by Margaret Cooper
Cut, no. 28, April 1983, pp. 37-40
Margaret Cooper (MC): When you compare DEC Films to most independent distributors, your beginnings seem exceptional. Film acquisition certainly wasn't your primary concern, was it?
Jonathan Forbes (JF): Hardly. As a resource collective, DEC had been surveying books and pamphlets and doing research on Canada's relationship with Third World countries. In 1974, no Canadian film distributors handled the kind of Third World materials we needed. For our work, we had to import Third World films from the United States. We not only had difficulty getting these films up but faced prohibitive shipping and customs costs. To have films at our disposal, we were actually forced into becoming distributors.
Ferne Cristall (FC): DEC Films started out with a small grant for Third World films from the Canadian International Development Agency, which had money to do educational work on developing nations. After that initial seed money, we became self-supporting. We don't, can't, rely on grants for funding.
MC: Even commercial distributors who are free of U.S. affiliation have a rough time in Canada. How has it been possible for you to keep going for seven years?
JF: The Centre had already developed a network with its educational work and distributing printed material. We also filled a real need for films since universities and political or community groups were tired of having to go to the U.S. for them. We started our collection slowly and developed it film by film. For every film we got, we mapped out where it could be used and how we would distribute it.
MC: Who were your users at the outset?
Glenn Richards (GR): Basically the same as now, with a division between institutions and community groups. We can distribute regularly in institutions because certain sectors in schools and universities, for example, have a continuing interest in such films. Outside this area, people often use films for educational work in a particular community, or for different kinds of public screenings. In DEC Films' early years, some public screenings first interested people in our collection. The Toronto Committee for the Liberation of Southern Africa organized one major series providing us with a local base at the University of Toronto in 1975. They showed many of our films for the first time here and word spread that we had films. In a sense, the network built on itself.
JF: The network also developed beyond Toronto as we did teacher workshops in northern Ontario mostly at the high school level but also for some community colleges. We'd have, for example, a two-day workshop for our films and written materials. We'd also provide a speaker and show the teachers the available resources. Toronto seemed to us well served by different groups; nobody ever went to the smaller cities in the north. These places had no contact with a resource center, so we'd go up, help develop curriculum and show our films. Also teachers would invite outside community people to evening screenings.
FC: Our distribution grew with a strong educational orientation — which it still has.
MC: But you're more focused than other educational distributors. And you do outreach work which actively responds to the needs of different communities and groups.
GR: Right. We contact community groups and trade unions as a regular part of our workshops and trips outside Toronto. Sometimes we hook up with community activists for a trip. A few years ago, a collective member and a person who worked with Native Canadians went across the country with a car and a projector, stopping in small communities for screenings. They encouraged people to use our material and showed how the material could be used. This was something unfamiliar to a lot of people who had seen only people going to cinemas or high school classes showing films. To use a film differently in a community setting seemed unusual, in the mid70s in many parts of Canada.
That process is still going on but since then there have been some marked changes. Now community groups from all over use our films fairly regularly., Furthermore, they used to look for something to suit a specific interest. Now they draw from other subject areas which raise social and cultural questions we'd like to see presented in a clearer context. People are still learning how to use the material, but with broadened choices.
MC: To what extent have you influenced their receptivity to a broader selection of films?
JF: A lot. And out of necessity, because there's still not enough film material specific to Canada. We draw analogies between a group's particular situation and the materials we have.
MC: For example, you'd encourage a women's caucus from a particular Canadian union to use ROSIE THE RIVETER or BABIES AND BANNERS for historical examinations of-women's role in the work force.
GR: Yes. Or someone interested in a particular industry — let's say, potash in Saskatchewan — might not find anything available on the subject but could use CONTROLLING INTEREST, which explores international and domestic relations in a major industry and shows how large companies control huge markets and offer workers low wages.
FC: A good speaker in the right setting can draw specific connections for Canadian users. Our role as distributors then makes us facilitators as well.
MC: How do you decide which films to pick up, especially the foreign films in your collection?
JF: We argue a lot. Every time a film comes in, we argue on the basis of its usefulness and cost. We're still too marginal to be able to spend much money.
BR: Some films take precedence because of need or the subject's accessibility. Years ago we picked up the Swedish film TUPAMAROS partly to combat local press reports about Tupamaros as bloodthirsty terrorists. Yet sometime later we didn't take a film on East Timor, even though the Canadian media also distorted that liberation struggle. The film was just of too poor quality, not very informative, and with only a limited application. Taking on that kind of film would have been a luxury.
FC: When we acquire films, content plays a prime role. But we want creatively made films, which say something about issues through their form. But we have to make choices on the basis of available money.
BR: On the one hand, we have a definite need to do something; on the other hand, we know our financial responsibilities and liabilities. If the two are incompatible, we could not do the things we really need to and would do a disservice to the people we're trying to support — whether they're involved in liberation struggles abroad or whether they're doing things here.
FC: We place a priority on producer reports and sending money back to producers. Most of our contract agreements stipulate producers receive 50% of net income. That was a political choice for us. Just as we're distributors working in adverse conditions, so are most of the filmmakers we work with, or who use us as their Canadian distributor. We know they need some income to continue doing what they're doing. So we keep our other costs down. Salaries — we all draw the same — stay pretty low, and we do our catalogues as economically as possible.
CR: This small collective, twelve people, operates on many levels, all collectively, and cannot do what other people have to do, such as form support groups for liberation struggles. We are out to make the most of resources which can raise consciousness.
JF: For example, we've started working with INCINE in Nicaragua and Comu-Nica in New York to do English versions of some Nicaraguan newsreels and documentaries.
MC: So you acquire films to fill already existing needs?
BR: Also to move into areas which the groups and communities we service have not fully explored, such as cultural questions. Over the past two years, we've been getting films in this area, such as the West German film, JOHN HEARTFIELD — PHOTOMONTAGIST.
FC: HEARTFIELD represented a conscious decision to break into new territory.
BR: As we tried to define areas in which to expand, we felt a need to deal with the cultural aspect of people's lives concretely. A film like HEARTFIELD counters the Hitler nostalgia vogue with little known information about an antifascist artist and his work, and at the same time explores the process of his art. Since getting HEARTFIELD, we've moved into features like NORTHERN LIGHTS and WOBBLIES, and culturally based shorts which deal with social and political problems, like DREAD BEAT AN' BLOOD, the British film about Linton Kwesi Johnson.
MC: Has the "expanded territory" changed your user situation? Certainly the films you've just mentioned can work in a variety of settings for different purposes. I can easily see DREAD BEAT used with reggae features.
EC: We've had an increase in public screenings, with libraries, film societies, even museums making more use of our films.
MC: This probably has some connection with an interest in the independent feature and feature documentary movement. As part of a collective, you have to consider DEC as a whole in your decisions — such as moving into feature or cultural subjects. How does the entire collective participate in the film section's activities?
JF: Obviously other DEC members use the films, quite often in educationals. That's the most direct contact.
BR: Also people from the rest of the collective sit on the acquisitions committee to select films.
FC: That's a working committee, not just for decision-making.
BR: It tries to call in as many people as possible to test reactions to a film we're thinking of picking up, including people outside the collective who have an interest in the film's subject. For a film about Jamaica, let's say, we'll invite people from Toronto's Jamaican community as well as knowledgeable non-Jamaicans to a screening to discuss that film's potential use.
JF: We also get tips about films as people in the extended collective as well as people outside DEC come across something they think would be appropriate for us.
BR: Once a week we all meet to discuss what we're doing on a day-to-day and long-term basis, so there's a dynamic relationship with the entire collective. To some extent the collective's activities are integrated; to some extent they're separate. All the administrative work with the film collection — cleaning, shipping, booking, accounting — that's our responsibility. But everybody has the responsibility to do the Centre's work. Each of us spends a week doing front desk, answering the phone, and opening mail. If one of us goes to another province, that person will check out radio stations to see if any of our books interest people there. There's a give and take all the way. With the films, the collective takes a serious look at what we propose and then participates in the general discussion.
MC: You distribute many films which are not available elsewhere in Canada. Do you try to make sure that people don't book films and then use them in ways that are diametrically opposed to your goals and the purpose of the films?
BR: In one case, a military institute wanted to book a Latin American film. Obviously, we did not give it to them. The thing is, we're trying to provide a certain kind of education but we cannot maintain total control over it. What if someone buys a print, let's say, of THE TRIPLE A, the anti-junta film about the effects of the '76 coup in Argentina, and uses it as an example of leftist propaganda film?
MC: Or if some local white racists try to show DREAD BEAT to warn against Toronto Blacks.
FC: I think misuse like that rarely happens. Remember we know our network, and we're talking about a pretty small market within a small population. Canada is geographically huge, but there are only about 17 million English-speaking Canadians.
BR: With some of the recent acquisitions, of course, there's less danger of misuse. Also films like ROSIE THE RIVETER or HEARTFIELD speak for themselves. You can disagree with what they say but you can't dismiss them. Users will have different approaches to our material but I can't overemphasize the fact that we don't have films you can eat. You can try, but they'll give you indigestion.
MC: I know that you encourage open, active screenings for your films whenever possible. Do you also encourage an active demystification of film and filmmaking in these situations?
FC: We've considered it an important role to teach some of our users film technology — even at the most primitive level, such as how to handle a print or what to do when the film breaks. In some cases, with community groups we've been able to get into what makes a particular film work and how it does what it does.
BR: We have different backgrounds in relation to film. I got interested in film and filmmaking as an art student before I became involved in politics. For Jonathan and Ferne, it was the reverse: they were politicized first. We've grown to put the two together — to put filmmakers in touch with the people who use their films and vice versa; to present a film and discuss what is in the film and how such a film is made. You know, the whole thing: what the filmmaker wanted to do, what happened to the film afterwards, or how to creatively present ideas through certain forms. For example, in Film Forums we helped sponsor in Toronto in 1975, we started out with local filmmakers and invited them to participate in discussions with the audience. The next year, when we had access to some Chilean films for a weekend festival which took place at a downtown repertory house, the Lumière, we got Chileans who'd been involved with film work to take part in the discussions. At that time we were part of a network which Andre Paquet had helped set up from Montreal with tours for foreign filmmakers from Third World countries. So we managed to work with films not yet in Canadian distribution.
MC: Since the mid-70s Toronto seems to have had a consistently good audience for public screenings of Latin American films — mainly because of the impact of Latin American refugees on the city's activists and its politicized left. I know that the same hasn't been true for domestic-issue films, such as films about organized labor and Canadian workers. Was this the case with your Forums involving labor films?
JF: Yes. The programs oriented toward unions and working people were the least well attended.
FC: Also when our film section started in 1974 and began these forums we were pretty inexperienced in our contacts with unions. Only a few years later, after we'd really developed our collection of films on labor and work, did unions begin using our films and become aware of the extent of our resources. Trying to do educationals within the context of organized labor has also helped us increase union access.
JF: It's taken time to build this part of our network. Much of the labor movement in English-speaking Canada has been tied to the New Democratic Party (a minority opposition party with a moderate Social Democrat orientation), and we're not affiliated with the MOP or with any party. Unions mistrusted us at the beginning because we couldn't be placed. We weren't affiliated but an independent group.
MC: Some of your films also critique business union practices and U.S. domination of Canadian industrial unions, so I don't suppose they go over too well in certain sectors of organized labor. But as a trade unionist I can certainly see a real need for some of these films among the indigenous Canadian unions as well as among the reform groups in other unions.
FC: That kind of interest is really picking up now and should become stronger as we develop this part of our collection.
MC: How easy is it for you to get the films you want?
JF: Ten years ago, compared to Europe, Canada was quite wealthy, although not now. People still assume there's lots of money here. We have to explain that we have a small market scattered across an immense area, and for most of the films, shipping charges use up almost half the rental. We do try to develop a good relation with our filmmakers. They then can tell other filmmakers that we've done well by them over the years but that we can't pay a lot for films.
BR: In theory, we understand that filmmakers want to maximize the potential of their films and push internationally for non-exclusive distribution contracts. But Canadian audiences can't always support more than one distributor for progressive left films. If you diversify the market too much, you create fragmentation which prevents Canadian distributors from making a go of it. So we have to get the Canadian distributor's side of the story out for our contracts on foreign films.
MC: I think your point's well taken but I also believe that Canadians can support more than one distributor for films which have a wide circulation. Especially if a distributor has only a few prints of these films and print damage from extensive use may result in the shelving of some prints. Between here and the west coast, there should be room for two distributors for some films, don't you think?
JF: Actually, that's already happened. Idera, in British Columbia has decided that to be a viable film distributor, they have to be able to distribute outside their province. They have agreed to raise their rates to give a fair return to the filmmaker, and now we're looking at getting joint exclusive with them on distributing a number of films across Canada.
FC: A few films we're getting now have contracts saying, "Exclusive joint distribution with Idera if interested."
MC: Will you be splitting up geographic areas?
JF: No, the distribution is open at this point. At first we thought there was room for only one distributor, right? And now we know there's room for two. Since other people in the Western provinces are beginning to consider being distributors, we have to consider the problem of whether we're going to have one distributor in the West or whether there's going to be regional distribution.
FC: Another problem is setting English-language films. Arrangements with U.S. and British and Australian distributors take time. It's also tough to initiate acquisitions when we find a file we'd like to have which isn't in an English-language version.
GR: In getting films through the United States, you're also talking about a lot of Third World films. The U.S. distributors have internegatives which we can draw on, whereas in Europe you have to buy into an interneg. So there it costs maybe twice as much to start — and the cost is prohibitive.
MC: Outside of print sales to schools and public libraries, you don't have access to some of the sales areas that would help expand the audience for your films while also bringing in money. English-language TV, for example, sees itself well served by government-produced films — whether it's a case of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation airing its own productions or airing work acquired from the National Film Board.
FC: The NFB, that sacred cow, is well respected in many countries because it subsidizes filmmakers. But the NFB has a strong bias. And it creates serious problems for independents and totally cuts out people trying to work like us. The NFB sells its films for the cost required to make the print, so people rent or buy NFB films because of the low rates. Some libraries even have to buy a certain number of NFB films to meet a quota.
GR: In some areas the library system and the NFB distribution system are one and the same.
JF: People phone up and say, "Why should I pay $50 to rent such-and-such film when I can get one just like it for free from the Film Board?"
GR: Only it isn't "just like it." Distinctions become blurred because of people's financial concerns. A school board can acquire fifty films from the NFB for the same price that they can get twenty from us, so they expand their collection from the Film Board, a state-run monopoly.
JF: Young filmmakers become co-opted as they go to the Board for steady work. Nine out of ten films they'll make at the Board are made specifically for government agencies or private corporations, which subsidize the NFB budget. To top it all off, the NFB has a ready-made distribution network, with offices abroad, which can carry on circulation of the films.
FC: The NFB does subsidize same filmmakers doing independent work, but the percentage is extremely small.
MC: What about the reputation built up by the now defunct Challenge for Change program? That was supposed to bring filmmaking to the people.
GR: Its "radically innovative approach" duplicated early work done in the Soviet Union with the Kino train. And in reality it addressed itself largely to middle class concerns, even though it sometimes dealt with isolated examples of working class individuals or people on welfare. It went, for example, to small towns and showed that people had no sewer system. Middle class people got together, made a videotape and pressured a government agency so that the town got a sewer system. But Challenge for Change wouldn't deal with the social reality of issues like massive unemployment in the Maritimes.
JF: The NFB won't even do a historical film like UNION MAIDS, which is analytical and critical and open-ended. It never will, but it will keep the people who would busy with other projects.
FC: And it gets those people attuned to a serious style of social, documentary, a style that pervades English-language production at the Board even in the best films. The English productions travel most. The French section has a very different history. It quite often does rather different work, so it doesn't really figure in here.
GR: The NFB's good films have been done despite the Film Board, which even at the start had a social democratic position on the working class. It allied itself completely with whatever government happened to be in power in this country.
To get back to Challenge for Change, look at THINGS I CANNOT CHANGE, one of the earliest films in the program, about a Montreal welfare recipient who couldn't make ends meet. When the film was shown abroad, foreign audiences thought it was wonderful that a state-run film institution would make a film about poverty. In fact, when you use the film in a Canadian context, all you create is a sense of pessimism.
We don't have a real solution but we know that for a long time the NFB has been taking Canadian filmmakers who might be making the kind of films we can distribute — films on the order of some of the recent documentaries made by independents in the States — and turning them into uncritical creators of seamless films.
MC: You've just brought up a most pressing issue for Canadian distributors: developing an independent film tradition with a progressive orientation in English-speaking Canada.
GR: It has something to do with the state of the Canadian left. The fact that social democracy is stronger here than, let's say, in the United States actually creates more problems for us than it solves.
MC: We have a national tendency to breed "grant junkies." People outside the country, especially in the United States where government funding at the federal and state levels came in only recently and is now on its way out, look North and think things are wonderful here because we have federal grants for independent filmmakers through the Canada Council and we have arts council grants in each province. Sure, they're a big help, even if there's less money now than there was a few years ago. But they can also work to our disadvantage. Some people, filmmakers with a good sense of film form, spend more time on grant applications than on films. Others draw a complete blank at the prospect of facing some other way to finance their work. Ultimately, it breeds a kind of "grant-itis" which isn't always compatible with promoting social change.
JF: We're not sustained by grants, and few of the Canadians whose films we distribute have been able to depend on them exclusively.
MC: As "mavericks," how do you view your role in helping to promote or develop independent left filmmaking? Do you think that money could be generated independently for the kind of films we've been talking about?
FC: That depends. If you decide, for example, to make a film on work, it's not likely that a union will offer support unless you make the film for a union. At least, not in the same way that U.S. independents have managed to get union money for some of their films.
JF: What about A WIVE'S TALE?
FC: One of the most interesting things about the film was the way in which organized labor, women's groups and individuals across the country worked together to help its production.
MC: What A WIVE'S TALE had going for it from the start, I think, was a subject which touched a lot of people. The 1978 INCO strike was one of the most important labor struggles in recent history and it raised issues which became well known across the country.
JF: That's why we made it one of our projects and spent time working with the filmmakers to reach different community groups and individuals to fund the film
FC: Now we're trying to help with international distribution.
MC: Here's a demonstration of active collaboration between distributors and filmmakers to promote what needs to be done.
FC: We've wanted to do that, and A WIVE'S TALE gave us the opportunity. Obviously we'd get involved. We'd already been involved with the Sudbury community where the strike took place. DEC published a book written by a collective member, about INCO's involvement in Sudbury called The Big Nickle. DEC also helped produce a videotape about Sudbury and the strike, called WINDING DOWN, and had done workshops on the strike. We knew the filmmakers. It seemed a logical extension to help with the film.
BR: It's also very close to our hearts at DEC because it challenges fixed notions on the left and in the trade unions from a socialist-feminist perspective.
FC: To promote the film in Toronto promotion meant arranging for one of the filmmakers to came and work with us at a salary to do the premiere showings here. We also involved local women's organizations who'd supported the making of the film to get them to incorporate the film in their work.
CR: A WIVES TALE gave us our first taste of a different kind of public exhibition. It also provided insight into new ways to promote our films and involve community groups in public exhibition. The people who run a downtown cinema made their theatre available for four screenings over a two-week period. The first week the film played to pretty skimpy audiences. But by the second week, people lined up outside the theatre. We now feel confident that more of our films can have the same effect if we actively involve our audience.
MC: Without the Festival cinema, which has a central location and is one of the few independently owned theatres in town, I don't think you'd have done as well.
JF: Having access to a screen and getting good projection in a theatre space for public exhibition present real problems for us.
MC: You mean on an ongoing basis. A theatre like the Festival can't really afford, to depart too much from regular art house programming because after all, it's caught up in its own struggle bucking U.S. chains and block bookings of U.S. products.
BR: Ideally we'd like a community cultural center.
FC: That's how we envision DEC in the future. We have a library, a bookstore and videotape facilities. Having a small cinema nearby or on the premises would be a natural development.
BR: Especially since we're planning to do more public screening on the order of what we started last winter with our "Reel to Real" series.
JF: That grew out of our experience with A WIVE'S TALE.
FC: When we started thinking of "Reel to Real" as a new cinema of solidarity project, we thought it would be exciting. We chose the films from new acquisitions, things we felt deserved theatrical presentation, and approached the same cinema we'd used for A WIVES TALE about renting the theatre for ten Sunday afternoons. Then we went to groups whom we thought would have specific interests in the films: an alternative cultural magazine, a left community newspaper, a Native Canadian school, the International Women's Day Committee, an inner city Black activist band and a research group which publishes material on Latin America. All of the groups became really keen on the project. We met regularly to plan the series and then promoted it collectively and individually. DEC did a newsprint flyer for the entire series and each group did a separate flyer for its program, with probably 15,000 promotional flyers circulating around Toronto as drop-offs and mailings.
OR: A good example would be the BLACKS BRITANNICA and DREAD BEAT AN' BLOOD screening. It was a mixed media presentation because the sponsoring group, the Guyap Rhythm Drummers, performed as well. Then the Guyap talked about the problems presently facing Toronto's Black and West Indian communities.
JF: As a cultural event, it had a real political focus. The films deal with the oppression of Blacks in Britain, and the Drummers had recently been harassed and raided by the city police.
FC: There were other developments from our work with the Guyap which had positive results. The two publications which sponsored other screenings in the series came into contact with the Drummers at one of our planning sessions. They eventually did feature stories on their problems with the police.
MC: So the series brought together some common interest groups who may have been previously working in isolation from each other.
GR: And it developed more community contacts for us. The spin-off is the number of people who' have seen the films in the cinema setting and then have gone on to use some of the films themselves in other public settings. Other groups who don't have financial resources are starting to pressure public libraries to purchase prints from us. That would mean that free library prints will be accessible to people we can't serve because we have to charge rentals.
MC: What about the economics of "Reel to Real"? Did the series pay for itself?
FC: The theatre rental and fees for house manager and projectionist came to $300 each Sunday. One half of that amount came off the top of the gate. From what remained, 50% went to the sponsoring group. With the rest DEC paid its own film rentals, the other half of the cinema rental, and the production of the series flyer.
MC: Did the series break even?
OR: Not completely, if you consider that we eventually lost about $340. The sponsoring groups did pretty well, however, when you consider they didn't have any cash outlay.
MC: What about your own labor? How did that figure in?
FC: We put a hell of a lot of time and energy into "Reel to Real" and didn't get any financial return on it. So in a sense, none of our labor costs were covered. And the amount of time we put into the series did make our other distribution work suffer. During the winter, for example, we received a number of new films which we weren't able to promote as well as we'd have wanted.
GR: The problem with "Reel to Real" was the same problem which has often come up with similar short-term projects. 't was difficult to get a coordinating committee to carry out the work we could do because of our experience. For one thing, the sponsoring groups did not usually work full-time as groups, and their members had outside jobs. Or else the groups formed volunteer ad hoc committees. It was right for us as the facilitators to do what we did. But financially, over a four-month period the additional workload became a real burden.
MC: When you do this kind of program again, will you consider getting paid for your labor?
OR: Yes. Now that something like "Reel to Real" has shown it can work, sponsoring organizations may be willing to share the finances. As it was, some, of the groups involved had absolutely no money. They were uneasy about raising, let's say, $150, for the whole thing might go bust and nobody come. None of us knew what was going to happen.
JF: Remember, we conceived "Reel to Real" and started organizing it not more than eight weeks before the series started.
MC: Are there other lessons from "Reel to Real"?
JF: Well, we got a heavy dose of the anxieties which plague people who program regular public screenings, especially over equipment breakdowns.
OR: The more sparsely attended screenings showed which groups presently do not have a broad community base.
MC: We were talking earlier about ways of promoting critical left tradition in Canadian independent film. To my way of thinking, "Reel to Real" was a good way of getting film users to support the screenings and the films in a fairly creative way. That kind of support should encourage filmmakers here in their work.
OR: There was a much tighter integration of users, distributors and, in the case of some of the locally produced films like, DENE NATION or FOR TWENTY CENTS A DAY, the filmmakers themselves. It may even have implications for some institutional film users across the country whose financial resources are starting to dry up. Maybe they should consider going directly to the people who want to see films.
JF: DEC wants to work with people across the country who can get communities to support these films in public exhibition. When that's at the integrated level as in "Reel to Real," audience response can't help but encourage more filmmaking activity.
FC: Especially if filmmakers build into this network, like the people who made A WIVE'S TALE. Actually, for DEC, this really just means a new twist on what we started out doing years ago. Our collection has grown, our users have increased and diversified, and we've gone through a number of changes. It's a process that's ongoing, but with a basic consistency as to what we do and how we do it. It will be exciting to see what happens next.