Interview: Kat Cizek

Kat Cizek

The National Film Board recently released Filmmaker-in-Residence, a DVD box set of Katerina (Kat) Cizek’s pioneering work with St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto. Cizek was “embedded” as a filmmaker working at the hospital for a period of several years and was free to pursue any story she found interesting. The resulting work included several films, a photo exhibit, and one of the earliest and best uses of the web to tell documentary stories. And quite apart from the innovative use of technology, the project has had an enduring positive effect on the community the hospital serves. To describe her work as life-changing would be no exaggeration.

In yet another connection from my time at the Summer Institute of Film and Television this spring, Kat was teaching a workshop and because she and Peter Wintonick (my workshop teacher) had worked together on a film (Seeing Is Believing), they swapped classes for a day. I knew immediately that Kat was someone who was very in tune with potential of new technologies, especially the web, and so I was eager to see her work with St. Mike’s. I’m still working my way through this generously-packed box set, but I had the chance to ask her some questions about the project via email. Special thanks to the NFB’s Jennifer Mair for facilitating the interview.

James McNally (JM): The Filmmaker-in-Residence project seemed to evolve as a partnership between you and St. Michael’s Hospital. Can you tell me about how it started? Who approached whom?

Kat Cizek (KC): The project actually began as a dialogue between the NFB and the Hospital. Tom Perlmutter, then head of English programming at the NFB (and now Chairperson), met the Hospital’s VP of research, Dr. Art Slutsky. Tom learned about the innovation in the Inner City Health Unit of the Hospital, and so he asked the NFB’s Ontario Centre to send in a researcher. A superb research document came out of it, but its focus was really on conventional documentary stories in the Hospital. That’s when Peter Starr, the NFB producer on the project at the time, asked me in to come in. I had just finished a film called Seeing Is Believing (co-directed with Peter Wintonick), about the use of new technologies in human rights contexts. Peter Starr and Tom asked me to reconsider the Hospital in the context of revisiting the NFB’s Challenge for Change program (1967-1980) in the digital context, and that’s when it got really exciting: the idea to think of the Hospital as a laboratory, a place to experiment with the new tools of media creation with the aim to actually make a difference in people’s lives. Peter saw the project through the approval process at the NFB, and then Senior Producer Gerry Flahive took the reins from Peter, guiding the project through a very complex and interesting contractual negotiation with the Hospital. That process took over two years!

JM: Was this initially about helping St. Mike’s with their public outreach and fundraising, or was it primarily about educating the community, and perhaps their own staff, too?

KC: This was never about public relations. The instinct came from the heart of documentary as well as academic research — to ask real questions, and discover the multiplicity of answers as we went along, rather than trying to push answers from the beginning. Our aim was not even educational in the conventional sense; we did not have a set agenda to convey or teach to audiences at the beginning of the process. Filmmaker-in-Residence is about Interventionist Media. We chose projects in which documentary could really play an important role in the discovery of new knowledge, of new ways of doing things. Not simply to observe and record, but to participate and be part of the process of intervention.

JM: You developed a very thorough “manifesto” for the project. Can you tell me how much of that was in place from the beginning and how much was added as you immersed yourself more in the project?

KC: The creation of the manifesto was my attempt to clarify the philosophies and methodology of the project. I wrote it about two years into the project. I was still having a hard time with people understanding what we were about, so I drew up the manifesto in an effort to help people “get it.” It’s been a really great tool with partners and audiences to get at the core of the FIR approach.

JM: How did you come to formulate these particular principles of documentary filmmaking and have they come to be absolutes for you, or were they fitted to this particular project?

KC: No, I absolutely have no absolutes… the manifesto is not a code of law, it is simply an attempt to challenge some of the conventions of documentary filmmaking, and to grasp what are some of the foundations of our approach that make it different from linear filmmaking. Documentary is a language; it is organic, not static and it is something that changes over time with us.

JM: For instance, your injunction to “use documentary and media to ‘participate’ rather than just to observe and to record” contradicts the advice of many documentary filmmakers who would never put themselves into the story. In your case, I get the sense that the results are more important to you than the quality of the films themselves. Is that a fair assessment?

KC: Well, for one thing, quality does matter! Why bother making media if you aren’t striving to tell an important, engaging story? I have always considered myself platform-agnostic: I have worked in photography, print, radio, video, Internet, etc. etc. In this sense, I was less interested in the media I was using, and more interested in why I use it and to what political/social end. For me, “making media” is not an end in itself. It is called media for a reason — to “mediate.” That is what I am interested in — implicating ourselves in the world we live in. This, I believe, is the first instinct of documentary. I started out as a student photojournalist behind the barricades at Kanehsatake during the Oka crisis in 1990 – a 72-day armed standoff between the Canadian army and a First Nations community that had challenged a neighbouring town’s efforts to put in a golf course over an ancestral Mohawk cemetery. A group of us students went on to raise money and publish a 36-page newsprint booklet about the historical causes of the crisis. We printed 6,000 copies and handed it out for free. After a few months, we started receiving lots and lots of mail from prisons across North America — from incarcerated First Nations people, writing to thank us for the book and telling us their own stories. It was incredibly touching and really a testament to the power of media. You never really know who you might reach, what change you might effect…

JM: If my above assertion is true, what makes the work different from some of the good old-fashioned “medicinal” documentaries that we saw growing up (and still see today)? Aren’t you just making agitprop as a director-for-hire?

KC: I think I’ve addressed a lot of this above — our work was not about having answers before we started shooting, but really to ask honest questions in the context of documentary and academic research. It’s important to note that Filmmaker-in-Residence was funded 100% by the NFB, and the NFB retained 100% editorial control. So we had the final say in the work that was produced, not the Hospital. The work was also framed in many cases as academic research, so our process needed to meet the criteria of scientific inquiry (i.e. produced under academic freedom). Our process also had to stand in front of the Hospital’s Research and Ethics Board, so we were held to the highest standard of ethical code within medical research. This is much more rigorous than any classical documentary project I’ve ever known.

JM: I’m so glad you included the doc on the NFB’s Challenge for Change program in the box set, because although I’d heard of it, I’d never actually seen any of the films or heard the filmmakers discuss the rationale behind it. Do you see Filmmaker-in-Residence as the heir to that programme or was it just more of an inspiration?

KC: FIR shares DNA with Challenge for Change, but it’s not just a replication. We needed to really challenge ourselves technologically, creatively and politically in the context of our times. So I consider there to be three major rivers of influence on FIR: Challenge for Change, the Video Advocacy movement of WITNESS (the group I profiled in Seeing Is Believing) and we were also heavily inspired by the interventionist research process from the medical world.

JM: What do you see as the main difference between then and now in terms of the political climate for this sort of filmmaking?

KC: The media landscape has changed dramatically in 40 years, and its role and our understanding of media within a political context is incredibly different from 1969! We are living through the most important revolution since the Industrial Revolution: the Digital Revolution. Its implications are yet to be fully understood, but the democratizing potential of this revolution is huge. We need to harness the technology for this, as it does not come automatically. That’s where projects like FIR, and many other community media projects around the world, come in.

JM: Can you tell us a little about your next multi-year project, Highrise? How much of the manifesto and methods from Filmmaker-in-Residence will you apply to the new project? What do you hope to accomplish?

KC: Highrise springs from FIR, but we are taking the ideas to a global level, and working on a different scale. When we started FIR, YouTube and Facebook didn’t exist yet. So this time around, we are staying even more flexible, and looking toward new tech in a more concerted way. But the FIR principles are there, that same documentary instinct is there. It’s really more about big questions than answers, and looking to collaboration and participation as central to the process.

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