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TVO’s second annual documentary competition, this year with a focus on the subject of poverty, drew submissions from all across Ontario. After a jury of Ontario documentarians led by producer/director Shelley Saywell selected five finalists, TVO invited Ontarians to choose the winner via online vote and Craig Allen Conoley’s 4 Kids , which examines poverty through the prose of Just Jamaal, a spoken-word and hip hop artist from Ottawa, emerged as the favourite. As the winner, 4 Kids   is set to air on TVO this year and Conoley will be joining Saywell for a day-long mentorship at the Hot Docs Film Festival.

TFS was able to speak with Conoley before the onslaught of Hot Docs.

What made you enter TVO’s documentary competition?

About 2 years ago I came across a video by Ottawa spoken word artist Brandon Wint. The poet is on stage, still, with his back to the crowd. The lights go up and he turns to his audience and says, “My favorite poems…are the one’s that tell stories..” I connected…so much so that I wanted to share his story through my own. So we rigged a camera to his head and created Poetry in Motion , my first foray into what I call cinepoetry.

Friend and fellow colleague Randy Kelly had seen some of my cinepoetry and approached me with the contest and the idea for 4 Kids . He believed we could combine documentary and poetry to paint a new portrait of poverty. It also helped that Just Jamaal and I had previously collaborated on the cinepoem Husniyah , a story about letting go of ones greatest creation; your child. This involved the Rogers family extensively so we had already built the relationships, the kind that lead to something honest, immersive and raw.

How long have you been making docs?

I started making docs in 2002 during my first year at Queen’s University. I was taking a documentary production course and we were asked to create a 5-minute piece on anything we wanted. I had recently worked the summer next door to the Capital Mortuary Service in Ottawa. The role of the CMS is to remove bodies from crime scenes and accidents and taxi them to hospitals, morgues and the like. I talked to the CEO and he agreed to let me interview the staff and follow them for a day of removals, on one condition, I rent a suit and go work for them for a few days. So I did. Last Taxi was the start (of my career).

What inspires you to make docs rather than fiction-based films?

I’ve always loved fiction films. However, I’ve realized the more transportive films, for me, are those from the direct cinema and neo-realist camps. Grey Gardens by The Maysle Brothers and Dark Days by Marc Singer changed me, or at least my expectation for what film can and should do.

Where did the idea for 4 Kids come from?

I feel 4 Kids came out of a desire for Randy, Jamaal and myself to articulate a common belief we have about the world. Each of us have lived outside of a Western paradigm. Jamaal grew up in Gayana, I lived in Katmandu Nepal and Randy recently had film stints in Tajikistan. I don’t want to speak for the others but I know the concepts and ideas drawn out in 4 Kids , speak to our own belief systems. During my time in Nepal I saw a quality of life unparallel to that in the Canada, a constitution of self not so recognizable in a country where it’s financial divide dictates so much of who we are and where we are going. At the centre of our lives is the wallet and the watch. There are other centres…other peoples who privilege other things. This is also the message I hope people take away from 4 Kids . We should take a moment to reflect on our rigid belief systems and taken for granted beliefs of this world.

What was the best thing about shooting the film?

The best thing about shooting the film has to be the joy and pride associated with giving Jamaal a platform to share his story and his family’s story. There is a vicarious element to it. You live and experience things through your subjects, this is what they gift to you as a documentary filmmaker. It’s fitting that Jamaal ends 4 Kids by saying something along the same lines…his sustenance, like my own, comes from the bits and pieces of people you share with along the way. We don’t do this for the money. We do this for the sacred communions that occur with fellow artists and audiences

What was your reaction when you found out you’d won?

My first reaction was of affirmation and relief. I didn’t expect to win. I understand the nature of today’s digital landscape. I believed in our film, the way it was shot, the message it evoked, but votes don’t always reflect merit of content as much as they do the size and allegiance within imagined or real communities. As a team we were extremely excited to get the news and share it with a extremely supportive community of artists in Ottawa.

Anything in particular you’re looking forward to seeing or doing at Hot Docs?

This will be my second time attending Hot Docs. Last year I had the luxury of participating in The Accelerator Program. I cannot stress enough the importance of the festival as a vehicle for opportunity. The seasoned filmmaker and the budding artist are thrown together, chance encounters lead to support coming from peers and role models.

This year I’m really looking forward to a Keynote Speech from Ondi Timinor, the director behind Dig , Cool It and We Live in Public . I’m also ramping up to release my first feature and hope to sit down with a few commissioning editors and peers to discuss the film’s direction and potential.

Who’s your favourite documentary filmmaker and why?

My work is very much influenced by the careers of Jennifer Baichwal and Allan King. Their work and choices as filmmakers affirm my own desires to tell stories a certain way. Like Baichwal, I’m deeply interested in the philosophical subtext beneath the every day, expressing the abject in new and interesting ways. On the other hand, the intimacy and rawness of Kings character studies inspire my own aptitude for access and trust in vulernable contexts with vulnerable subjects. His films are careful yet exhibit bravado and courage. I love that!

What are you working on next?

I’m currently working on two documentaries. The first is a feature entitled Life Songs ; a film about the loss of sacred community and the rise of individualism as it directly relates to evolution of song in our culture.

We are currently in production on Punched , an autobiographical short. In 2004 I was the victim of assault in Kingston Ontario while attending university. The act was extremely traumatic and resulted in reconstructive face surgery. The doctors did an incredible job, yet my appearance is very different and I continue to re-examine my inner and outer worlds because of this. This introspection has resulted in Punched ; an experimental and collaborative documentary project with Ottawa portrait photographer Sarai Strikefoot.