Pelletier documentary traces rise and fall of Cinar


TORONTO -- In 2000, the animation industry was rocked by the collapse of Cinar Corp., the Canadian cartoon producer behind such popular series as "Arthur," "Calliou" and "The Busy World of Richard Scarry."

Quebec documentarian Francine Pelletier set out to understand the rise and dramatic fall of Cinar co-founder Micheline Charest, only to have doors slammed in her face.

"This was the hardest thing I've ever done. I have never got this kind of silent treatment and refusals. Everyone headed for the hills," Pelletier said Friday as her completed documentary, "The Woman Who Lost Herself," began a theatrical release in Quebec.

The documentary takes viewers back to when Charest and husband Ronald Weinberg were media darlings as the forces behind Montreal-based Cinar during the 1990s. In 1997, The Hollywood Reporter ranked Charest 19th on its list of the 50 most powerful women in the entertainment industry.

But her gilded world fell apart in 2000 when she and Weinberg were found to have put the names of Canadians on scripts written by Americans in order to extract tax credits and other lucrative government subsidies.

Pelletier's attempts to interview officials in the federal bureaucracy in Ottawa that administered the tax credit system, as well as at Telefilm Canada, the federal government's film financier implicated in the Cinar affair, all were unsuccessful.

She alleges a cover-up in the highest reaches of the Canadian TV industry over its corporate ethics in the wake of Cinar.

"A lot of people were very worried the authorities would look into their own affairs," Pelletier said of industry players that refused her interview requests.

She did speak to Sheila Copps, who was the federal heritage minister at the time of the Cinar affair. Copps argued that Ottawa did not want a spotlight shined on its funding structure for Canadian indie producers.

"Sheila Copps said she thinks everyone was in a hurry not to allow people to look into the funding system because an investigation could have dire effects on the whole funding community," Pelletier said.

Charest and Weinberg eventually lost control of Cinar when it was revealed that $122 million in shareholder funds had washed up on Caribbean shores in questionable offshore accounts, all without the knowledge of the company's board of directors.

Other allegations included Charest's sister Helene having collected literary royalties that should not have gone to her and which ultimately were reimbursed.

The Charest biopic, its director said, reveals a company CEO consumed by greed and ambition.

She sees parallels between Charest and Conrad Black, the Canadian media baron who has just begun a prison term in Florida for his role in the downfall of newspaper publisher Hollinger International.

"It's a signpost of the times, these media CEOs who become rich and powerful very fast and who honestly don't believe they are cheating," Pelletier said. "For them, the rules just don't apply. They are blinded by their arrogance and by their need to succeed, to the point where they become amoral."

The documentary also attempts to explain why Charest and Weinberg's alleged crimes went unpunished. A two-year probe by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police into Cinar yielded no criminal charges against Charest or Weinberg. The Cinar co-founders eventually paid a $2 million fine to Quebec securities regulators for financial irregularities without having to admit guilt.

"We here in Canada did nothing. We literally turned the page.," Pelletier said. "There was one secret confidential agreement after the other. There was never charges laid, no admission of guilt anywhere. (Charest and Weinberg) walked away. They were forced to resign, but they were allowed to walk away."

Cinar, delisted and on the verge of bankruptcy, eventually was sold to former Nelvana CEO Michael Hirsh, who bought and successfully resurrected the rival Canadian cartoon producer as Cookie Jar.

And in a final dramatic twist, Charest died in 2004 in Montreal on the operating table from complications as she underwent six hours of plastic surgery.

Pelletier insists there's dramatic irony in Charest's untimely death. "Here she is, literally making herself over in every way as she attempts to rise from the ashes, and then she dies as she is about to make a comeback."

The Quebec filmmaker said she hopes to produce an English-language version of her Charest biopic for the international market.