October 26, 2020

Documentary Organization of Canada Releases Guidelines for COVID-Era Production

From 'Momento Mori.'  (Dir: Niobi Thompson, ID Productions & NFB). Photo: Philip Dransfeld.

It’s been more than nine months since the deadly movement of COVID-19 from China to North America and Europe—and nearly every other continent—utterly changed the world. Since that time, more than a million people have died. Now, most of us wear masks when we go outside and use hand sanitizers before entering shops. When we meet friends, a six-foot social distancing rule is applied by most of us. The world has, for the time being, become something else, something that some documentarians want to shoot—or, in any case, must deal with in what is, at least temporarily, a “new normal.”

While a small group of filmmakers have opted to stop making work during these perilous times, most want to continue making docs. It’s their livelihood and, for some, an opportunity to capture an extraordinary moment in time, which we all hope shall pass. For the majority, the pandemic is a huge drawback for production, one they have to deal with to continue to make docs (or for others, narrative films.)

Many questions have come up since the reality of COVID began to hit us last winter. The basic questions—should I shoot? can I shoot? how do I shoot? how do I post?—must have struck every practitioner by late March. Wanting to overcome all obstacles to making work while still being responsible to their crew and the people they’re shooting, documentary filmmakers have been struggling to make films for many months.

Creating the Guidelines

During IDA’s Getting Real conference, a Canadian team, organized through Documentary Organization of Canada (DOC), presented their guidelines: Documentary Production in the Era of COVID-19. Following an introduction by DOC Chair Ina Fichman, she turned the session over to filmmaker/teacher/writer Chanda Chevannes, DOC Executive Producer Michelle van Beusekom and filmmaker Elle-Maija Tailfeathers, who talked about how the Canadian documentary community wanted to create something commonsensical for filmmakers to do their work while remaining safe and not hurting their subjects.

Like many organizations around the world, DOC worked for many months to produce the guidelines. Written by Chevannes, who was brought on in June, the original impulse and early research began in March and April as DOC members formed a committee to examine what filmmakers needed to know in order to continue working during the pandemic. Van Beusekom and the COVID committee quickly discovered that the majority of Canada’s 10 provinces had already put together guidelines for proper behavior for nearly everything from buying groceries to shooting films.

Van Beusekom recalls, “As the health and safety guidelines were coming out, people were saying, ‘These are great, but they're also very high level.’ They were made mainly with fiction filmmaking in mind, assuming that people could shoot in more controlled circumstances on a shooting stage. For documentarians, there were a lot of questions about shooting in the real world, outdoors or in someone's home. Is that safe or not safe to do? Is there a way to make it safe? Or should you never do it? What new approaches can be taken—using more animation or archival footage? People had a lot of documentary-specific questions that the provinces’ health and safety guidelines didn't answer, and were never supposed to answer. There was a gap, and people were looking to us to respond to their questions and come up with supplementary guidance to help them think through their decision-making.”

When Chevannes was hired, DOC had already contacted many filmmakers and created a rudimentary structure for their guidelines. “Chanda’s mandate was super-clear,” says van Beusekom. “Do a scan of what's out there [in doc-making during the pandemic]. Let's understand where the gaps are [while shooting]. And then let's try to give people additional guidance to help them. Our main questions were: Should I shoot? Can I shoot? How do I shoot? And Chanda loved it.”

Chevannes approached the project with vigor and clarity. Working with a small team—Jenny Cartwright, a French-language researcher who worked mainly in Quebec, and Mary Assenza, an English-language assistant— Chevannes “read the guidelines from eight provinces and two territories. Really, I was looking for the similarities in the guidelines. And there are many similarities, which had originally worried me—I’m not sure how quickly I could have done my work if there had been big gaps between them. Based on those readings, I created a list of initial thoughts and questions when things in the provincial guidelines were unclear to me or weren’t addressed at all. The next step was creating a survey of Canadian documentary filmmakers. Jenny and Michelle helped me with writing those questions. We had 327 people who responded to the survey, which was done in both English and French. We would have been happy with 200!”

Structuring the Guidelines

Between June and September is a very short time. Chevannes and her team, buttressed with advice and practical help by key members of DOC—van Beusekom, Ina Fichman, filmmaker Barri Cohen and others—created a document that is particularly fine because of its pellucid nature and easily designed accessibility. Broken into six chapters—“Should I Shoot?”; “Can I Shoot?”; “How Do I Shoot?”; “How Do I Travel?”; “How Do I Post and Case Studies?”—every section is organized in a linear manner. Take “How Do I Shoot?”: It is subdivided into the following: “Understand Your Provincial/Territorial Film and Television Guidelines”; “Conduct a Risk Assessment”; Create a Production Health and Safety Plan”; “Include the Essential Production Protocols”; “Consider the Additional Production Protocols”; “Consider Situation-Specific Best Practices”; “Deal with Sticky Situations”; and “Consider Alternative Approaches.”

If documentary filmmakers on a shoot were confronted with any of these situations, they could go straight to this chapter and find the relevant section immediately. In clear prose, everything is laid out. The guidelines delve into deep waters when dealing with the issue of risk assessment. Especially in these times of COVID, it’s hard to identify every hazard a crew or the subjects being filmed might be encountering during a working day. Yet, as Chevannes has rightly insisted in the guidelines and in interviews (including for this article), it is the documentarian’s responsibility to properly assess the situation. To quote from the document, “The doc filmmaker has to confront these questions: What type of location is this (e.g., private home, public interior space, an environment with potentially vulnerable individuals)? What are the physical attributes of this location (e.g., size of space, ventilation, access to restrooms, access to shade/rain cover if outdoors, high-touch and high-traffic areas)? Who will be present in this location (e.g., crew, participants, participants’ family and friends, members of the public)? What style of shooting will we be doing in this location (e.g., interview, b-roll, vérité)?”

What we can see is that this drill-down technique is right and responsible and, interestingly enough, requires the kind of cogitation that a documentary filmmaker employs when figuring out how to make a doc. The next part of “How Do I Shoot?” deals with health and safety plans. It turned up something shocking in a DOC survey: 25% of documentary crews have been working without a health and safety plan since COVID. The guidelines offer examples of proper plans that have been developed in Canada’s two highest-producing provinces, Quebec and Ontario. Essential production protocols emphasize a safety-first approach for the crew and an informed consent approach for subjects. Social distancing and the wearing of masks must come into play. After many more situations and protocols are considered in two more sections—including shooting everywhere from big event spaces to private homes—the chapter concludes with a major subject: sticky situations.

Ethics are at the core of many major documentaries, including films by Barbara Kopple (Harlan County USA), Frederick Wiseman (Titicut Follies), Laura Poitras (Citizenfour) and even Michael Moore (Roger and Me). Sticky situations while shooting during COVID are just as firmly an issue of ethics. “Every time we come in contact with someone, every time we're in their space, we're increasing our risk,” says Chevannes. “We have to understand what that means as filmmakers and be willing to have those conversations with our subjects.

Chevannes continues, “One thing that I heard time and time again was filmmakers saying, ‘Well, I've talked to my crew, and they're all comfortable with it, and I talked to my subjects, and they're all comfortable with it. So we're going to do it.’ Whatever ‘it’ is. I think we get into this habit of thinking that however I'm choosing to live at this moment in time is how other people are choosing to live. And it might not always be the case. So, understanding that every interaction increases risks and really communicating that to your subjects and your crews is important.”

It's hard, Chevannes points out, for filmmakers not to persuade their subjects and crews to buy into their project, whatever the risks. But she provides options from entering people’s homes and shooting them in situ. “Some subjects are filming themselves and approximately 30 percent are doing remote interviews. We have to adapt filmmaking in all kinds of ways.”

Case Study: Elle-Maija Tailfeathers and Filmmaking with Indigenous Communities

In DOC’s presentation at Getting Real, the centerpiece was Chevannes’ interview with Indigenous filmmaker Elle-Maija Tailfeathers, of Blackfoot/Kainai (North American) and Sami (Norwegian) origins, who now works in the Canadian Prairies and British Columbia. She had been filming with her mother, the only local doctor, as a major subject in a documentary on opioid addiction and harm reduction in her Blood Reserve in Southern Alberta when COVID hit the region. “It’s so important to be cognizant of how vulnerable First Nations communities are,” Tailfeathers stressed. “My uncle passed away from COVID. He was the first person on a First Nation in Alberta to pass away. He contracted COVID from an asymptomatic individual who came into his home. My uncle got sick and passed away within a week and a half. So I think it’s really important for anybody who’s coming into a First Nations community to be incredibly cognizant of the fact that there is multigenerational housing, sometimes overcrowded housing, and a lot of people with complicated health issues.”

Tailfeathers continued to make her doc despite her devastating loss. She eschewed her previous intimate technique for the final shoot. After consulting with her National Film Board co-producer David Christensen, Tailfeathers came up with a strategy, which could provide safety for her crew (half Indigenous) and subjects. “What we settled on was kind of a hybrid,” she explained. “My DP from Calgary came down. We only shot outdoor landscape pickups with him, so he didn’t have to engage with any members of the community. When it came to actively filming documentary participants, I operated the camera.” There were many technical problems with the sound, inevitable while shooting outdoors. But the pickups were shot and the film is in post.

Tailfeather’s story leads to an inevitable question: Are films made or completed during COVID as fully realized aesthetically as the director might have wished? “There are definitely some technical problems,” admits Chevannes, “but I feel that we can overlook those because we're still able to go with the subject even when there’s only one filmmaker [and no DP or sound technician] in a room. Personally, I'm less concerned about some kind of trade-off with production values. But I do know that some filmmakers have very different opinions than me.”

We are living in the most difficult circumstances that the world has been in since World War Two. How will we survive? Documentarians can’t provide all of the answers, but they are essential workers making films that are relevant now, and will be in the future. The guidelines created by DOC, though Canadian, may provide help to documentarians in the United States and elsewhere; they are certainly practical and clearly phrased.


Marc Glassman is the editor of the Canadian documentary magazine POV and an adjunct professor in the Documentary Media program at Ryerson University. He reviews films every week for the Toronto radio station Classical 96.3FM and is the artistic director of the literary event program Pages UnBound.

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