(for those who prefer just the straight biographical facts about David Cherniack click here.)
To date my career spans over 50 documentary films, all on diverse subjects, but, I think, all concerned in some way with peeling back the layers of illusion that separate us from reality. Doing films, for me, is not so much an art as a vehicle of exploration.
After getting an undergraduate degree in Physics, I was at loose ends. I knew at that point I wasn't going to go on in Physics. It wasn't going to answer any of my deeper questions. I set out for Europe where I became interested in film, at least as a way of expressing the existential quandary in which I saw the world, perhaps as a reflection of myself.
During a cold, wet December in London in 1967 I made my first film and fell in love with the ability to play with a simulacrum of reality. I decided to explore the great films schools on the continent, in Paris, Rome, and Prague, lugging my first undoubtable masterpiece with me in my knapsack. In Rome our VW bus was broken into and my knapsack and first and only film, stolen. Devastated, I found my way to the Matala caves on the South coast of Crete where I licked my wounds for a month, feeling as devoid and desolate as the hard sandstone crypts on which I and about thirty others laid our heads each night. It was a kind of paradise, far flung from the world. After a month I had to leave.
I decided to make my way East to India, but a series of events brought me instead to Prague, and an interview at the Film Academy (FAMU). It was at the height of the collective euphoria known as the Prague Spring. I fell in love with the city and the hope that seemed to fill its nights. On Aug. 21 everything changed in the course of a few hours. With the Warsaw Pact armies a darkness fell pervading every corner of existence. Still, I spent the next four years studying dramatic direction under Otakar Vavra and Evald Schorm. It was as rich and profound an education into the nature of art and human society as any aspiring filmmaker could want. In the middle of it I discovered the Buddhadharma.
On returning to Canada my wife and I were among the founders of the Winnipeg Film Group before we relocated to Toronto in 1976. The following year I made Coming and Going, a cinema verité documentary about life on a palliative care ward. It was something of a ground breaking film, lifting the veil on the emotional dynamics that surround dying in a technological, death denying, society.
In 1981 I was invited to join CBC’s documentary anthology unit, Man Alive, where I spent the next 13 years doing films on a wide variety of eclectic, spiritual, subjects. I was fortunate to meet and film with some wonderful people. But of all the films I did there the one that had the greatest social impact was A Circle of Healing which revealed for the first time the widespread sexual abuse, and its derivative effects on the First Nations communities, that had gone on at the Church-run, government sponsored, residential schools. Like many of the themes and stories I did at Man Alive, I revisited this one later when I became an independent filmmaker.
In the mid-late-nineties, with Sleepwalking Mongolia, I began learning the process of shooting and editing my own films. The innovative 26 part tone-poem, Spiritual Literacy, followed. From 2000-2003 I made Reservation, a cinema verité feature and miniseries that follows life over the course of a year on the same remote BC reserve where A Circle of Healing was shot. Reservation revealed the full effects of the residential school system, how it continues to lurk in every nook and cranny of reserve life. It was difficult to do because I wanted to make something uncompromisingly honest. That was followed by Hitler and I, a reflection on the all too human nature of evil and the problems with mythologizing it.
In 2005, with the permission of H.H. the Dalai Lama, I was allowed to film The Oracle, a documentary about the State Oracles of Tibet.
From 2005 to 2008 I made the feature documentary UFOs: The Secret History, the first film to take a detailed look at the history of the UFO phenomenon.
The style of my films varies from straight cinema verité, to dramatic reconstruction, to full narration driven story telling. I believe that style is driven by whatever suits the subject matter.
As for the content...well, while I've been fortunate to witness and experience many things that have continuously pushed back the borders of what I recognize as reality, I am also, I think, increasingly more aware of the difference between belief and knowledge, shaded as it is by wishful thinking and self-deception. This tends to make what I think I know, increasingly less...and much more provisional in nature. That which I may not have experienced first-hand I tend to put on the shelf if it seems sincere, and to disregard if it doesn't.
All of this informs my films.