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INTERVIEW: Zim-born Matthew Dix head of documentary at Canada-based Wallop Film

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Wallop Film’s head of documentary on growing up in Zimbabwe, the cross-pollination of documentary work in the commercial space, and why this is an area the agency is pursuing, writes LBB’s Josh Neufeldt

By lbbonline.com

Born and raised in Harare, Zimbabwe, Matthew Dix has over 10 years in the film industry, and has worked at Wallop Film for seven. Boasting a background in both cinematography and directing, the now head of documentary is working hard to grow the agency’s documentary department into an internationally successful name – one aligned with hard-hitting and socially aware content. 

 
His current slate includes ‘Shut Out’, a feature length documentary about Olympic gold-winner Stephanie Labbé, where he served in production, and ‘Burned to the Ground’, a climate-displacement documentary for Guardian Docs, where he served in post production. 
 
To learn more about Matthew, LBB’s Josh Neufeldt sat down for a chat, discussing exciting projects, agency goals for 2023, and why plenty of brands could benefit from the documentary approach. 

LBB: Tell us a bit about yourself. How did you get started in film, and what led to the interest in documentary filmmaking?

Matthew: I was born and raised in Harare, Zimbabwe, and it was there I first thought about a future in storytelling, although it felt very far-fetched. It’s a country rich in story, and intrigue is sewn into the fabric of the place, so inspiration is impossible to miss. When I emigrated to Canada, I was almost an adult, and being removed from what was familiar to me at that stage of my life sparked a bit of a change in the way I approached everything. I was also now in a country where I had the privilege of choosing a career in filmmaking.

LBB: You’ve been with Wallop Film for seven years! What has your experience been like, and how has the industry changed since you joined?

Matthew: Since the early days of Wallop Film, we’ve had to evolve with the times and make a habit of trying new things. In a city like Vancouver, we have a small film industry which is highly competitive. From our perspective at the company, we’ve had to maintain longevity with sound business practices in the case of sudden events (the pandemic being one), while also being experimental at times, to stay at the forefront of what resonates with brands and audiences. We also have a core of more experienced hands to keep an eye on the long-game, but we’re always bringing in new, fresh talents to find the perfect balance.

LBB: Recently, there’s been a cross pollination of documentary work in the commercial space. What factors are responsible, and do you think this trend is likely to continue?

Matthew: I think the cross-pollination is very real, but I think often it’s an aesthetic/visual cross-pollination. Doc styling can make something feel more real, which is valuable for companies who want to convey authenticity, as consumers demand more of these brands in terms of social and environmental responsibility.
I also do see this as a trend, but I see it as trending towards getting even more market share from the traditional commercial space – especially with production value on documentary shoots scaling up to cinematic levels. There are plenty of brands out there who could benefit from a documentary approach to their marketing, and we get particularly excited when these brands are genuinely open to filmmakers telling important stories. One great example of this was our episode of Corona Studios’ ‘Free Range Humans’, directed by Alex Craig, where we told the story of ecologist Jessica Hutchinson, who has committed to restoring salmon populations which are on the decline in North America.

LBB: Building on this, how does documentary filmmaking compare to making a traditional short-form ad? Does your approach change at all?

Matthew: In terms of comparing the two, branded docs feel a lot closer to commercials than documentaries for me, and I think brands that understand this and are open about it set groundwork for better branded docs. If your brand is the story, I think you’re a commercial with documentary styling. However, brands like North Face have made it clear in their adventure docs that the brand is not the story – the subject or athlete is the story, and the clothing is being worn peripherally by a person who we know is a sponsored athlete. This type of relationship is transparent for the viewer to see, and is less of a hurdle for being objective. A great example of this is our roster director Alex Craig’s recent series for On called ‘Run Beyond’.

LBB: Why is the documentary department something you’re growing at Wallop? 

Matthew: The benefits of developing the documentary wing at Wallop Film are increasingly evident to us, especially in regards to commercial cross-pollination. We’re finding that through documentary work, we’re becoming more involved in real-world issues that are of great interest to brands and commercial clients. By working with positive initiatives that make real change, we prove to brands out there that commercial success and progressive ethics can go hand-in-hand, often exceeding expectations or even helping brands align with their own values more effectively.

LBB: What are some of the most exciting upcoming documentary projects coming from Wallop Film?

Matthew: We have three documentary films that we’re excited about! A short documentary for the Guardian called ‘Burned to the Ground’, a feature length documentary about the life of Stephanie Labbé, directed by Cassie De Colling, called ‘Shut Out’, and a second feature documentary called ‘Tojo and the Tale of Daruma’ about famous sushi chef, Hidekazu Tojo, with another commercial roster director of ours, Mads K. Baekkevold, at the helm. Our work with Mads on this documentary is another result of the cross-pollination between the commercial and documentary wings at Wallop Film.

LBB: What are you hoping to achieve with the documentary department at Wallop within 2023, and beyond?

Matthew: Our goals are separated into short term and long term. Short term goals are to do the best job we possibly can on the current slate of documentaries. This in itself is a mammoth task, as no documentary is routine, nor should it be. We also want to keep nurturing cross-pollination between our commercial clients and the documentary wing – encouraging more brands to take the branded documentary approach.
Our longer term goal with the doc wing is to break through into funding opportunities outside of (what is now known as) Canada. There are endless stories we’d like to tell within the region, but our interests are not limited to it either. Making our company wing appealing and well-known to other countries for co-productions is one way we’d like to branch out, in addition to building relationships with streaming decision-makers, and working with private funding bodies worldwide.

LBB: Are you hiring new directors for the roster? And if so, what are you looking for?

Matthew: We are always on the lookout for special talent and unique voices, but we are really selective about the directors we bring into the helm. Our ethos is to keep it sustainable over the long term. The door is always open though, and we encourage talented filmmakers to reach out!