'Heritage Minutes' Are Making A Comeback

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TORONTO — Kari Skogland thinks it's about time that filmmakers push the boundaries on Canada's Heritage Minutes.

After directing two early instalments in the series of bite-sized historic moments, the Ottawa-born director suggests there's an opportunity to re-envision the project as a collection of thought-provoking conversation starters, rather than simple recreations of the past.

"It's one thing to say we're proud of a moment,'' Skogland says.

"It's another thing to say we're involved in a moment.''

Skogland, who has gone on to direct TV shows including "House of Cards,'' "The Walking Dead'' and "Vikings,'' says the latest call out by Historica Canada for another two instalments of the series opens the door for artists to draft a few edgier proposals.

"Maybe it doesn't need to be quite that saccharine."

Past dramatizations often leaned towards safe, heart-warming tales like "Winnie,'' the story of Winnie the Pooh's creation. Even Skogland's own Mennonite-set history lesson "Water Pump'' played like a sugar-coated memory.

"Maybe it doesn't need to be quite that saccharine,'' she suggests.

Historica Canada has been making tweaks to the series in recent years, turning its lens to more shameful parts of Canada's history. Two new Heritage Minutes last year acknowledged the country's racism with stories that addressed residential schools and segregation.

Skogland thinks the next step could be acknowledging how our Canadian artists have impacted the world. A timely and important example, she suggests, would be dedicating a Heritage Minute to the story of Leonard Cohen.

"He was a poet and a social commentator,'' she says. "He had a huge value in his time to make people think about the world and how we perceive it.''

Historica Canada's chief executive says he's open to all new ideas, but that he's particularly hoping to fill glaring omissions in the series, which after nearly 26 years still hasn't tackled some important subjects.

"There's a lot of holes, a lot of things to do,'' says Anthony Wilson-Smith.

leonard cohen
Singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen performs at the Glastonbury Festival in England in 2008.

In particular, Heritage Minutes haven't paid much attention to stories of the LGBTQ community, young people, religion and the environment.

Wilson-Smith says he'd like all of those themes captured in vignettes sooner than later.

Looking at new formats

Storytelling diversity is another priority. A variety of technologies like 3D and CGI haven't been used much at all, so they could become new tools for retelling a particular moment. Documentary-style formats are also on the table as a possibility.

"We're not filmmakers here,'' he adds.

"So when people come forward with ideas where we say, 'We haven't looked at it that way before,' we're gonna (consider them) very hard.''

Breaking the mould has been a top priority for Wilson-Smith. He recently green-lit the first animated Heritage Minute, which explores Canada's immigration history. The clip is set for release later this year.

The less-conventional style could allow for more original ideas to flow in.

Kire Paputts, who tackled mental disabilities in his 2015 coming-of-age film "The Rainbow Kid,'' says organizers should consider darker moments in recent Canadian history, like the Sexual Sterilization Act of 1928.

The Alberta act allowed for the sterilization of mentally disabled people to prevent them from reproducing. It wasn't repealed until 1972.

Virtual reality could bring viewers into the story

Paputts also suggests Historica Canada should think beyond one-minute storylines by producing a series of interactive videos.

He says historical events might be enhanced with an intense virtual reality experience. One option would be a dramatization of the Toronto bathhouse raids of 1981, which are credited as a turning point for LGBTQ activism in the community.

"Feeling like you're there in the moment would be an interesting way to take it,'' Paputts says.

"You could be one of the people who was getting (arrested) by cops. It opens up new doors.''

Fabienne Colas, founder of the Montreal and Toronto Black Film Festivals, says the future success of Heritage Minutes relies on who's acknowledged as an inspiring figure.

"Sometimes we highlight stories of people that are so old they don't appeal as much."

"One thing we have to break away from is the mindset that somebody has to be 95 years old,'' she says.

"Sometimes we highlight stories of people that are so old they don't appeal as much. We have to open our eyes and see who is exceptional around us that can inspire a new generation as well.''

David Cormican, a producer on TV series such as "Between'' and "Shadowhunters,'' thinks filmmakers should take a page from changing viewing habits. His daughter spends far more time on YouTube watching clips than she does in front of a TV screen.

"Maybe shorter is better,'' he says. "A minute might be too long for some attention spans these days.''

The popularity of "10 Things You Didn't Know'' videos on social media offer direction for how to connect with teenagers, Cormican says.

Historica Canada is already experimenting with similar ideas. A year ago they unveiled an unconventional mash-up that used familiar Heritage Minutes snippets to recreate Drake's hit song "Started From the Bottom.''

The organization is also considering projects that run longer than 60 seconds. Wilson-Smith says conversations are underway to produce a separate series of documentaries that clock in under five minutes.

As for the latest Heritage Minutes, the organization hopes to make its picks by the end of April. Production would then start this summer with a tentative plan for release later in the year.

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