I do wish he would call me back, I can never make him understand that we need to have these things on paper. Wait, I’ve got to stop for some food.” Christa Singer’s car makes an unexpected turn onto Toronto’s Eglinton Avenue. (‘Have you ever heard of Grano? Oh, and I must tell you… eeoow …some gas, we need to get some gas. Damn! I hope I’ve got the card.”
This time the car does a screeching, freewheeling 360 as Singer shuffles through the glove compartment and I’m thinking that this plump and greying little woman looks too much like my grandmother for this. Left to its own devices, the new blue Mazda roars its engine and blazes through a herd of startled rush-hour vehicles. “Hurry, quick, tell me what card I’ve got!” The car skins by a garbage bin and comes lurching to a halt at the Esso station. “Good, it’s the right one-I always forget which one it is.”
Christa Singer is the only producer at TVOntario whose colleagues have included a “no driving with Christa” clause in their contracts, She never was much good at living up to the three Cs: calm, cool and collected. But in all fairness, she has other things on her mind.
Right now, her mind is held hostage by one unshakable image. A withered, almost dried-out old woman in her eighties, hoisting her husband’s hulking but lifeless limbs onto a little metal swing. There are thousands of old people like Kate and Reg for whom day-to-day living is a battle. And we leave them utterly helpless, How will they cope?
This is the question Singer asked viewers in Love’s Labour, an hour-long documentary featuring Kate and other elderly people trying to deal with the problem of living without health that aired on TVOntario in February. But it was only the most recent in a long line of documentaries about the homeless, dispossessed and plain unfortunate that Singer has produced over the last 30 years. Her portraits of people’s lives, exploring such issues as adoption, mental retardation, juvenile offenders and unemployment have done much to bring the plight of the downtrodden out of the statistics and into the homes, and hearts, of viewers.
At 56, Singer is still one of the more underrated Canadian documentary makers. But the plaques on her office walls attest to victories that have captured bronze and silver spoils on the international film festival circuit. In 1980, Belonging, a film about adoption, won a bronze award at the Columbus film festival and a silver in Houston. Childhood Cancer: One Day at a Time won an award ~t a medical film festival in 1984. Considered by critics to be her best, Full of Sound and Fury: Living with Schizophrenia was scrutinized by judges from Los Angeles to Varna, Bulgaria, in 1985 and emerged triumphant with three awards. Last year’s contender is a moving film about youth unemployment called Generation on Hold.
These documentaries reflect that particular brand of un-judging empathy Singer has for her subjects. She does not try to expose the cracks in the system, but rather looks for what is worthwhile in helping people deal with their problems. “I am overwhelmed,” she says as we lunge out of the Esso station into the six o’clock traffic stampede, “by the courage, humor and staying power of those willing to share their lives so that others may benefit from their very personal and often painful experiences.”
Bringing such experiences to the small screen with the searing honesty of Singer’s films requires a depth of involvement that goes far beyond a producer’s behind-the-camera commitment.
Rob is 22. He grew up in Sudbury, attended community college and trained to be a millwright like his father. Rob thought he’d done everything right. Instead, he found himself gamely pounding the roads of northern Ontario, far from home, looking for work-any work. He soon discovered that a tent isn’t a good enough address for job applications. Christa featured him in Generation on Hold. In it he declares: “The day I go on welfare will be the hardest day of my life. You pick blueberries and live off blueberries before you go on welfare.”
Singer admires Rob’s unwavering optimism. She selected him because she thought he represented the tragedy of today’s youth, still looking for its share of the pie despite having been elbowed out by the baby boomers. His tenacity is the same trait she brings to her own struggle to muster the support and funding that actually get the cameras onto the set.
Making documentaries at TVOntario means cajoling funds out of potential sponsors. Almost all of Singer’s films are either multiply funded or co-produced (a financial remedy she introduced at TVOntario). In 1980, TVO created a special department to fund projects like Singer’s, but there are still people like Stan Fox, the director of adult programming, she must win over to new projects.
Love’s Labour, which cost about $150,000, is a good example of multiple funding. Half the money was provided by TVOntario, which retains editorial control; the remainder came from a Health and Welfare Canada grant and provincial subsidies. Other coproductions, including Generation on Hold, have been bought by the CBC on completion and then aired on both networks simultaneously.
Financing is only the first hurdle. “TVOntario is educational television,” Singer says, “and sometimes television and education don’t mix-1 don’t like to make ‘nice’ programs or training tapes for social workers, so it can be a very difficult situation.”
Running the obstacle course of filmmaking at TVO pits Singer against a “particular dilemma,” says Deborah Magidson, a film and video freelancer who co-produced and directed Sound and Fury with Singer. “She has to juggle the demands of the films, the requirements of the sponsors and the restrictions of TVOntario’s educational mandate. It’s great to get the money, but strings always have that compromising effect.” Love’s Labour, for example, suffered from its having to include several ethnic groups, a rural situation, a childless couple and subjects from Montreal and different parts of Ontario.
Untying the strings of TVO’s purse, knotted and tangled with the complications of mandate and funding, is at best frustrating. But, according to a TVO host who doesn’t want to be identified, Singer seems to plow through “bureaucratic inertia as thick as molasses” with astonishing ease. Singer puts up with the petty politicking, says Magidson, because she always wanted one thing: “to make sure her films were seen by the right people.”
TVO’s films are watched by a unique audience. Besides the station’s television audience, some of the programs end up as educational material, in the hands of nurses, teachers and politicians-the very people who are trying to find solutions to Singer’s concerns.
Prepared to put on a smart dress and do the promotional tango in order to get her films to the people who can really make the difference, Singer also expects her co-workers to dance to her own tune of stubborn stick-to-itiveness and penny-pinching thrift. “People are always saying, ‘How can you work with her?'” says John Frizelle; an independent screenwriter working as Conko the Clown in 1979 when Singer hired him on a hunch to write Upper Reaches, a film about the children of divorce. “She needs fast people and you have to deal with the way she thinks. She has no patience for stupidity, and you never ever sit down and have lunch with her, not Christa. Her day is a battle from beginning to end. If she wants to talk, she’ll call you at 7 a.m., and you’ll talk.”
In fact, Singer works the way she drives: totally helter-skelter. Always in full sail and looking quite purple, dragging her coat and clutching an unruly stack of newspapers, she will erupt from an elevator only to realize she has forgotten something once again. At times her preoccupation is so complete that she’ll gaze at old acquaintances without a glimmer of recognition, her mind focused on another reality, the one she has captured in the eye of the camera.
Desiree is 23. She grew up in Alberta and was the first in her family to get a BA. Now she’s slinging hamburgers in her parent’s restaurant in tiny Vegreville. When she heard a local radio ad Christa placed to help find subjects for Generation on Hold, she jumped at the chance to tell her story, By the end of the shooting, Desiree decided to try looking for a job in the magazine industry in Toronto. But still unsure of her chances and afraid to leave the protection of her family, she tells viewers of Generation on Hold: “It would be wonderful if the words just lit up in the sky: ‘Desiree, you should be this, you would be wonderful at this.
When Singer was just a little girl in Berlin, the only things that lit up in the sky were bombs. Mama designed sets for the theatres of the 1930s under Brecht and Papa was a physician with a penchant for political protest in the plays he wrote. In 1936, just before the war broke out, they sent Christa, then five, and her 2V2-year-old brother Michael, to England and into boarding school. At Queen’s College in London, Christa Erdei spent her bobby-sock years under the firm guidance of Miss Manely and Miss March, teachers who taught her their own liberal brand of social responsibility. They also experimented in teaching methods that excluded the written word. Singer still hates writing and no one bothers leaving her memos anymore.
Singer emigrated to Canada with her family in the 1950s, just before her 20th birthday. She jumped right into an undergraduate course in political science and economics at the University of Toronto. On a summer trip to Boston in her third year, she met Jack Singer, an economics graduate at MIT. Two years later, Mrs. Singer returned to Canada with her husband.
All that time, Singer was nurturing a dream. “I was so desperate for radio, it was Murrow and Friendly and very intellectual.” For three years, Singer knocked at the doors of the CBC hoping to be let into that “magic circle.” The doors remained closed. But her characteristic perseverance caught the eye, and the sympathy, of Mavor Moore, then CBC’s chief producer, who finally said, “For heaven’s sake, someone give that woman a job.” And they did.
It wasn’t radio, it was television, a medium the busty and slightly plump Christa Singer felt very uncomfortable with. Singer never did work in front of the camera but rather behind it. In the four years she worked for producer Ross McLean, she climbed from typing for Newsmagazine, to script assistant, to researcher and then to directing documentary segments for Living and Tabloid.
Although Singer’s rise through the ranks is the typical story of success, she was anything but ordinary. “She was always a specimen apart,” says McLean, now a broadcast instructor at Ryerson Poly technical Institute. “Almost all that were hired at the time were from rich and snobbish homes and they all had that cultural and economic thing in common. Not Christa she wasn’t a lovely, spoiled, pretty, rich kid.”
Neither was she the slickly organized script assistant of the day. But McLean and others didn’t really mind the frazzled way she worked (she never did come to grips with the complexities of countdowns). Singer had other abilities-in the field of film production. The first of these was a revealing documentary about the refugees of the Hungarian Revolution who arrived in Canada in the late ’50s. “Locating baby bottles, fruit, accommodation and a host of equally important items became very much a part of my filmmaking,” Singer says. She stayed knee deep in personal involvement with her subjects from that day on.
After more than a decade at the CBC, and several outstanding documentaries on such subjects as parole, adoption, blind children and bright kids, Singer turned her talents to raising her two young boys after the birth of her second son, Kevin, in 1964. In 1970, at 39, Singer turned her concern for struggling people into a master’s degree in social work at the University of Toronto. But by the time she graduated, she had her eye on something else.
“I wanted to go for a job as educational supervisor at TVOntario,” Singer tells me as the Mazda mercifully swings onto a quiet side street. “I’d hurt my knee, so I had to look for work close to home.” Whatever, Singer went on to originate TVO’s successful current affairs show Speaking Out in the mid-1970s and then for the next eight years produced issue-oriented programs that provided material for teacher education. That put her back on the path to documentary making, using the prime-time techniques she learned at the CBC and applying them to films destined for the classroom.
Terry is 19 and trouble sticks to him like a nasty piece of chewing gum. He was in trouble back in Newfoundland and now he’s in even more trouble on the streets of Toronto. Singer spent six weeks drinking the motor-oil coffee at the Harvey’s at Gerrard and Jarvis as she followed the nightly exploits of Terry and his girlfriend for Generation on Hold. Visibly restless and unfocused, Terry tells viewers about a job he’d once had keeping clothes tidy in a store: “I’d get it all nice, an’ then people, they jus’ started messin’ it all up. Well, I was gone, you can only do that for so long.”
Like Terry, Singer sometimes finds it difficult to conform to the rules of her job. David Cherniack is now the producer of the CBC’s ManAlive, but as the director of Belonging, he questioned Singer’s involvement in people’s lives. “She always wanted to make the contact even closer, driving parents to psychiatrists and showing upon doorsteps with cheesebread and croissants. I’m not sure that they always wanted it. She even tried to take Terry into her house.”
“I just couldn’t help phoning Terry’s parents,” Singer says as she coaxes the little Mazda into the driveway of her newly renovated house in the Yonge-Eglinton area. “He was such a con artist, his parents had no idea what he was doing.” Singer fumbles through her bag looking for the prison-warden size key ring now legendary for its ability to wander off at the most inopportune moments. The stubborn door gives in and Singer shuttles herself upstairs to change into something more comfortable, issuing a warning to stay away from the bedroom. “It’s just a mess of newspapers I don’t want you to see. Make yourself at home, have a beer.”
Where do you fit Christa Singer in this picture? A sterile whiteness interrupted only by a few pieces of wildly abstract art. A scattering of crystal and chrome executive toys positioned as strategically as in a gift-shop window. I keep trying to imagine her sitting down by the fireplace and donning a pair of bifocals to scan some script, but I can’t. The fireplace isn’t real anyway.
Enter Christa Singer, wife of prominent consulting economist Jack Singer and mother of two enviably successful sons, Jeffrey and Kevin (both in their twenties), dressed in pre-washed jeans and blouse, brandishing a cup of saki (a hold-over from frequent visits to Japanese restaurants).
“I never bring my work home,” Singer says, sensing that this clinical tidiness isn’t quite what I had anticipated. “I keep them very divided. My husband doesn’t even know what I’m doing at work.” But somehow the two worlds must have connected in 18-year-old Keith, Singer’s third and adopted son, better known by her pet name for him, “The Black Prince.” Raised in a family that enjoys vacations abroad and the best schools, Keith doesn’t care for princely pastimes and refuses to bow to institutional authority. Now anywhere between Grade 9 and Grade 11, he “has no work ethic,” says his mother, “but a real sense of reality and a devastating sense of humor.” He is a defiant curve in a very straight family, almost a subject for a Singer documentary.
Dominique is 24, a high school grad who dropped out of a library studies course in Montreal because she couldn’t get along with her family. For seven years she has been caught on the wearing treadmill of welfare, short-term jobs and unemployment insurance. She is terrified and near desperate by the time Christa films her for Generation on Hold. Dominique tells the camera: “When you’re on welfare, people can see it on your face, so you might as well stay home.”
When you listen to Dominque, it isn’t so much what she says that gets to you, it’s that look, a kind of mournful sadness, the same look that sometimes clouds Singer’s face. “Christa has always suffered from a lack of belief in her talent as a filmmaker,” says her friend John Frizelle. “Over the years she has wrongly credi ted her successes to the young talent she brought into the industry, some of which used her to get on.”
That’s why Singer often left the directing and editing to the young people she hired with little or often no experience, a break Magidson says is virtually unheard of in the broadcasting industry. That’s why Singer has all but abandoned Love’s Labour in its editing stage to her director, for whom this will be a first film. Instead, she has taken up the reins of TVO’s Moneysworth, a consumer affairs program Singer admits is a “terrible distraction, but they needed me.” Then, with that weepy expression she says, “I’ve had my chance at documentary and was not going to get any better. I have never made it to the Big Time, it takes a special feeling, a feeling that I don’t have.”
But with Singer, clouds of insecurity are too volatile to linger and are quickly swept away by clement gusts of enthusiasm. “From now on I’m going to do what I know I’m good at. That’s developing young Canadian filmmakers and feature films, some sort of My Beautiful Laundrette with a social aspect.” She’s already lined up a special on Jane Siberry and is planning a drama on a Toronto distress centre called Night of Mirrors, both of which would be produced jointly by TVOntario and two independent Canadian filmmakers. “I really believe,” Singer says, “that there is a place for Canadian feature films on the international scene, and I want to help them get there.” Singer really does care.
Weeks after I left Singer’s home, I discovered just how much she cared. Kate, the woman Singer featured in Love’s Labour, was dying of cancer. Singer rushed a rough cut of the film to her bedside so that Kate could watch herself hoisting Reg onto his bed-one last time.