s final budget will be close to $500,000. “It also acts like a free focus group to see how the idea resonates with people.” Hsiung stumbled on the topic of “comfort women”—the thousands of women who were forced into prostitution by the Japanese government during the Second World War—while researching another project. By talking to the survivors—many of them now grandmothers—she hopes to examine society’s complicity when it comes to abuse.

Toronto-based Hsiung, 29, is the director of several shorts, including
Binding Borders (2007), about Canadian immigrants.

The New Kid:
Elaisha Stokes on being a one-woman show.

Stokes does it all—she is producer, writer, director, shooter and editor on all of her projects. “You need a lot of intimacy with your subjects to get the kind of material I want, and too many people just create barriers,” she says. Stokes, who does freelance videography for The New York Times, is currently working on an Ontario Arts Council-funded film, Christmas in Guyana, about her relationship with Esther, the Guyanese-born nanny who helped raise her. She’s in the thick of the editing process, working through hours of footage shot more than two years ago. Stokes, as part of the documentary, spent Christmas 2011 with Esther in Guyana and appears in the film, along with lots of Super 8 footage of her childhood. “I’m finding as I edit how much this film is about what’s revealed when memory is juxtaposed against what the camera actually sees.”

Stokes, 29, divides her time between New York and Toronto. She has completed several short docs, including Red Knot: Flying on the Edge (2010), about a Canadian shorebird.

Must-see docs:

High Five: A Suburban Adoption Saga
(2013), directed by Julia Ivanova, tells the story of a B.C. couple who adopt five siblings from Ukraine. “This is a cross-cultural story that speaks to universal themes of parenthood and family,” says Hot Docs executive director Brett Hendrie. Go to to find a screening in your area.

Blood Relative (2012), directed by Nimisha Mukerji, follows two young people suffering from a rare blood disease as they fight for life in the broken Indian health-care system. “This is an important story about access to medical treatment—it’s quite a jarring story, but I think it will open a lot of people’s eyes,” says Hendrie.

How to see the docs

The National Film Board of Canada ( has selected the best films from its archives and made them available for streaming online (free!). On iTunes, Hot Docs has a curated section of films (around $6 to rent). Or, head to the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema ( a docs-only year-round venue in Toronto that shows festival favourites. Every fall, The Vancouver International Film Festival ( and the Calgary Film Festival ( also have a smorgasbord of stellar docs lined up.

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ELLE World: Meet 8 Canadian documentary filmmakers telling stories from around the world