Interview with Maria Morgunova, Director of Karate in Ontario: The Uphill Battle

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Karate is often overlooked by parents and children seeking a sport or extracurricular activity to participate in. Do you have a history of doing karate that inspired the creation of Karate in Ontario?

I have never practiced karate, myself. However, my history with karate dates back to a series of recreational karate tournaments organised by the director of the Toronto Karate Kids League. These tournaments were sanctioned by the City of Toronto and financially supported by way of a grant. However, the Provincial Sport Organization (PSO) soon suggested that Welcome House give part of its grant money to the PSO for “permission” to run the children’s tournaments. The executive director refused and soon faced a series of obstacles and other problems. The most obvious result of this refusal was the PSO sending official letters to all members of Karate Ontario expressly banning karate clubs from participating in tournaments.

Director of Karate in Ontario: The Uphill Battle, Maria Morgunova.

Other obstacles were less obvious. For example, the day before one of the events in the tournament, all of the karate mats purchased by a non-profit organisation completely disappeared. With only three hours to replace the full set of mats, organisers were lucky to be approached by a friendly club who offered to share their mats. It was these events that inspired me to start the documentary project to expose the situation of karate in Ontario.

There are actually 1,690 forms of martial arts, and many parents appreciate karate and the positive effects it has on their children. My extensive research shows that many parents, child psychologists, and physical education teachers agree that not only do children love their karate experiences, but that karate training has a multitude of benefits. For brevity’s sake, I will expand on just three of these benefits:

1: Safety: Because karate is a non-contact sport, children are not required to wear protective helmets. Other martial arts, like some forms of taekwondo, require that children be protected.

2: Affordability: Karate is widely considered to be a more affordable martial art than other martial arts.

3: Advancement: Karate is a very promising sport, with room for continuous advancement. Now that karate is a recognized Olympic sport, some of our talented karate students have worked extremely hard to become Olympic champions.

Karate is set to make its debut appearance at the Tokyo Summer Olympics in 2020. This has motivated children in Canada and throughout the world to turn their love of karate into a professional career, while giving them the opportunity to represent their country on the international stage. The inclusion of karate in the Olympic line-up has prompted many young karate students to strive to be elite athletes, prompting lofty goal-setting as new opportunities arise. From the point of view of parents, the aspirations of their young karate champion hopefuls will mean further travel and greater expenses than ever before. Unfortunately, the Canadian government, unlike other countries, has chosen not to support talented young karate athletes and coaches. I hope this situation will be remedied someday.

Lack of publicity is one of the primary problems associated with the sport of karate in Canada. We simply don’t get the level of publicity enjoyed by most other Canadian sports because karate is overlooked by the media due to lack of interest and a lack of understanding of the complexities of the sport. The problem is exacerbated by a lack of engagement with the media at all levels.

To my knowledge, there has never been a press conference to discuss karate achievements or developments and trends in the sport. I am not aware of any time that a representative from the Ministry of Tourism, Culture, and Sport Ontario or the Minister of Science and Sport Canada has mentioned karate on mainstream media outlets.

Unfortunately, karate officials simply don’t understand that it is not enough to send out a press release to announce karate-related news. If you think about popular Canadian sports like hockey and football, nobody sends out a press release to make important announcements because PR specialists will already be there to cover any new developments. After all, press coverage is almost always determined by popularity and public interest. Sports with the support of government, investors, and sponsors inevitably receive more coverage than self-funded sports.

A still from Karate in Ontario: The Uphill Battle.

In Canada, karate is fuelled by individual champions and their gifted instructors. Daniel Gaysinsky recently earned a silver medal at the World Karate Federation K1 Premier League Karate Series in Montréal, but when I searched for mention of this amazing achievement in the press, the most I could find was a tiny story on  Daniel also won silver at the Dutch Open in 2016 and gold at the Pan American Championships in 2017, but there was no press coverage whatsoever for either of those achievements.  Why the Ministry of Sports had no desire to interview this top-level Canadian athlete remains a mystery.

Today, our feature documentary The Uphill Battle remains the only account available regarding karate in Canada. Further, it seems that I’m the only journalist who covers karate to any extent. I cover every angle of karate for parents of karate students and anyone interested in the sport; however, I have found it difficult to find a platform in Canada to publish my work. As a result, most of my work is submitted to sports portals in the United States, such as http:/

I was really impressed with how many different people’s perspectives were shown in Karate in Ontario, from teens and adults in karate, to teachers, parents, and even Canadian world medalist Nassim Varasteh-Rethanian. Tell us about your process for deciding who to interview and how you wove all of those narratives together.

Working on this project was such a memorable experience. I met amazing coaches, athletes, parents, and referees. It wasn’t easy for them to subject themselves to being interviewed because all of them were professionally involved in Karate; meaning that one slip of the tongue could mean problems with the PSO. The man in charge of that organization had been blackmailing and intimidating athletes and coaches for more than 20 years. Fortunately for me, all of these people had one thing in common—they desperately wanted the situation to change. Obviously, they were worried about describing their experiences openly in front of the camera, so I decided that the best solution for everyone concerned was to produce this documentary with an educational angle. That way, participants and professionals had the freedom to describe the deplorable situation of karate in Ontario, the lack of professionally organised tournaments for young athletes, how talented athletes are forced to give up because they can’t afford the expenses related to international competitions, and the ethical problems with the Provincial Sport Organization (PSO). At the same time, we were able to show the huge potential of our athletes and the benefits in general of karate as a sport. Every single person I interviewed—including athletes, coaches, parents, and referees—believes that karate should be supported at the governmental level.

Filming an interview for Karate in Ontario: The Uphill Battle.

You have a lot of past experience in journalism. How does this unique knowledge help you in filmmaking?

At the beginning of my research, I faced many negative reactions—displays of fear, lack of trust, and even hysteria. During one initial phone conversation, one person started to cry, scream, and yell at me because I mentioned just one word—karate. This person was someone heavily involved in karate in Canada and had a lot of in-depth knowledge about what was really going on behind the scenes. Because of this knowledge, this person had been threatened by the former leader of the PSO, who was later dismissed in 2016 following the release of our feature documentary. The trauma this person had experienced caused the word “karate” to become an extreme emotional trigger.

Over a period of time, experienced journalists learn how to deal with these types of reactions. For me, journalism is much more than just working with facts and words. Many components of documentary production depend entirely on the human factor, and a filmmaker, like a professional journalist, must be prepared and have the necessary experience to deal with the emotions of the people they are working with.

For aspiring filmmakers, it can be difficult to attract interest in a project. How do you publicize and gain a following for your films?

That’s a good question! Many independent producers pay for every single thing from their own pocket, and, unfortunately, it’s all too common for independent producers to lack the financial budget required to advertise their films. Most have realized that they must learn about target markets, target audiences, social media advertising, how to effectively communicate with independent distributors, how to reach out to media buyers at TV channels, how to find opportunities to present their films at festivals, how to work with different types of digital online platforms, and so much more.

The Uphill Battle was a slightly different situation. I created this documentary in order to present my findings to the Ministry of Sport, the City of Toronto, and other agencies. I then realized that this is the perfect movie for anyone who may be interested in the different aspects of Karate. I sent proposals to distributors, colleges, and libraries, and now the movie is available on Amazon and Amazon Prime for anyone who wishes to watch it. Recently The Uphill Battle was translated into Spanish, and now my Russian-speaking audience is waiting for Russian subtitles, which I have already started working on.

Director Maria Morgunova films a scene.

Similar to karate for young kids, the art of documentary is often glossed over by the mass media in favor of fictional stories. What do you think documentary brings to the creative table that a fictional film doesn’t?

Documentaries have the ability to impart information and facts in a unique way that simply can’t be gleaned from books, online, or in school. Some documentaries showcase information that simply wouldn’t be otherwise available. For example, if unique works of art and archaeological discoveries are solely displayed in a museum, they are only accessible to those able to visit the museum in person. A documentary, however, can showcase these discoveries and works of art from different angles, while providing professional commentary and detailed demonstrations from experts.

I personally believe that documentaries can open doors to societies, traditions, and cultures all around the world. In the age of globalization, people are prioritizing the understanding of and communication with people from different cultural backgrounds. Documentaries are an excellent means of bringing people around the world closer together.

Documentaries can show heroes who have done something worthwhile in real life; we get to share their experiences and see how they have changed history—or vice versa. Basically, documentaries show how real people can change our world. For example, there are many fictional films about martial arts, and thanks to these movies, many people are attracted to martial arts, including karate clubs. At the same time, many people, especially children, may have illusions after watching such movies, causing them to quit martial arts after just a few months of training. The visual effects, stunt-people, and doubles in these movies don’t accurately portray the amount of constant self-improvement that is necessary in the study of martial arts.

A lot of the testimonials from students in karate were from young men. How do you think being a woman filmmaker has brought a new perspective to their stories?

While working on the feature documentary, I broadened my outlook to the parents of young elite karate athletes, and the mothers in particular. I also discovered that more and more young girls are taking up karate as a sport and pastime. Parents of these young girls revealed that karate training helped their daughters to overcome bullying and to develop crucial leadership skills. From the point of view of coaches, many reported that young girls—particularly those between six and eight years of age—showed greater levels of motivation and drive than boys in the same age group. I was also fortunate enough to interview Nassim Varasteh, the Queen of Karate, head coach of the Canada National Team Kumite, and two-time silver world medallist. Her story is sure to inspire other young women, serving as an excellent example of a successful female karate champion for young female athletes to look up to.

Still from Karate in Ontario: The Uphill Battle.

There are so many factors that go into creating a feature-length film. What is it like being the director of a team, and how do you and your crew collaborate?

Creating a feature length documentary film is certainly a synergy of art and technology. I am fortunate to work with an amazing team of like-minded people, and I am constantly learning from my colleagues.  Everyone I work with has unique talents and perspectives to offer, and each person is someone that I genuinely respect.

My policy is to work with people who are personally interested and invested in the project and who genuinely want to lend their assistance. Creating a crew that works well together comes down to choosing people based on their temperaments and personalities, while also getting a good idea of their view of the concept, theme, and intended final result of the project. The ability to work in a team is crucial, as each new member of a crew can affect the overall atmosphere and working environment in remarkable ways.  I believe that a film director must have at least intermediate knowledge of the specifics of each department in order to properly work with all members of the team. Personally, I stay abreast of current trends, and I’m constantly attending workshops and festivals while learning about new technologies and equipment through books and other means. It is in this way that I am able to work effectively with my colleagues, all of whom bring different skills, education levels, and cultural backgrounds to the mix.

You cover a lot of issues in 75 minutes. How did you decide what to include and the best way to address everything you set out to do?  

My initial plan was to make a short documentary—no longer than 30 minutes—because I believed that not many people would welcome being interviewed; plus, it would be easier to distribute and promote that type of film. However, the situation changed dramatically. Participants started recommending us to other experts and athletes, and step-by-step the content was enriched with new facts and interesting stories. In fact, the script was rewritten again and again, and so the run time increased to 75 minutes.

Still from Karate in Ontario: The Uphill Battle.

What’s next for you in the future? Are there any exciting new projects we should be on the lookout for?

My company INVISION PRO works with theatres (notably opera), concert producers, writers, business owners, and journalists. I do have a couple of projects in mind, and I’m always open to suggestions for new projects and collaborations. I would also be interested in working with other producers.

You can find more information about Karate in Ontario: The Uphill Battle on its website or on its Facebook page. Learn more about Megan by visiting her profile.