Connecting Voices (1991)

Connecting Voices: an interview with Richard Fung by James MacSwain
(The Independent Eye, 1991)
JM: You are well-known both as a video artist dealing with issues of race and sexuality from a personal perspective and through your role at DEC Film and Video, where you worked until recently. DEC distributes films that deal with racism and Third World issues. I want to talk about your experience there in the context of Canadian distribution.

RF: DEC Film and Video works as a collective, so everyone shares the day-to-day running of the organization. When I was there I did the actual physical distribution work – print traffic, shipping and receiving, sales and that kind of thing. We all shared in the major decision-making concerning what we carried. I did a lot of work around colour-positive issues, the catalogue and the collection of work that dealt with recent immigrant experience.

JM: How long were you there?

RF: From 1985 to 1990.

JM: And as part of the decision-making collective, what criteria did you use to choose work? Did you base it on how well the work was done or were you looking more at content?

RF: We had a number of loose criteria, which shifted around. One was how the content fit onto both our collection and needs we perceived in the city or the country. There were also works we didn’t even realize there was a need for but which were wonderful little pieces. Increasingly over the years there was a bottom line for technical quality, because many young people are used to watching slick TV – music videos for instance – and if you are doing work for schools that aren’t well produced they won’t be used. The work had to be marketable on some level, because it wouldn’t do the producer or the organization any good if it wasn’t going to go anywhere.

JM: What is DEC’s market?

RF: Educational institutions at all levels, libraries and community groups, and depending on the tape, art galleries and festivals.

JM: The same is true for the educational end of CFMDC and probably for all the distribution outlets in this country. Does that mean our library is mainly a documentary collection, since documentary is more dialectic and didactic in its presentation?

RF: Generally the work is documentary rather than fiction. Of course there are major differences within the documentary form itself. I think DEC is stereotyped as a documentary distribution centre, but that began to change while I was there. We didn’t just choose straight-ahead documentaries. We began to take on more experimental work and fiction work like the black British filmmaker Isaac Julian, who doesn’t really fall into a neat category. We also have some animation work.

JM: It seems to me al the divisions we work with – documentary, animation, drama, experimental – are breaking down, so we have hybrids. The docu-drama is already an established genre. We have experimental animations, experimental dramas; we’re starting to use those definitions as specific forms. But with DEC’s documentary tradition, what exactly are you looking for in terms of content?

RF: The focus of the collection at DEC changes with the people who work there. DEC started out doing Third World material exclusively. By the time I came on a major portion of the collection was women’s issues produced by women. Very early it began taking on Canadian video, where the range was pretty wide – lesbian and gay work, for instance, and more and more work on race.

JM: You market here in Ontario and the rest of the country. Did you ever market in the US?

RF: No, and more specifically, only in English Canada. We have an informal relationship with Francophone distributors. We don’t distribute French language versions of films and tapes, only English versions of French language media.

JM: How did you persuade a conservative education system that your films were viable and worthy subjects for their consideration?

RF: That’s difficult to answer, because each institution and buyer is different. Some people like some parts of the collection and others like others parts. Each tape or film has a different kind of strategy to sell it. A tape dealing with women’s issues in India, for instance, might be picked up by feminist communities programming women’s issues in an international context. The same tape will also be picked up by community groups dealing with South Asian issues.

JM: I can see it would be less difficult selling to the converted. But since you’re dealing with progressive film and video, what strategies do you use in trying to get the material to a public that might not be so open to it?

RF: One of the most important strategies is to try and contextualize the work. Take the subject matter of race. We held the first anti-racist film festival in English Canada in 1984, called Colour Positive, out of which we produced a catalogue of the work in the festival and what we have collected since. The introduction starts with a guide to using anti-racist film and video. Within Toronto schools the ethnic composition of the teaching staff and the ethnic composition of the classroom don’t really match up. Many teachers are not taught how to introduce issues of race, and they are frightened of the subject. We tried to create a way they could use the material by taking them through it with the guide. Many individual works also have teachers’ or users’ guides which offer background information and suggest how to lead a discussion by giving questions to ask.

JM: In the last ten years in Canada we’ve lived in a conservative climate, which is a climate of intolerance and economic disparity. How important are the Third World films and tapes at DEC in changing public opinion in Canada? In other words, DEC films and videos try to present a global idea of economic and political structure versus a nationalistic structure, showing how they influence each other. Did you discuss these kinds of issues at DEC?

RF: Yes, they would come up when we were looking at new tapes and films. One of the good things about DEC’s collection, but also one of the difficulties, is that it is not the kind of work you normally would see on television, which makes it difficult to get out to a broad public. We used church groups and other community organizations to do this; often this is the only way Canadians find out what is really going on in Central America or the Horn of Africa or in Southern Africa. It is also one of the only ways people from those regions hear about what is happening in their own countries. Often our discussions would revolve around the question of whether a film was useful to the group it is about. One thing we did to get feedback if we weren’t sure about the work, or just as a courtesy, was to show the work to people from those particular communities. If the film was about Chile, we would bring in people from Chile to review it. Often you don’t know the agendas inherent in the work, so it is useful to have people you can trust and with whom you share a common vocabulary to explain that a certain person is allied to a particular person or group which does certain things. It can be either good or bad. The other kind of strategy was not to raise issues just in ghettos. In our Colour Positive Guide, which has anti-racist material, there are also films about sexism and women’s issues and a gay and lesbian section. We always looked for crossover material in our educational material.

JM: Then the idea is that the world is one and the problems of the world belong to all of us and not to one particular economic area. DEC films try to show the global structure behind issues.

RF: I guess there are three things involved here. The first idea was for the people involved in those particular struggles to have material to help them with what they were doing. The second idea was to show people who were “ordinary Canadians” who had no issues of their own and wanted to do solidarity work. The third one was to do cross fertilization. I remember when I was at DEC there was a teacher in one of the reserves in Newfoundland who was showing Micmac children films like When The Mountains Tremble about the struggle in Guatemala. It was really gratifying to make those kinds of world connections.

JM: It has often been said Newfoundland is Canada’s Third World. I suspect there are pockets of the Third World in all the provinces of Canada.

RF: They say Native reserves are a part of apartheid, too.

JM: Exactly. What do you think are the chances for survival of DEC and the work with which you are associated? Will this work be supported by funding agencies in the future? Do you feel there is a closing-down of the mind of the Canadian public for this work?

RF: I don’t think there is a closing-down of the Canadian public, but there is a closing-down in terms of the money available. Markets are changing quickly. Over the time I was at DEC I witnessed the destruction of 16mm in the market. Most places now buy only on VHS and not even on 3/4” video. There is a kind of crisis in the marketplace and many difficulties arise from that. Also, DEC has not been able to get operational funding from arts councils.

JM: Because of the question of the number of films with Canadian content?

RF: Yes.

JM: Where does your funding come from?

RF: In the past the Development Education Centre received a small portion of its funding from CIDA. The vast majority of the money was raised through selling and renting work and grants that would cover a salary from time to time. Now the Development Education Centre has divided up into different areas, so DEC Film and Video is on its own now with its own board.

JM: Was this positive?

RF: Oh yes.

JM: Because people can now focus on what they do best?

RF: That’s part of it. The Development Education Centre ha a particular history, and my own analysis is that the organization grew faster than it was able to change its infrastructure, so it wasn’t working managerially.

JM: So is there now a manager responsible for each particular area?

RF: There isn’t a hierarchy, but now each division makes decisions for itself. This offers more of a chance to focus on what each does best without a bureaucracy hindering the development of those decisions. DEC also has a board of directors which reflects the different interests of the collection and grounds the organization in the community.

JM: DEC is one small distributor in a complex city, but it is trying to bring global concerns to a public that is very close-minded in a certain sense. What else did you do that other distributors aren’t doing?

RF: Perhaps where we differ from other distributors is that we have a very strong educational component. Last year we did a really successful series entitled “Consuming Hunger,” a three-part tape on media literacy and the consumption of the Third World. We had speakers from Africa who talked about the imaging of Africa and issues in journalism, including a critique of the tape itself. Now there is a series which includes international issues dealing with Woman and Labour. We all need to develop audiences for this work. One sad things is that people would call up and want work that wouldn’t be affordable for individuals, since our prices are set for community groups.

JM: If you had a wish list, what would you ask for?

RF: More money for more staff and to go to festivals and to travel to find new work. I would also like to see more of this work on Canadian television, which is very conservative. Cable stations are more adventurous, but they don’t pay.

JM: How do the filmmakers know to contact you?

RF: People recommend us. We are one of the few distributors focusing on Third World work and we have ongoing relationships with distributors of like minds all over the world so they often recommend work to us.

JM: So your collection includes work done by Canadians in Third World Countries and also work shot by Third World filmmakers.

RF: We prioritize Third World filmmakers who have made work in their own countries. Unfortunately, often the work doesn’t have enough of a context to make it accessible to a larger Canadian public. We try to find a balance in which the tape speaks genuinely from that country and yet contains enough background to communicate what is going on.

JM: Do you find that when Canadian filmmakers go to other countries they can miss the point?

RF: Oh yes., We call them “grasshopper filmmaker,” First World Producers who hop from one country to the next. That’s why it’s very important to get people from the Third World to critique these films. If you can’t get work produced by a Third World director then you look for collaboration and whether the First World producer has had an ongoing relationship with that country.

JM: What are the most important problems Canadians should know about the Third World via films and videos.

RF: Problems vary from country to country, but there are pressing issues affecting all Third World countries, like the World Monetary Fund and the environment and its relationship to this fund. Peace and war of course. And issues for women. Other problems are more specific.

JM: Do you concentrate on particular countries?

RF: Yes, two areas of the world: Africa – particularly Southern Africa – and Latin America, particularly Central America and Chile. There is a growing section on the Caribbean. This has to do with countries where production is taking place and whether a film will spark a new understanding of an issue. The films reflect the issues taken up in Canada: Central America, Chile, South Africa.

JM: What about the Middle East?

RF: We have few films on the Middle East or Asia. I’ve noticed that different communities have different levels of using film as a cultural alternative, or they already have developed a network for showing films.

JM: You’re of Chinese descent from the Caribbean. We have a very strong Chinese presence in Toronto as well as on the west coat, not to mention the Japanese community. Most of the work I’ve seen on these communities are by artist who have come from these communities in Canada and not from those countries themselves.

RF: You’ve named two communities which are very different. The Japanese community is mainly a Canadian community and most people of my age are third generation and have English as a first language. Their interest as a community is not Japan. The Chinese community is mostly an immigrant community that doesn’t have English as a first language. In a situation like that – as with people from India, for instance – their national cinema traditions are so strong that when people want to see a film they go to Chinatown or rent a Chinese video rather than something produced here about an issue like the head tax. A film like Displaced View by Midi Onodera, however, was received quite well in the Japanese community. We haven’t had equivalent work in the Chinese community. This can also be seen within the gay and lesbian community. Alternative lesbian work is seen by both straight women and lesbians as part of their culture, while gay men tend to go to Hollywood films and haven’t used alternative work. This is changing somewhat because of the many gay and lesbian festivals occurring now.

JM: You have gay and lesbian work from other countries in the DEC collection?

RF: Not from Third World countries. We are negotiating for a film on Simon Ngoli in South Africa, but it’s being distributed through England. We do have some work from England, Like Isaac Julian’s work.

JM: It would be interesting to see a video from Brazil on gay life and how it relates to the Mardi Gras and the white men who go to that festival.

RF: There are films being done in those countries, but often it is so difficult to raise the money for a film they tend to do commercial work. I know Brazil does have a commercial gay cinema which is pornographic and which also makes feature films with gay plots.

JM: What was your particular influence on DEC films?

RF: My personal interests were work on sexuality and work that pushes the form – as in documentaries that are aware of the ideological language contained within documentary language and try to work against it somehow. I don’t like work that has a very narrow politic or is manipulative in getting across political points.

I influenced the kind and amount of work coming from the Caribbean simply because I had contacts. There is one other area of the collection which is also growing, which is that of Aboriginal people, the Native people of Canada and the US. There is a large market for this work.

JM: Toronto has a large and growing immigrant population. Is DEC growing with Toronto?

RF: School boards feel pressure to reflect the immigrant situation in their individual schools. With community groups, it depends on how well that community is organized. Things have happened in the last year that wouldn’t have happened before. We have a film on Eritrea, for example, and that community is using this film to organize around.

JM: Thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule for this interview. Good luck in your new life as a “non-distributor.”