Register Tuesday | December 10 | 2019

Life, Camera, Action

Behind the scenes of documentary filmmaking

In July 2003, Montrealers Stefan Verna and Jean-Marc Abela, as well as thirteen other cyclists, went on a thirty-five day bike ride from Vancouver to Tijuana, Mexico. Called the Deconstructing Dinner Caravan, the group biked down the West Coast, stopping in rural, urban and suburban areas to learn about the industrial food system, how it affects people, and to investigate food production alternatives. They met with farmers, politicians, and migrant workers, gave presentations and held meetings as they travelled.

“The idea was to take all these stories of all the people that we met…to the WTO and tell those people about the reality of the industrial food system,” says Verna. “We achieved that in many ways; some direct, some symbolic. The important thing is that we met people along the way who have really divorced themselves from the industrial food model. You know the famous saying, ‘another world is possible?’ Well, we saw it first-hand.”

Want to see it too? In the future you may be able to watch a two-hour documentary version of the DDC trip, put together by Verna and Abela—though their film, entitled Diversidad, has no release date just yet.

However polished when screened, the minutes or hours of a finished film hide the months or years it takes to produce one. Achieving excellence can be a tall order, because the documentary form tries to represent reality—real life is rich, and audiences expect the viewing of a packaged slice of someone else’s to be no less so. Documentaries are meant to illuminate, entertain and, in the best-case scenario, inspire. The best examples use the structural elements of the medium (sound, image and editing) to complement a cohesive narrative that leaves viewers enriched intellectually, emotionally, even spiritually.

Verna was both part of and separated from the subject he was filming. He was first invited as a filmmaker to an early DDC planning meeting, “caught the bug,” as he says, and decided to both film and participate. He borrowed a video camera, raised funds to cover the costs of the trip and the tapes, had story meetings with Abela, and conducted preliminary research before peddling away from Vancouver.

“It was a bit of a blessing and a bit of a problem at the same time,” said Verna of filming and being part of the caravan. “I think the DDC, as an entity, was a very labour-intensive project on its own…Because biking sixty miles a day, doing presentations and meetings every night that end around 10:30 or 11:00, and getting up at 6 in the morning, didn’t leave much time for us to meet and talk about the film and its direction.”

The result was holes in the narrative. After putting together a ten-minute trailer and a fifty-minute rough cut, he and Abela decided to shoot follow-up footage of some of the main subjects in order to fill those holes for the anticipated two-hour feature version.

Not all filmmakers live their documentaries, though they might occasionally let them take over their life for a while. Janet Torge, a well-known local organizer and producer, has worked on “dozens and dozens” of documentaries since the mid-nineties. Alternating between freelance work and stable company jobs, she said that, as a freelancer, she would work twelve-hour days, seven days a week for some of her projects. She is currently working on a large-scale documentary about the First World War called The Great War, for Radio-Canada and CBC, slated to air in January 2007, in time for the ninetieth anniversary of the war. “Everything is where are you going to be at what time, who is going to be there and what are you doing there,” says Torge.

Verna recalls being introduced to a man in a temporary camp who had fish drying on a line. A beautiful visual, but when Verna went back to capture the extra-industrial food system, the camp had already been dismantled.

As enriching as a documentary can be for the viewer, the unfolding process holds surprises for the filmmakers and producers as well. During one of her documentaries, Torge met someone who functioned as a high-class concierge to the world’s richest people, ensuring their houses across the world were ready to receive them when they visited. The details of managing such wealth stuck with her, as did the gracious personality of the high-class servant whom she may have never met were it not for her work.

Torge, who does a lot of work for TV, adds that her role as a producer is to give the director’s vision a working framework. She bemoans the constraints placed on a director once a project is budgeted. “Documentary films have become what everything else in our lives has become,” she says. “They are made as cheaply and as fast as possible in order to get them on the TV.”

The most creative part of the project, Torge explains, is the conceptual development:

“Once it gets financed, from then on you’re filming the budget. You take your vision and you scrunch it in here, and you take that part out because it costs too much, and don’t do that because it would take too long…until you still have the bare bones of the story but you no longer have the creative vision that you had at the beginning.

“Documentaries that people do on their credit cards? Those are totally visionary.”

Despite the time, money and aggravations, documentaries get done for the same reasons that people enjoy watching them.

“I enjoy them because they’re real, and every documentary is a discovery,” said Torge. “It’s a learning experience.”

Melissa Wheeler is getting to know Montreal's culture creators. Her column appears every two weeks. Read more columns by Melissa Wheeler.