By Jonathan Popalis
Conrad Black has been portayed in the public eye for years as a rich megalomanical media tycoon. Most recently, Black has made headlines with accusations of money laundering within his company.
But filmmakers and married couple Debbie Melnyk and Rick Caine hope to shed new light on the infamous founder of the National Post with their ground-breaking documentary, Citizen Black.
“Conrad Black was really one of the most flamboyant pressmen Canada has ever really known,” said Melnyk, who spent three years in correspondence with Black. “He was like our very own William Randolph Hearst, a Citizen Kane-type character and he really deserved for something to be done on him,” Melnyk said. “[He was] the first Canadian to start up a national newspaper in 15 years.”
Melnyk and her husband saw Black-who sued Jean Chretien then renounced his Canadian citizenship when he lost – as a perversely fascinating character who was genuinely misunderstood.
“He’s a real dichotomy of sorts,” Melnyk said. “On one hand, you have a guy who is this uptight, stodgy conservative but every now and again you get these glimpses of a really funny guy with a great sense of humour.”
But Melnyk said the purpose of her film is not to redeem Black’s marred status in the public eye. “People are so multifaceted. You can be both ruthless and loyal to your friends; it can all be encompassed into one person.I think that’s something about us that connects us as humans.”
Melnyk’s decision to make a film on Black came before his career started tumbling out of control. Melnyk and Caine were well into making their movie when Black was fired as chief executive of U.S.-based Hollinger International. All of this came as quite a surprise to Melnyk, who captured every moment of it on film.
“[Rick and I] basically said to each other, ‘Oh, this film is getting a lot more interesting – mighty fun twists and turns.’ We had to go to the New York shareholders’ meeting where, essentially, all hell broke loose, and I was thinking to myself, ‘This is great!'”
Melnyk graduated from the Ryerson school of Journalism in 1982 and went on to become a television producer. She ended up in Los Angeles doing a lot of entertainment reporting and producing.
“It was just a horror show,” she said. “I ended up making my own film, out of necessity, about the relationship between entertainment journalists – I use that term loosely – and Hollywood-called ‘junket whores.’It was concerning these people who only have good things to say about Hollywood films.”
“They influence filmmakers and it’s not as risky as it could be if there were no ties, as in things you can’t say on television and non-politically correct comments,” Melnyk said. “You should be able to say and do whatever you want.”
Contrary to her distain for the Hollywood scene, Melnyk has a great amount of admiration and respect for the documentary industry in Canada.One problem she pointed out, however, is the difficulty filmmakers face in getting funding.
Melnyk said this means filmmakers often have to cater to the agendas of different broadcasters in order to get their films made.
Melnyk attributes much of her success to her studies at Ryerson, saying that her journalism degree is what helped her get her first job in the industry at CKWS in Kingston.She said it helped that on her first day of journalism school she was already out interviewing people.
“We were out there on Yonge and Dundas interviewing strangers, just being thrown to the bulls.It just gives you such a good background.” Melnyk considers the biggest asset a documentary maker can have is the ability to always search for and tell the truth.
“I don’t really consider Michael Moore a documentarian as I do an activist. Real documentary makers don’t have an agenda going into making a film and their opinions should change as you go on so you can take the audience through the same trip and the journey that you went through,” she said.
Citizen Black premieres on TVO’s Canadian documentary series The View From Here on Wednesday, Nov. 3 at 10 p.m.