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Trailer Park Girl takes on American history

Trailer park girl takes on American history Winnipegger teams up with Robert Redford

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BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. -- Watergate.

The freedom march on Washington, D.C.

"I am not a crook."

"I have a dream."

These are descriptions and declarations that conjure up images of two iconic events in 20th-century American history, whose importance cannot be understated and whose after-effects continue to inform U.S. social and political discussion.

Watergate and The March are also the subjects of the first two documentaries by Sundance Productions, and as such they are unique because one of the guiding hands behind these two profoundly American projects belongs to a Canadian -- more specifically, a Winnipegger, Laura Michalchyshyn. She partnered with actor/producer and Sundance Channel founder Robert Redford last year to launch Sundance Productions.

All the President's Men Revisited aired last April on Discovery. The March will debut on PBS on Aug. 27, the eve of the 50th anniversary of the 1963 procession that brought a quarter of a million people to the U.S. capital.

"The fact that I have an international perspective -- I'm Canadian, and proudly so; I still have my Canadian citizenship and always will -- means I bring a little bit of a global view to these projects," Michalchyshyn told the Free Press after The March's director, John Akomfrah, and several of the film's interview subjects met with reporters and TV critics during PBS's portion of the U.S. networks' semi-annual press tour in Los Angeles.

"If anything, I think my humble contribution to these films can be asking a few questions as an outsider, and trying to understand the effects of these events as someone who wasn't here to live them."

Michalchyshyn started her career as a TV executive at WTN, the Winnipeg-based women's network that eventually became the Toronto-based W network.

After serving for seven years as head of programming for Alliance Atlantis -- which included overseeing Showcase TV and the introduction of the groundbreaking comedy Trailer Park Boys -- she relocated to the U.S. to become vice-president of programming and marketing for U.S. cable's Sundance Channel.

"I had amazing mentors and great leadership," she said of her formative years in Canadian TV, "I've taken a lot of what I learned -- the process of creating great television in that Canadian market -- and applied it now working in the U.S. If you look at (Sundance Productions') slate of dramas, they all have what I hope are brave, original voices and storytelling that's unique and has that 'A-ha!' factor.

"After all these years, one of my favourite and proudest moments is (overseeing the launch of) Trailer Park Boys. As a Canadian, I still get asked all the time by Americans, 'Have you ever heard of this trailer-park show?' And I'm like, 'Of course I have.'"

Michalchyshyn later moved to Discovery Communications to become president and GM of two cable networks, Planet Green and FitTV, and in the spring of 2012, Michalchyshyn partnered with Redford on their current production-company venture.

The March was co-produced by Sundance and two other production companies: Smoking Dog Films and Cactus Three. Akomfrah's past documentary directing credits include The Wonderful World of Louis Armstrong, Seven Songs for Malcolm X and Oil Spill: The Exxon Valdez Disaster.

The March includes interviews with more than 25 people who took part in the procession, helped organize it, or participated in media coverage of the event. Among the subjects are Joan Baez, Harry Belafonte, Diahann Carroll, Sidney Poitier and former CBS News correspondent Roger Mudd.

"In 1963, I was the congressional correspondent covering Capitol Hill, and it was a hermetically sealed existence because you never really heard much about what was going on outside," Mudd recalled. "Everything that we heard was from committee chairmen, Southerners (who were) uncommitted and generally uninterested in the civil rights movement. So my experience with the march on Washington was my first first-hand look at the marvellous men who participated in that. It was, for me, a revelation and, I dare say, a revelation to the men and women on Capitol Hill."

Michalchyshyn said she and Redford view projects such as The March as important because even a half-century after the fact, there are many lessons to be learned.

"These kinds of programs are about this country's history, culture, politics, as well as where we are and where we're going," said Michalchyshyn, who is based in New York. "We like to say that history tends to repeat itself, and a film like The March is a gentle reminder, 50 years later, that issues like civil rights, freedom, integration and race relations are still very much front and centre, for Americans in particular, but also internationally."

Michalchyshyn said Sundance Productions will expand its roster in coming months to include a number of scripted projects as well as more documentary work.

"We have about seven scripted projects in development, and if all goes well, we will be announcing our first later this fall," she said. "We also have the CNN (documentary) series Chicagoland, which will be broadcast worldwide (early next year), and we're doing more documentaries, limited series, miniseries and ongoing series, both fiction and non-fiction." Twitter: @BradOswald

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 10, 2013 G10

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