When I chatted with Absolutely Quebec series producer Carrie Haber about her job, it was in the context of a story about the airing of the Parc Avenue Tonight special. But in discussing the series, it was clear there was another episode she seemed more excited about: Legends of Magdalen, a documentary about the hundreds of unexplored 19th-century shipwrecks near the Magdalen Islands.
That episode, the season finale for Absolutely Quebec, airs at 7pm on Saturday (and again at 3am Sunday) on CBC Montreal.
“It’s just spellbinding. It’s just a beautiful work about shipwrecks in the Magdalen Islands,” Haber told me.
She said the documentary came to her about a year ago. The film crew has been up to the islands three separate times to shoot, including going scuba diving. “They found a wreck that hadn’t been found before, dove down and discovered what was there. It’s a lovely reflection of what the Magdalen Islands is.”
This is the second year that Haber has been producing the Absolutely Quebec series for CBC Montreal. The Saturday evening one-hour specials, which run during the summer when there’s no hockey, are usually regional documentaries, but can include other types of programming as well, like Parc Avenue Tonight or the Short Stop series of short films. Haber’s involvement varies by the project, but usually involves dealing with the film’s producer to help them improve the story and then cut the resulting film down to 40 minutes for broadcast.
“My heart is in documentary after spending eight years at the NFB,” Haber said, while adding that she would like to see more drama and comedy on television that reflects the region. “Quebec has this opportunity of this multi-lingual multicultural place that it is, I think that’s great fodder for stories, and I don’t see that reflected.”
(You can read more about Haber’s views in the story I wrote for The Gazette.)
Story, story, story
I asked Haber what she looks for in a documentary for this series. The keys, she said are an original story idea and original cinematic approach. “Something with some kind of resonance that resonates beyond the hour. The originality of the idea and production values.”
When it comes down to it, she said: “Am I excited enough about it to want to invest nine months of my life on this producer and this idea? I want to feel excited when it airs like the audience would.”
And story is what really matters to people. It’s what people get excited about.
“It’s story editing, writing, being clear about the emotional arc of the piece. That’s the number one area in which I work with people the most. People come to the table with various degrees of experience and production values. But I think that story is still the most important. And it seems to be commonly the last thing that’s figured out.”
Documentaries can easily get lost in too many story lines, she said. Cutting it down to an hour often means focusing on what’s important and eliminating unnecessary tangents.
But “honestly, every production is so different. From the acquisition stage to the contracting stage. We’re dealing with one-offs here so there is no formula. Each production has its challenges.”
The 2013 season of Absolutely Quebec has six episodes, one of which is a repeat from last year.
- June 29: An Evening with Janina Fialkowska: An interview and concert hosted by Jeanette Kelly featuring the pianist talking about the challenges she’s overcome in her career.
- July 6: Small Wonders: A documentary (shot over a 10-year period) by Tally Abecassis on three Montrealers who own small shops — a hardware store, a portrait studio, a watch repair shop — and the struggles they face as big-box stores and technological change shrink their profit margins.
- July 13: Parc Avenue Tonight Live: A talk show about Mile End personalities, shot in front of a live audience in May.
- July 20: Montreal Short Stop: A repeat from last season, this collection of short films includes:
- July 27: Van Horne & Waverly: A documentary by Geneva Guerin about Mile End artists Glen LeMesurier, Rouge Lefevbre and Radwan Moumneh, and the Jardin du Crépuscule, a sculpture garden in an abandoned city-owned lot near the aforementioned strets. (See CBC story)
- Aug. 3: Legends of Magdalen: A documentary by Sharif Mirshak and Parafilms about the search for shipwrecks off the coasts of the Magdalen Islands. (See Facebook page)
Sixth doc got postponed
The repeat of the short films episode, I’m told, isn’t due to budget cuts. Rather, the sixth documentary “is following a story that took a serious twist in late spring,” I was told by CBC Quebec Managing Director Shelagh Kinch. “We made the decision to include new events in the story arc, which meant prolonging production. So we will hold off on airing it until next season. These are decisions that you sometimes have to make for the sake of maintaining high production values and programming quality.”
Same story from Haber: “It happens, that shooting gets prolonged, and in this case we both felt it was worth waiting for a better film next season.”
Neither of them told me what the documentary is about or what the twist was. So I guess we’ll have to wait until it airs next year.
Speaking of next year, Haber is going to begin preparing Absolutely Quebec 2014 soon, and that means meeting independent producers and hearing or watching ideas. “I’ll start in earnest in September and October,” she said. “I like to have them lined up by January at the latest.”
That doesn’t leave a lot of time. So get those stories ready.
If you like local documentaries and want to watch more, there are some from last season also online: Hockey Migrations, a documentary about hockey in northern Quebec; Fortunate Son, a documentary about a son’s relationship with his Greek parents; and Never Destroy Us, a “rockumentary” about the Montreal band The Dears.
The entire Absolutely Canadian series (or at least those that were posted online), including regional documentaries from elsewhere in Canada is on CBC’s video player here.