In the fall of 2010 – 40 years after graduating from UBC and launching a career as a documentary film producer – Cari Green returned to her alma mater looking to shore up her credentials for future teaching gigs. With decades of production experience under her belt, she could have sailed through the MFA in Film Production with practiced ease. But the three years she spent in the program have delivered some unexpected benefits: a fresh appreciation for fiction, an unexpected turn as a writer and director, and a deeper understanding of what it means to capture truth on film.
“I went way outside my comfort zone,” Green says of her completed thesis film, Citizen Jane. “I had never written a script before. I had never directed documentary or drama. Originally I thought I would go in with a project I already had under my belt, and produce the documentary for my thesis. But however the fates conspired, I ended up agreeing to direct.”
Stretching herself further, Green shot Citizen Jane as a drama, a genre in which she had little experience. The short film relays the struggle of Jane Cross, a gay soldier serving in the Canadian military in 1987, a time when open homosexuality was still grounds for dismissal from the service. The story is loosely based on the real experiences of Second Lieutenant Michelle Douglas, whose 1992 court challenge led Canada to overturn its ban on gays serving in military.
The story is loosely based on the real experiences of Second Lieutenant Michelle Douglas, whose 1992 court challenge led Canada to overturn its ban on gays serving in military.
Citizen Jane was imagined as a documentary, but Douglas was hesitant to reopen old wounds – a position Green discovered was common among survivors of this dark chapter in Canadian history. “The fact is that the people who were involved, who were harassed and thrown out and dismissed, are very, very reluctant to come forward,” says Green, “and understandably so.”
Green came out of the closet late in life, finding honesty with herself after a career of seeking truth from others. Now she’s eager for Canadians to address this forgotten chapter of their history, and with the support of several NDP critics is using her film as a platform to promote a simple idea she feels is long overdue: an apology to our gay veterans. “I want people to know that there was a time in our history when soldiers were discharged from the military purely for their sexual preferences,” Green asserts in the Indiegogo campaign she used to partially fund the film. “They not only lost their careers, they lost their relationships, their honour, and in some cases they lost their lives.”
Because Douglas wished to maintain her privacy (although she supported the film by donating to the Indiegogo campaign), Green was forced to tackle the subject in a way she’d never imagined. She took directing classes and found herself behind the camera after a lifetime of watching from a safe distance. “I had no idea what I was doing,” she says, “because I didn’t have an undergraduate degree in film, so I was really thrown into the water. But you just gotta swim in the pool. You just gotta do it.”
Green was forced to tackle the subject in a way she’d never imagined. She took directing classes and found herself behind the camera after a lifetime of watching from a safe distance.
The sink-or-swim metaphor is an apt description of Green’s original path into the film world. While working at Kwantlen College in the 1970s, she became involved in planning lunchtime film programs, eventually leading her to a job as executive director of a nonprofit film distributor, Canadian Filmmakers Distribution West, (now called Moving Images).
In 1987, she left the organization and began her producing career, teaming up with filmmaker Marianne Kaplan for the Genie-nominated documentary Songololo: Voices of Change, examining post-apartheid culture in South Africa as it was unfolding. “We wanted to show that South Africa was different,” says Green, “that there was more to it than all the bloodshed and violence. We happened to be there at the time when there must have been a lot of backroom discussions and deals going on with releasing Mandela. And while we were there, Walter Sisulu, who was part of the African National Congress and closely related to what would become the ruling party, was released. A large stadium, hundreds of thousands of people came from all over the country, and we filmed all of that. It was such an exciting time. I decided that was it, I was determined to do documentary, not fiction.”
For the next two decades, through her production companies Nimpkish Wind and Producers on Davie, Green helped produce several high-profile documentaries, including Sundance “Audience Favorite” The Corporation and Genie winner Scared Sacred. But as documentary funding began losing ground to the more profitable (and ironically, less truthful) trend of reality television, Green took to teaching courses in producing and documentary filmmaking at the Vancouver Film School. After six years, she returned to UBC to begin her film career anew.
“It was zero-to-sixty,” Green jokes about her sudden transformation from producer to director. “I have along the way gotten really interested in writing and directing, but I don’t know where it’s going to take me.” Whatever her destination, Green isn’t waiting around for opportunities to fall into her lap. As Citizen Jane begins its tour around the festival circuit, she is already producing two more documentaries: Heartwood, a look at clear-cutting on Cortes Island, and Dancing in a Hurricane, a partnership with noted Vancouver writer Daniel Wood.
Despite her quick return to documentaries, Green’s MFA experience has piqued her interest in dramatic films and she’s even considering turning Citizen Jane into a feature. “A lot of people have said This feels like a tease,” she recalls. “I want to know what happened. I want to know how it happened. I found out that although I had embraced documentary as a way to get to the truth, I really understood how you could get to the heart of the story, which to me is the truth of the story – whether it’s the factual truth or the emotional truth, it’s true fiction. That was a great discovery. That somehow, by just working and working and working at it, you could get to a place that felt like truth to you.”