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By Jane Shulman
Daniel Cross, Montreal filmmaker and Concordia film production professor, has seen a lot through his work, but nothing that prepared him for his recent diplomatic mission to Ukraine and Norway with the Governor General of Canada, where he visited royal palaces and mingled with monarchs and heads of state.
Cross was one of six Canadian civilians invited by the Right Honourable Michaëlle Jean, Governor General of Canada, and her husband, Jean-Daniel Lafond.
“Whenever Their Excellencies go on a state visit, they take civilians with them who can contribute to the mission based on their experience,” explained Cross.
“I don’t officially know why I was invited,” he said. He thinks it may be related to recognition he received for his website, homelessnation.org a few years ago through a project initiated by His Excellency Jean-Daniel Lafond that reflects on the challenges facing arts, culture and society through public forums honouring Canadian artists.
Homeless Nation describes itself as “the only website in the world created by and for the street community.” The project grew from Cross’s interest in the issues of homeless people and justice. He had heard more stories from people living on the street than he could tell in his films. The goal of the website is to keep telling those stories, and to develop and strengthen homeless communities across Canada.
While Cross believes his background as an advocate for homeless people may have been part of the reason he was asked to join the delegation, he went representing independent filmmakers and producers, too.
The 10-day trip, split evenly between Ukraine and Norway, featured a mix of events, some with formal protocol, others that were more casual and allowed for interaction with the public.
In the daytime, delegates often split into groups based on their areas of expertise. Cross gave a presentation with His Excellency, who has a background in television production, at the Ukranian Institute of Film and Broadcasting. In Norway, Cross showed some of his work and spent the day presenting workshops at the film institute.
“At night, I would go back to the hotel, put on a tuxedo and head out for a state dinner with monarchs,” he said. In Norway, the delegation was hosted by the King and Queen. “For someone like me, it [the security and protocol] was a new experience.”
During a state affair in Ukraine, Cross and other delegates sat with the President’s wife, and they discussed the country’s film industry.
“She wanted to know how they could develop their industry with Russia’s star system overshadowing theirs,” Cross explained. They discussed how the U.S. star system tends to dominate Canadian film culture, and how the industry in Canada works to overcome that. Later, Cross talked about how English and French cinema have flourished in Canada, and offered ideas for funding Ukraine’s film industry.
“Besides all that goes with travelling with heads of state, I got to see a lot that I never would have, and I was able to dialogue with groups, and speak with decision-makers.”
Cross relished the opportunity to talk about issues that are important to him with people who have the power to effect change. He talked about homeless communities, filmmaking, and relied on his background as an interviewer and an observer to take in everything that was going on around him.
He also realized that while a stint with the Governor General may be exciting, it is not as easy as it looks.
“Their Excellencies work 18 hours a day,” he said. “I don’t know how they keep it up!”