April 7, 2011 § 2 Comments
Around this time last year, I read about the sad passing of Marcel Simard, a veteran francophone documentary filmmaker who had been producing and mentoring in Montreal for decades. His death was by suicide. This story has stuck with me over many months, even though I didn’t know much about Simard until after his passing. As far as I can tell, there was only one small article written about him in the Anglophone press, and this story has basically gone underground as life moves forward.
This is a shocking and tragic situation that we all need to be aware of. In that small article published in the Montreal Mirror, its author referred to a growing “cultural poverty” that is sweeping across Canada. I thought this expression was a poignant one. Put into the context of a cultural poverty, Simard’s death shouldn’t seem so surprising. Artists and journalists have come to depend on certain funding for their work; for documentary filmmakers (who are both artists and journalists at once) that funding has been primarily through broadcast licenses and government programs. The veterans among us have built their entire lives and livelihoods upon these funding sources. When they are taken away, the rug is pullout out from under their feet, often with tragic consequences. One friend of mine, a woman who has made over 100 documentaries over the course of her career, told me she has had to completely reinvent herself at 65 years old. “The money just isn’t there anymore,” she said.
Victoria’s Times Columnist yesterday called this situation “cruelly ironic.”
“Documentary production has dropped to its lowest level in more than six years,” the TC noted. “During that period more than 2,000 documentary production workers have been forced to leave their jobs. The industry is still reeling from the effects of declining funding from broadcasters and sources such as the former Canadian Television Fund, now the Canadian Media Fund.”
The “cruel irony” is that documentaries are enjoyed by the general public more than ever before, but they’re just not getting the funding they deserve. Unfortunately, reality television shows garner higher ratings and are more readily financed by broadcasters. Hence, I found myself watching The Real Housewives of Orange County the other night, at once recoiled and seduced by this vapid muck of cable television.
I have read about a wave of suicides by Indian farmers whose livelihoods have been desecrated by changing weather patterns and the absence of monsoons. When people’s livelihoods are swept away, we shouldn’t be surprised by any occurrence of suicide, suicide happens for precisely these reasons: Poverty, hopelessness, the collapse of an identity. In Simard’s case, it was cultural poverty.
If this sounds like some kind of whiny rant to bring back the arts funding for over-privileged (and lazy) artists, it isn’t. This is what Harper and his team would have “ordinary Canadians” believe. The arts are vital to our society, they aren’t something that can just be swept away, devalued, and undermined when the economy takes a downturn. Good journalism is the foundation of a democratic society, and everyone knows that. Documentary filmmakers are artists and we are journalists, our work isn’t just a solipsistic hobby, it is a vital component to a functioning world, where ideas are generated, where empathy is nurtured, where information is disseminated in great depth and with great insight and context.
It’s shocking that the arts in Canada are not given more attention in the political debates of late, even though there are more people employed in the arts than there are in agriculture and many other industries in this country combined.