TORONTO—Howard Barish wasn’t thinking about an invite to the Oscars when upstart filmmaker Ava DuVernay stepped into his Los Angeles office about a decade ago.
The Winnipeg-born producer was happily managing his own company making TV network ad campaigns when DuVernay knocked on his door with a pitch to invest in her as a director.
“She’s one of the most intelligent, articulate and passionate people I’ve ever met,” Barish says.
“Eventually there was just no way I could say no.”
Three feature films into their partnership, they’re heading to the Academy Awards on Sunday with a shared nomination in the documentary feature category for Netflix’s “13th.” It’s Barish’s first Oscar nod and DuVernay’s second time in contention, after “Selma” competed for best picture.
A graduate of York University’s film program, Barish later learned about the Canadian entertainment industry under influential leaders such as Alliance Communications co-founder Robert Lantos.
He worked as assistant director on Canadian TV favourites like “The Edison Twins” and “Night Heat” before setting up shop in Hollywood with his production company Kandoo Films.
When DuVernay first walked into his office, she was a publicist with a good reputation around town. But she wasn’t shy about her ambition to make her own movies.
Barish agreed to give her access to his studio equipment in exchange for a producer role on her 2010 debut “I Will Follow” and the 2012 film “Middle of Nowhere,” which won the director award at the Sundance Film Festival.
Next for DuVernay was the game-changing “Selma,” which made her the talk of Hollywood.
But while Marvel was circling her with an offer to adapt superhero franchise “Black Panther” for the big screen, DuVernay was intrigued by a much smaller proposal from Netflix to direct a documentary. What made the streaming service’s bid more interesting was a promise that she could focus on whatever topic she wanted.
She told Barish she wanted to examine the 13th amendment to the U.S. constitution. Its abolishment of slavery came with one exception — it didn’t include people convicted of a crime.
Barish says the film’s topic resonated with him, even as a Caucasian Jew who grew up in Canada.
“To me it didn’t matter what colour, creed, shape, size you are. Oppression is oppression,” he says.
“This is a horrific story that has continued from the 1800s to today. It needed to be told.”
On the set of “13th,” Barish’s role as producer extended beyond the usual responsibility of managing the film’s budget. When they needed him, he’d grab a second camera to shoot impassioned interviews with the likes of activist Angela Davis and politician Newt Gingrich.
“I was there for every shoot day,” he says. “It’s a logistics job and a creative job combined together.”
Working with DuVernay has encouraged Barish to help other new filmmakers.
His production company has two projects near completion with first-time directors behind the camera. He hopes to get another four small indie films rolling in the coming years.
Even if “13th” doesn’t win the Oscar, Barish says the film is already generating attention from viewers across the globe.
“I get a dozen calls a day from universities and groups across the country all wanting to screen the film,” he says.
“What I hope for this film is it incites change.”