"You can't help but live in Ottawa and get involved in politics," says filmmaker Peter Smoczynski. Ottawa is a company town, after all, and that company is the Federal government, so when that industry is in the news for alleged corruption and possible criminal investigation, everyone in town is affected, even the guy with the camera.
Smoczynski decided to use his cameras to make a documentary called Election Day in Canada: The Rise of Voter Suppression, a nation-wide effort to capture not just what happened on May 2, 2011, but to look at how we got there, and where we might be going as we look to the Federal Election this coming October. There have been books, chapters in books, newspaper articles and blog posts representing millions of words written about the robocall scandal, but Smoczynski's is the first documentary.Election Day will be screened twice this week in Guelph and once in Waterloo as part of a national tour, but the course from script to screen was not a smooth one for Smoczynski.
"I have to have my head examined making this film," Smoczynski says with a laugh. "Do a documentary on Emily Carr, or Tragically Hip, or Neil Young, or Joni Mitchell, do a documentary on Ghomeshi, you're going to be able to sell that," but a political documentary about Canada is a tough sell. Even to Canadians. But the seriousness of the attempt to defraud thousands of voters in Guelph and across Canada of their right to vote prompter him to act.
"Nothing like this had ever happened in Canada before," he explained. "[Former Nixon adviser] Donald Segretti said that in their day they'd attack the leader, they'd attack the party, they'd attack the policies and whatever, but they never went after the voter. People think it's just a phone call, but it's so much more than that. [...] It was a well-organized crime, there's nothing serendipitous about it or haphazard."
The thirst for justice was about all that Smoczynski had throughout the production of the film. Unable to avail himself of government grants and tax breaks because of the political nature of his documentary, he turned to crowd-funding, which was enthusiastically offered by people still smarting by the attempt to subvert democracy.
"You wouldn't believe it," Smoczynski said of the support through crowd funding. "That's the only reason why this film's still alive. I can't tell you how many times this film's almost died because I was going through the regular channels to make this film, and it wasn't happening. [...] A documentary like this starts at a quarter of a million dollars, I'm going to get it done for under $100,000."
So all things considered, why push on with such a complicated and involved project like a documentary exploring the robocall scandal. "If you asked me when I realized there might be a documentary in this, it was when the court case by the Council of Canadian revealed all the evidence it was able to get from Elections Canada, and all the statistical evidence that Frank Graves pulled together," he said. "You go through the ITOs and you go through all that stuff, and you go my God, this isn't just a handful of phone calls, this is well-organized, this is well-planned, and a lot of money went into this."
As for his movie, it will feature interviews with people like Ottawa Citizen reporter Glen McGregor, who helped break the robocall story, as well it will give context to the 2011 scandal by examining the Saanich-Gulf Islands robocall scandal, and the robocalls made by the Conservative Party concerning the redrawing of riding maps in Saskatchewan in 2012. So who couldn't Smoczynski get for the film?
"Pierre Poilievre still has an open invitation," he said. "I was after Preston Manning for eight months, not just because he's a well-known conservative, but because he sits on the Elections Canada advisory board. He was not all for Bill C-23, and I finally got it in writing that he will not be participating."
Smoczynski didn't let that do easily though. "I asked him what's more partisan, somebody who's not afraid to comes to the table, sit down, and have a discussion or debate, especially if you're an elected official, or somebody who ignores you and thinks they're in a no-win situation," Smoczynski added.
Election Day is still technically in production, so what viewers in Guelph and Waterloo will be seeing might be best described as working print, but there's more than that. "There's material that will be in the documentary, people will be able to see raw interviews, at the same time I have put together things especially for the presentation," Smoczynski explained. "It's like a multi-level media experience. I'm speaking to the crowd, things I want to show them behind the scenes, there's things about voter suppression in general."
Smoczynski is also pessimistic about what new dirty tricks maybe brought to bare on the Canadian voting public this fall, so in that regard, he wants the movie to be informational as well as educational. "You will get a lot of information, you'll be educated about how this stuff works," he said. "Everywhere I have gone with this film, the reaction has been the same. Canadians know about it, and are upset about. Seventy per cent of Canadians surveyed are concerned or fearful that a political party will rig an election."
Smoczynski will be showing his film and making his presentation Wednesday, May 20th 6:30 – 8:30 pm at the Guelph Public Library downtown branch, and on Saturday, May 23rd, 2:00 – 4:00 pm at The Bookshelf Cinema.