The secret lives of bureaucrats are much more entertaining than one might think

Amen Jafri

Ottawa filmmaker Amen Jafri is building a decent career out of exploring life in Ottawa. Her first effort The City That Fun Forgot?, explored the capital’s reputation for being dull. Now she’s tackling an equally misunderstood subject, the federal bureaucrat, with a series called The Secret Lives of Public Servants which is currently being submitted for consideration to international film and web festivals. A second season is in development. In this email interview with ARTSFILE, Jafri talks about her project.

Q. Tell me a bit about your film resumé?

A. I was born and raised in Toronto and moved to Ottawa in 2003 to pursue a degree in communications and political science at Carleton University.  After graduating, I worked in the public service for nearly 10 years in an HR and communications capacity, before leaving in 2016. I realized about six years ago that I wanted to become a documentary filmmaker. 

My first documentary, The City That Fun Forgot? explored Ottawa’s reputation for being boring and had a sold-out premiere at Hub Ottawa in 2014. It also earned national and local media coverage. Since then, my two other most recent documentaries made the 2015 and 2016 shortlists for the TVO Short Doc Contest.  My work has been screened on TVO, at the American Documentary Film Festival, The Ottawa Digital Film Festival, The Monthly Film Festival and more. The first episode of The Secret Lives of Public Servants recently screened at the Brooklyn Web Fest and was nominated for best cinematography and best reality/documentary series.

Q. What is The Secret Lives of Public Servants about?

A. The series explores the extraordinary hobbies public servants pursue outside their 9-5 jobs. But the main purpose is to humanize public servants, to counteract the stereotypes that they are lazy, boring or corrupt. The three episodes feature: 

• Marc Adornato (The Radical Artist). He can’t reveal his day job, but he is with the federal public service;

• Janet Hetherington (The Comic Book Creator). She is a senior communications advisor with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency;

• Richard Wong (The Cosplayer). He is a protection services team leader with the National Gallery of Canada.

Q. How can someone see the films?

A. On Oct. 31, the first episode will go up on,, and my YouTube channel.  A new episode will be posted up every week, along with an accompanying blog post, to provoke critical analysis and thought on the featured subject matter.

Q. What inspired you to make these films?

A. I used to work in the public service and I kept meeting people leading double lives that countered the prevailing narrative we hear about public servants. 

It was unexplored territory and a chance to have fun with the subject matter, while humanizing people who aren’t often visible in public discourse, except in a negative way.  I am also drawn to subject matter that questions the importance of the 9-5 structure and lifestyle, what we choose to reveal in the public eye and sideline narratives in general.  I am also inspired by people who march to the beat of their own drum and who are not afraid to be their unique, unconventional selves.

Marc Adornato

Q. Art-making and public servants seem to go together. There have been some famous ones including poets Archibald Lampoon and Duncan Campbell Scott? Why do you think these two things go so well together.

A. To paraphrase Marc Adornato, the artist featured in our pilot episode, it’s tough to be financially independent as an artist.  Art-making requires time, money and resources and those are not easy to come by. 

We romanticize the “starving artist,” but I think the reality is that many artists like having a steady income and secure employment to support their passion. The public service is then the ideal type of job for many. The very nature of public service requires working inside a bureaucracy, which can be creatively draining.  I would argue you have no choice then but to make art to counteract that energy drain.

Q. Why a web series?

A. I consider myself an emerging filmmaker and since I didn’t go to film school, it is important to me to understand the whole process, from start to finish. A web series is the perfect avenue for that, because you have creative and administrative control, from the concept to figuring out how to distribute it.  I also prefer to create short form content and based on current industry trends, web series and short form content are the future, so it makes sense to jump on board now.

Q. You indicate that there are more films to come? When?

A. I am exploring funding options through the Canada Media Fund and the recently launched Bell Short-Form Digital Series Non-Fiction, to complete a second season for next year.

Q. How are you funding this projects?

A. This first season was financed through an Indiegogo campaign and my own savings.

Q. Artists have hopes and dreams. What are yours?

A. I want to establish myself as a documentary filmmaker with a distinct vision and voice, challenge the narratives we take for granted, as well as transform and elevate the film industry in Canada. We have an enormous opportunity on the digital landscape to push the artistic envelope and I hope we can capitalize on it.

Q. Tell me about the screening at The Hub on Oct. 21.

A. Tickets can be purchased on Eventbrite. We will be screening all three episodes and this will be followed by a Q&A with cast and crew, hosted by Garmamie Sideau of Capital Combat Parley. There will be food and refreshments, courtesy of Massine’s and Beau’s Brewery and I am encouraging everyone to attend as their “secret life” persona (we’ll be one week from Hallowe’en, after all) in order to be eligible for a giveaway, with prizes from Byward Chiropractic, Bad Axe Throwing and Dark Horse Comics.

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.