NAFC. Who or what inspired you to break into the indie film and TV scene?
Maria Morgunova. There were a number of reasons; one being that it can be quite difficult for filmmakers to pitch their projects to big TV channels. For example, in the case of The Uphill Battle, it was necessary to relate quite a sad story regarding the Executive Director of the Toronto Karate Kids League who tried to organize a series of recreational karate tournaments. It didn’t make sense to go to TV channels and pitch such a project since it was not hockey or basketball or figure skating, or any other sport that’s actively supported and funded at Federal level. Despite the Olympic status, karate is still on a kind of “waiting list” in Canada’s sports popularity ratings, so realistically speaking I couldn’t count on getting a contract or work on television. The only one way I could see to implement this project was as an independent production.
NAFC. As an independent producer you’ve worked on over 100 projects, as well as Karate in Ontario: The Uphill Battle; The Cost of Raising a Champion. What projects have been the most memorable?
Maria Morgunova. It’s impossible to choose just one project because I love them all, but most of my memorable projects were small projects I produced for my Canadian clients, the majority of whom are bright and intelligent people, wanting to share useful information with their target audience. I really enjoy this type of project because it works well for people on all sides. People watch educational videos and obtain valuable knowledge that can’t be found in books or schools. These experts become well known, which is very satisfying because I’m doing what I do best, knowing that people on all sides are happy and satisfied. I also work as a stage director (mostly with independent opera and ballet theatres) and as a designer of digital theatrical backdrops or projection. Each project means that I work with talented people with amazing stories, beautiful music, and wonderful people from different industries. It’s a synergy where different types of artists have their own unique craft. So, in answer to your question, I would say that each and every project is my favourite, because each one has its own special characteristics.
NAFC. As you’ve gained experience over these projects, how has your role as a producer changed or evolved?
Maria Morgunova. In most cases I work as a director, but I like to combine both roles with some projects. Each project brings something new, which is very exciting to me. It means that I’m always expanding my horizon, communicating with new and interesting people, and looking for specific methods of implementation and creative expression. I must also stay abreast of new technologies because every day our industry is changing, and I must be flexible in order to understand current trends and work effectively. In other words, I’m learning all the time, which is what I love about my job.
NAFC. We’ve interviewed several directors and covered a broad range of genres: what are some unique challenges that come with filming a documentary as opposed to a more “traditional” movie?
Maria Morgunova. Documentary production is always a huge challenge because it’s not just about finding a unique story, as I was taught in Film College. First, it’s not easy to convince real people with real stories to share their experience and tell the truth in front of a camera. I’ve interviewed many people for documentaries and talk shows (I worked as a director of a talk show in Moscow many years ago), and quickly learned that everyday people are not natural-born actors. The shooting process is a new experience for most people, and if they have endured a stressful situation it’s not always easy for them to speak publicly about it. They could be scared, perhaps they witnessed something frightening, or maybe they are just shy; but shooting a great interview can often be extremely difficult. Sometimes, participants call to reschedule or even cancel their interview at the last moment, even though the equipment has already been rented, the studio is ready, and everyone is on the set. Many people simply don’t like their appearance or the sound of their own voice. Others are unable to focus on the questions being asked and keep changing the subject, which can be very challenging for the person trying to edit these speakers. In other instances, people can suddenly become nervous and stop talking altogether! All these scenarios result in numerous attempts to conduct an interview, meaning many hours of additional work. I know producers who were unable to complete their projects because they couldn’t reach an agreement with the participants, showing that even the best stories can remain untold simply because there are so many human factors that come into the making of a documentary.
In addition, I know it’s very difficult for most documentary makers to reach a global acquisition and distribution deal with “big buyers”. Then, getting funding for documentary production can be a huge challenge. I read in a 2016 survey by the International Documentary Association that only 22% of documentary professionals say they are able to make their primary living from documentary filmmaking. In my case it’s even more complicated because The Uphill Battle includes an educational aspect, which makes this movie very specific. Simply put, this is not a movie for everyone, and the target audience is not the same as you would see in normal movie theatres where people watch thrillers or comedies with famous actors, visual effects, and 3D graphics.
NAFC. Karate in Ontario: The Uphill Battle; The Cost of Raising a Champion, strikes us as a passion project: what inspired you to work on this film?
Maria Morgunova. There were specific circumstances around this particular documentary. My husband, Oleg Morgunov, is Executive Director of Welcome House, a non-profit organisation. In 2015, as part of the Pan Am Games promotion, he sought to hold a series of recreational tournaments for non-elite athletes known as the Toronto Karate Kids League (TKKL). These tournaments were sanctioned and financially supported by the City of Toronto. However, Karate Ontario Association, the governing body of karate in Ontario (PSO), refused to recognise them because PSO hold three of their own expensive Grand Prix karate tournaments every year, and they didn’t want competition for their clients (and their profits) from a non-profit organisation. PSO suggested that Welcome House should give part of the grant money it had received from the City of Toronto to PSO in exchange for “sanction” to run the TKKL tournaments. When Welcome House declined this questionable deal, PSO sent official letters to all members of Karate Ontario in which they clearly banned clubs from participating in tournaments. PSO were, in effect, warning all karate officials to stay away from the TKKL tournaments. As a result, many children weren’t able to access this affordable series of tournaments. In other words, they didn’t get the training they needed.
We now know that the governing body at that time was corrupt, with a silent leader managing the whole organization. Moreover, this person ignored the fact that the City of Toronto appointed Welcome House to organize these tournaments. It may sound strange, but the Ministry of Sports wasn’t able to manage the Provincial Sports Organization, and even officials were confused. I later discovered that there were not even any karate experts at the Ministry of Sports, and they certainly didn’t know there was a difference between karate and other martial arts.
Currently, there is no centralised open-source of information about Canadian karate or any statistics about different types of events related to karate. There is no official data on the number of clubs, coaches, and students in Canada. Simply put, if no-one understands the professional aspect of karate at the Ministry of Sports, then it must have been very easy to deceive the officials. We now understand that the silent leader of the PSO misinformed these officials for many years.
In an effort to investigate the situation properly, I grabbed my camera and interviewed as many karate practitioners in Ontario as I could. As I dug further, and as people from all levels of karate in Ontario shared their experiences with me, I was stunned to discover just how many people had similar stories to tell. I discovered during my research and video interviews that the unchallenged leader of PSO had been blackmailing and intimidating athletes and coaches for more than 20 years.
During the production of the documentary I was fortunate to interview amazing coaches, athletes, parents, and referees. They shared their experiences with me, and it was really inspirational to learn exactly what these people do and how they grow to become real champions. I realised at once that we have huge Olympic potential in Ontario. In my opinion, Government should wake up and take notice, and support these brilliant athletes and coaches, especially now that karate has been officially added to the Olympic Games.
I also noticed at the time that there was not a single magazine, newspaper, or website that reflected the successes of Canadian karate athletes, and to date we still don’t have anything. It appears that the mass media have no interest in this sport. You can read about any other sport in the Canadian press, listen on radio, or watch TV news, but you never hear any news about karate from mainstream mass media. For example, when Daniel Gaysinsky, who is one of our best Canadian Elite Athletes, received a silver medal at the Dutch Open in 2016 and a gold medal at the Pan American Championship in 2017, there was not a single mention or breaking news report from Canadian mass media about these amazing achievements. Nobody could explain to me what happened to the PR department of the Ministry of Sports and why there was no queue of journalists at the door of the RSK karate club (where this athlete trains) anxious to interview the champion of the Canadian national team.
Thus, my film was the first, and to date the only study of karate, not only in Ontario, but in North America. Reading reviews of my documentary we can see that both Canada and the USA are experiencing similar problems.
I created the feature documentary “The Uphill Battle” in order to present my findings to the City of Toronto, the Ministry of Sport, and other relevant agencies. My aim was to show them what karate is all about; and the educational angle of the film became even more important than the political one. How can officials help athletes and coaches if they don’t understand this sport?
I then realised that this documentary would be educational for anyone who may be interested in the different aspects of Karate. I sent proposals to distributers and libraries, and I’m very proud to say that, today, the movie is available all over the world for those who wish to watch it.
The results have been extremely positive. My husband sought to encourage leading members of Karate Ontario to create a new association to replace the corrupt one. This was not an easy process, but the documentary certainly helped in accomplishing this task. The corrupt governing body (Ontario Karate Association) has been replaced with a new organisation known as Ontario Karate Federation, and we now have official status as a Provincial Sport Organisation from the Government of Ontario. Ontario Karate Federation is a legitimate and exciting organisation that is ready, willing, and able, to take karate in Ontario to the next level. Importantly, Welcome House in conjunction with RSK Karate, finally received approval to run recreational tournaments for children and juniors as per their original plans.
NAFC. What are some of your favorite films?
Maria Morgunova. There are many films I would be happy to watch again. Each country has unique film directors, actors, journalists, and investigators who create amazing films. I like movies produced by Luc Besson, Steven Spielberg, Franco Zeffirelli, Guy Ritchie, Bernardo Bertolucci, John Carpenter, Andrei Tarkovsky, Akira Kurosawa and many others. I also love some movies that are not famous and didn’t win Oscars, but for me they are brilliant – for example Vabank (a Polish comedy written and directed by Juliusz Machulski), Arabian Nights (directed by Steve Barron), The Thirteenth Floor (written and directed by Josef Rusnak), The Commissar (Directed by Aleksandr Askoldov) and some others. Last year I was very impressed watching The Square (written and directed by Ruben Östlund). I also enjoy art history documentaries produced by the BBC.
NAFC. What filmmakers do you admire: mainstream or independent?
Maria Morgunova. I like both! I never look at awards because, personally, they have no relevance. For me, the bright story, the message to the audience, and the methods of creative expression are much more important that statues or participation in prestige festivals. There is a wonderful film about the specifics of independent cinema called Living in Oblivion (1995), directed by Tom DiCillo. The story is about how to survive when everything goes wrong, and the director struggles to complete his film. This explains the essence of independent film production. I like independent films because they come from the deepest heart and reflect real life, and most of them are produced as not-for-profit projects. Mainstream movies are all about business, marketing, and trends. They must comply with system requirements and always win artistically and economically. It’s not easy for creative people to produce amazing stories in prestige studios.
NAFC. What advice would you give to someone who is thinking about making their first film?
Maria Morgunova. I would suggest thinking about marketing and distribution before launching any project. Even if a filmmaker produces a not-for-profit film, it makes sense to consider participation in festivals, advertising, a website for the project, social media pages, photos, professionally designed posters and many other essentials that first-time filmmakers may consider not so important at first when compared with the production of the film. However, in order to deliver any film to an audience, every filmmaker must work with distributors, different platforms and channels, festivals, and film critics. Most of them think like a buyer (or a customer), and wrapping is very important to them. For example, marketing materials must very clearly show the genre of the film. This is vital for effective communication or negotiation with a film buyer and the marketing manager of a distribution company. You need a budget, and it’s a good idea to include these expenses in the total estimated costs.
Possibly the greatest challenge for a first-time filmmaker is finding the right contacts. A filmmaker needs a list of distributors, as well as a list of content managers or buyers who work on TV channels. Some of these people work independently. And, of course, it’s imperative that a filmmaker reads their contract very carefully. No contract should be signed unless – and until – both parties are completely comfortable with the wording. It’s definitely better to not sign anything than to feel trapped afterwards. It may be in your best interests to simply say no, and then look for a better proposal. I personally have seen many different contracts, and I sometimes wonder how some distributers dare to be so cynical and offer such predatory contracts. The reason they do this is that some distributors understand only too well that many filmmakers don’t really understand how the market works and how they could sell their movie independently. Fortunately, thanks to Internet platforms, it’s much easier today than it was 10 years ago to sell movies independently.