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New Canadian Platforms 2016: CBC Docs Shorts

This week #hotdocsjots speaks to Lesley Birchard - Executive in Charge of Production with CBC Unscripted, where she develops and oversees production on a number of television and digital specials and series. Lesley is currently overseeing a new digital initiative with CBC Docs, working with emerging documentary filmmakers to create original digital documentary content for CBC.

Hot Docs: What was the inspiration behind CBC Docs Shorts right now? What need did you see when you decided to launch an online platform.

Lesley Birchard: We thought this was a real opportunity to tell stories that we may not have been able to tell otherwise, stories that are better told in shorter form. It`s a real opportunity to work with different types of documentary filmmakers. That’s why in our initial call out for submissions we specified we wanted to work with emerging documentary filmmakers. It`s such a tough world in terms of getting a foot in. It’s hard finding opportunity in the documentary space, but the digital world really opens up a lot of opportunity, and we wanted to be part of that.

I would also say that short docs are hot right now and we see that. We’ve asked filmmakers to come to us with character driven stories that are rooted in a present tense, where we can really see a story unfolding before our eyes.

What I’ve been loving is that there are so many great stories and so many great characters that can be profiled in short docs, again, stories that might not have been able to be sustained in a one-or two-hour length, but which are really poignant in ten or 15 minutes. It opens up a whole other world of stories for us to tell. 

It’s exciting. I’m secretly a little bit jealous because it’s such an exciting time and such great opportunities are emerging, not just at the CBC, but in Canada, for young filmmakers. I’m glad that we get to be a part of it and use our platform, because that’s what we should be doing.

HD: Are the constraints looser when commissioning for a digital space?

LB: I think one thing we’re doing that’s really important is trying things: seeing what works for Canadian audiences in a digital space. We didn’t want to put a lot of parameters around what the filmmakers could and couldn’t do in terms of telling their stories. We really wanted to see what they would come to us with.

You’re definitely not constrained by time in the same way you are on TV- but that being said, you have to be even more efficient in your storytelling. You have to grab the audience’s attention even more quickly, and it’s even harder to keep their attention. So even though you have more flexibility, you’re also up against a lot of competition. We, and the filmmakers, have to really be aware of that.

HD: Why should short-form doc makers work with the CBC? 

LB: It’s a pretty great opportunity to have a national platform on which to tell your stories and to have the benefit of the CBC digital team, communications team and social media team helping to get the word out about projects. We’re going to work with the filmmakers to create a social media strategy for each individual project. We take care of the project as a whole and getting the word out, but we’ll also have conversations with the filmmakers about what they can bring to the table in terms of rallying the people in the communities they might be doing their doc on. At the moment we’re in discussion with filmmakers about additional content they might be able to shoot when making their docs, anything from photos to thinking about what scenes to push out on social media separately. It’s a conversation that happens right from the get go, right from the moment we meet with the filmmaker, all the way through to roll out and beyond.

HD: Projects will be released on CBC's other digital platforms and social channels. What does this mean?

LB: What we want to do is put these short docs in as many places as possible so that they’re seen and shared. We will have a dedicated site specifically for this digital doc project but also, depending on the subject matter of each of the individual short docs, work closely with the various verticals within CBC: arts, music, news, sports, Aboriginal, or CBC news. Each of these docs will have a number of touch points, and will potentially be able to fit within a number of areas within CBC. There are so many possibilities for how and where these can be seen.

HD: What stage of development do projects need to be at? What materials do you want to see?

LB: We’ve actually been pretty open to seeing projects at different stages of development. I would say ideally we want to be part of the project from concept through to delivery, but we’ve seen everything from ones that are just a germ of an idea to ones that are partially shot, to completely shot and just looking for help with post-production. In a few instances, this round, we’re looking at a few short docs that are already completed and talking about re-cuts or shortening for online. So we’re pretty open to seeing projects at different stages.

HD: Will you be commissioning a specific number of projects per cycle? 

LB: It really depends on the scope of the projects. Some are so much bigger in scope, which means if we choose those ones we will choose fewer projects. We have commissioned about 20 short docs for this round, and they’ll be ready to start rolling out around April.

HD: You say you are aiming to place significant focus on supporting indigenous producers and directors. Can you talk a little bit more about that?

LB: It’s really exciting because there is so much talent in Canada from young indigenous filmmakers. I’ve met so many great filmmakers who were telling such interesting stories, be it their own stories or about indigenous peoples, but also a lot of different types of stories that I think cover such a huge range. I think it’s important for CBC to put that focus on supporting young indigenous filmmakers. I attended pitches and took lots of meetings at imagineNATIVE in October, and that was a great place for me to start having conversations with young filmmakers.

HD: Can you talk about any of the projects that you’re excited about?

LB: We have a great wide range of subjects: a young man in Toronto who has found himself in the middle of one of America's most high profile court cases; an 86-year-old Calgary woman trying to get her driver's licence for the first time; a 30-year-old Mohawk woman from Montreal facing breast cancer and dealing with pressure to use traditional versus western medicine; a web doc series featuring three hilarious wise-beyond-their-years young siblings talking frankly about gender issues; a man with a brain injury who has found solace in painting his muse -his pet Chihuahua. Fingers crossed we'll have at least one of these shorts in Hot Docs!

Interview conducted by Madelaine Russo.

For more opportunities to pitch your short doc visit tinyurl.com/hoof9ws

Photo credit: Project 'Frame 394'. Frame 394 is a short documentary that profiles a young man from Toronto who, through the power of the internet, manages to entangle himself in one of America’s most high-profile police shooting cases.

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