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POV Point Of View
Issue No. 46/47 Fall 2002
"Crisis, what crisis? Indie filmmaking on the brink"

by Mary Ellen Davis



"A powerful piece. Very moving, beautifully shot, and indeed haunting. But not for our TV program."

A TV Commissioning Editor


To break or not to break the silence over genocide in Guatemala.



Two paths cross on a descent into Guatemala's past: that of Mateo Pablo, a Maya survivor of one of many massacres committed by local state troops, and that of Daniel Hernandez-Salazar, a concerned Guatemalan artist and photographer. Together they travel to a remote site in the highlands where the community of Petanac once stood. The bones found there by archaeologists tell a mute story of agony.


Illustration: Poster for Haunted Land

Below, Mateo Pablo, and above, the Angel from Guatemala: Nunca Mas , a landmark human rights report published in 1998. The research project's director, Bishop Juan Gerardi, was assassinated two days after the report's release. The angel became an emblem for 'breaking the silence'. Both stills are by Daniel Hernandez-Salazar.

Close up:

on Mary Ellen Davis, filmmaker.


To write about making a film means writing about one's life. Here's a short set of scenes on how my documentary Haunted Land came to the world. Like many births, there were many difficult years and some moments of joy.


Lights darken. Background music.

A 'professional' narrative voice begins...


ln the late 90s, while neoliberal or globalizing policies were sweeping over the world, agencies such as the Canadian Television Fund and Telefilm Canada specifically excluded projects 'not shot in the majority in Canada' from funding. Later this rule was withdrawn, after some protests. But suspicion remained.


Montage of images and voices,

reacting to the proposal to make Haunted Land .


Panicked, angry, and stern TV executives:


"This is something our own crews can do, and it will be more objective." "Does not fit our programming needs." "Not a contemporary Canadian subject." "Not a priority." "The subject is not unusual enough."


Professional narrative voice resumes.


Let's rewind back to late 1998. SODEC (Société de Développement des Entreprises culturelles, Québec) has a scriptwriting fund earmarked for 'auteurs'. They gave documentary filmmaker Mary Ellen Davis $9,600 to travel to Guatemala and do some research. Mary Ellen was able to convince organizations in Guatemala to postpone the diggings in the clandestine cemetery of Petanac (Mateo's burnt-down village).

Cut to:

Mary Ellen, looking rueful.


l was hoping someone in Canada would help, at least with a camera kit. After all, my earlier documentary films - The Devil's Dream and Tierra Madre , also shot in Guatemala - were invited to dozens of festivals and won awards in several continents.


Cut to:

the professional Narrator.


ln the first months of 1999, the focus was on the massacres in Kosovo. You would rarely see images of other foreign wars, not even of Sierra Leone, where many more people were being killed--mostly thanks to the diamond industry. Audience ratings show that Canadians tend to zap to another channel when visible 'minorities' appear on screen. Apparently, 'we' mostly identify with white folks.


Mary Ellen appears, standing next to a TV set.


The denial of Mateo's right to share his historical memory with a Canadian audience, not only coincided with the well-covered Kosovo war and the largely-ignored Sierra Leone drama, it happened when Sheila Copps, Minister of Heritage, announced that we must produce 'Canadian stories'. This was in blatant contradiction, not only of her bewildering statement that The Red Violin was the best film she had ever seen, but also of the federal government's general policy: to open up our economies to the market's pragmatic wind, cut social spending, abolish subsidies and protective measures.

This defense of our national identity is not only a smokescreen, it borders on xenophobia and discrimination. Are we protecting our cultural identity from the invasion of US commercial products? Or from the memory of atrocities in Guatemala?


The screen goes dark.

Cut to:

Mary Ellen, in a screening room. She addresses the audience, while, behind her, we see footage of Guatemala.


Nobody in Canada lifted a finger, except a tiny foundation that donated $1,000. The rainy season was imminent in Guatemala and the exhumation was scheduled for March. So l invested my own money. Mateo, a friend, and l travelled to the site. l hired a local crew to capture this crucial moment. This material and some hi-8 footage filmed by the forensic team became archives stored away for a brighter day.


Cut to:

the Narrator, reading from Cervantes' Don Quixote.


"Future will tell us, Sancho," answered Don Quixote, "since time, discoverer of all things, exposes everything to the sun's light, no matter how deep it's hidden below the earth."

ln July 1999, a jury decided the project deserved a grant of $20,000 from Conseil des arts et lettres du Québec (CALQ). ln November 1999, another jury selected the project for the single grant named 'documentaire d'auteur à risque' given by PRIM, a media arts centre in Montreal. It gave Mary Ellen access to equipment and studios. PRIM became a key partner in the post-production phase. The staff showed the patience and understanding that used to be found at the NFB, before its lab and other facilities were dismantled. Shortly after, in December 1999, the Canadian Independent Film and video Fund (CIFVF) threw its weight behind the project, with $33,000.

The Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) was approached and the project modified to fit their criteria. CIDA said they required a TV license but Mary Ellen talked about her endless rejections and the discrimination she faced. TV stations prefer happy stories of white Canadians travelling to exotic lands. ln March 2000, CIDA did have the courage to contribute $40,000 to Haunted Land.

Cut to:

Mary Ellen, in the screening room. We see more images of Guatemala as she speaks.



The team was set to go, with a shoe-string budget. We filmed in August for ten days. There were scenes in Guatemala City and on the difficult and beautiful journey into the highlands, in a 1977 Suburban that slid in the mud without falling into precipices. Every afternoon the clouds rose from the valley and shrouded the mountains.


l stayed on to collect some photographic and audiovisual archives. The editing started in December. We waited for a tremendous snowstorm to film a distinctively Canadian scene of departure. At all stages of production, sub-standard wages were paid to both highly skilled professionals and newcomers willing to learn. The producer-director withheld payments to herself.

Why go to the trouble of making a certain kind of documentary, if the most important financing agencies in my country have set up criteria that exclude that approach and that particular issue? It's a question of persistence, faith, perhaps a touch of madness. We broke written and unwritten-rules. We pulled our film together thanks to smaller funding agencies and the passionate involvement of many colleagues who also wanted the voices of the excluded to be heard.


My initial proposaI was for a TV hour, but the multiple voices within the documentary, and perhaps the long silence over these crimes, called for a longer format (74 minutes) that allows the audience to feel some intimacy. As a colleague pointed out, "I hope you're not planning to make it shorter: it's fine as it is. lt's the time it takes to heal." However, to give the issue of genocide in Guatemala more recognition, I tell Canadian broadcasters that l'm willing to cut down the film.

Title Card: Happy End: Recognition by the First Nations

Professional Narrator resumes.



Both the avant-première and the world première of Haunted Land happened in presence of Rigoberta Menchu Tum, Nobel Peace Prize winner and herself a Guatemalan Mayan whose family was decimated by the army. André Dudemaine, director of Terres en Vues (Land InSights), chose the documentary to open the 11th edition of Montreal's First Peoples' Festival, Présence autochtone , in June 2001. Menchu, the guest of honour, was very moved by the film and asked her Foundation to organize the world launch, which happened in Mexico City in October. She was a1so present, and there was a lot of media attention paid to Haunted Land .

ln November 2001, Quito, Ecuador, the Siona Nationality Lanza de Amaru Award was given to the film during the 4th Festival de la Serpiente (a First Nations film and video festival run by CONAIE, Ecuador's native organization). Haunted Land received its Canadian release at Cinéma Parallè1e/Excentris (Montréal) in January 2002.


Cut to Mary Ellen, holding a large piece of paper. A manifesto.



Today, few Canadians know the difference between 'a real documentary' and a 12 minute news report, or the 13th episode of a series. Here's my emergency plan to save the endangered species 'auteur documentary' or 'documentaire de création':


1. recognize our cultural diversity and the right of immigrants to remain connected to their history;

2. recognize the right of aboriginal people to tell their stories in their own words, on all TV channels;

3. recognize the right of directors to remain in control of their own works, in terms of creative and editorial control, when there's a will to produce an independent work;

4. create permanent slots for single documentaries on all TV channels;

5. create spaces for feature-length documentaries;

6. demand the creation of ear-marked funding programs to encourage the production of single docs, creative docs, auteur docs, within the following institutions: Telefilm Canada, Sodec, Roger's Telefund, Canadian Television Fund;

7. create transparent reading committees or juries composed by media artists.

Mary Ellen Davis is an award-winning documentary filmmaker based in Quebec.













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