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In Conversation with Director, Producer, AMAR WALA

In the lead up to celebrating the sixth edition of the DOC Institute Honours, we profiled the 2018 recipients selected by DOC members and a jury of industry professionals. This week, we are featuring an interview with the recipient of the 2018 DOC Vanguard Award, Amar Wala. (This interview was first published on the members newsletter  on August 20, 2019.)

DOC INSTITUTE (DI):You made an impact with the speech that you gave during the 2018 Honors Awards and then went on to put action behind that sentiment by launching a shadowing program for BIPOC directors  on  the CBC documentary series “In the Making”. Tell me how the program has been going, and what has it been like working with Sherien Barsoum and Isa Benn. 

AMAR WALA (AW):  It’s been amazing working with Sherien and Isa. I realized that this is something they can do. They have the skillset and have the capacity to make work and this program confirmed it. But the program will only be successful if we can get them work. I’m not in a position to do that, but whether the industry sees the fruits of the labour of this program and actually brings them in to use their talent is a matter of time.

DI: Have you seen anything recently that inspired you or made you think, “right, this is why I do what I do?”  

AW: A couple months ago I saw “HALE COUNTY, THIS MORNING THIS EVENING” and I thought, oh yeah, this is what documentary film can be if it’s aesthetically unencumbered. If we allow filmmaker creativity and authorship into the form a little bit more. It made me lament what is possible with documentary form and how far away we are from it in Canada–we don’t really fund films like that. But also knowing how close it is…we have the talent and the stories to make work at that level, it just feels like it’s a world away.

I saw the amount of story and emotion that can come across from strictly observational filmmaking and what the form is capable of doing in terms of creating connection, creating empathy, creating emotion by simply standing back, composing beautiful frames, and emersing yourself in the action and environment that’s happening around you. That kind of filmmaking is hard to pull off but really rewarding when it does. And it was a reminder that this is the level of work we should be striving for.

I’ve been seeing a lot of courageous work come from indigenous filmmakers. I think of Tasha Hubbard’s WE WILL STAND UP. Seeing that CBC and the National Film Board were part of a powerful film that did not try to play the “both sides” game, and spoke directly to the racism that still exists and the very clear and present danger that indigenous youth face on a daily basis– I was encouraged by that. I feel like a few years ago, that film wouldn’t have been possible…or at least that version of the film in its unflinching way, probably wouldn’t have been possible. The fact that it was made with CBC and Film Board money is really encouraging to me and I hope that they they see the value and the impact that film had and realize they, along with other broadcasters need to stop being afraid of these stories.


DI: Do you still have time for passion projects and if so, what are you working on these days that are out of a creative curiosity? 

AW: All of my projects, even the paid work, has been stuff that I’m actually passionate about. I’ve been lucky to get offered work that is actually interesting to me. “IN THE MAKING” is probably the most interesting documentary series that I’ve ever worked on and it’s so different from anything else that’s being made in this country. It’s very satisfying creatively, intellectually, politically.

DI: What’s the value of working in community – whether within the “DOC” community or your own curated community?

AW: I don’t feel like I’m working in community enough of the time. I don’t feel like the community is together enough. I feel most part of a community at HOT DOCS or various other tent pole events throughout the year, but most of the year, the process of filmmaking and documentary filmmaking is an isolating one. So the value of working in community is that a lot of us have the same shared experiences and we realize that what we’re growing through emotionally and physically as we try to make work is not unique to us. Other people are sharing the same experiences and joys and allows you to share the burden of this work.

DI: What would you say are some common challenges you see filmmakers facing? What’s your response to these observations?

AW: The biggest fracture I see exists between the people connected to the communities’ power structures and the people who aren’t. So that means the people connected to broadcasters, funders, and have been around long enough and well situated to get their work made regularly.

While there is a desire on the funders from racialized communities, to have more indigenous stories, to have more stories from people of colour, the people who are seeing the primary benefit are still the same legacy companies that make the majority of documentaries in this country. There are only a few companies that have the possibility of managing the business affairs of making these films.

What really needs to change is that we need to build infrastructure and support so that filmmakers and producers and companies that are owned and run by POC can maintain the ownership of these projects and see the financial benefit of producing these projects themselves. If anything needs to change it’s who has power. So not just who’s sitting at the table, but who has power.

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The BMO-DOC Vanguard Award is given to an emerging or mid-career professional filmmaker, who demonstrates a keen artistic sensibility and forward thinking approach to the craft, with the potential to lead the next generation of doc-makers.

Both members and non-members are eligible to be nominated, but only current DOC members can submit nominations. Nominations must be submitted before Friday, September 13, 2019. To submit your nomination for the DOC Institute Honours click here.