We value: Our readers.
Our independence. Our region.
The power of real journalism.
We're reader supported.
Get our newsletter free.
Help pay for our reporting.

Festival of Love

DOXA's documentary film fest is a living, breathing, sighing communal moment.

By Dorothy Woodend 29 May 2009 | TheTyee.ca

Dorothy Woodend writes about film for The Tyee every other Friday.

image atom
Must see: 'The Garden' by Scott Hamilton Kennedy.

During a film festival, the social aspect of watching films is often as interesting as the films themselves -- sometimes even more so.

For example, this past week at DOXA Documentary Film Festival, for every film there was often an extremely specific audience, whether it was the Iranian community out in full force to see The Queen and I about Queen Farah, the widow of the former Shah of Iran, or the D&D crowd for The Dungeon Masters, who seemed to be mainly men sporting odd facial hair and towing behind them their skinny, glasses-wearing girlfriends.

In the middle of organizing a festival, you sometimes forget that it's actually for the people, and when you cast open the doors and watch them stream in, there's a moment when you are taken aback and think, "Who are these people!?"

This is even more dramatic when you sit inside a packed house and watch the cinema-goers around you instead of the action on the screen. An audience deep in the throes of an engaging film sounds not unlike some enormous animal, groaning, sighing, laughing, gasping all at the same time. When a film is particularly strong, it's like hundreds of people are sitting in one enormous living room, united, maybe just for an instant, by the experience they have all just shared.

And when one of the principal subjects of a film is present in both body and spirit, the sense of togetherness becomes even clearer. George Brady, Hana Brady's brother, attended both screenings of Inside Hana's Suitcase, and each time the reaction was the same, a simple animal happiness to see this lovely, and extremely funny and charming man in the flesh.

The human bond

Watching the opening screening of Inside Hana's Suitcase last Friday evening, I found myself thinking, "Oh, we people are really all the same." This may seem an odd thought to be having in the middle of film about the Holocaust, but the one thing that I took away from the film's story was a sense of connection that endures, long after arbitrary divisions have faded away. It's more than empathy for the suffering of another human being, it's a deep and abiding commonality.

This type of connection can occur in the strangest places. The D&D folk might not seem to have much in common with the professional arm wrestlers who came to see Pulling John, but each respective group was united by an animating passion for their different interests. (Although, it must be stated, the arm wrestlers were much more polite than the people who played D&D. Go figure...)

Film is a powerful medium because it gives people a means to come together. Hence the festive part of a film festival, which really is about uniting people for a common celebration. There is something deeply and inherently democratic about this, more than just a seat at the table and in the theatre for everyone, but a sense that all stories deserve a measure of attention. Not just the ones with the biggest marketing budgets and the dominant cultural paradigm behind them. 

I'm not alone anymore

When you watch a lot of films alone, as I do, your experience of them is just that: intensive, solitary, a personal relationship with a particular story or set of characters, even with the filmmakers themselves. When you see the same film again with people, the experience can be so different as to seem like you've watched an entirely different movie. 

This sense of a shared experience probably isn't much different from that of going to see live music or some other cultural event, but the critical part is that after a concert not many people want to sit around debating and arguing about their impressions of a particular melody after the house lights go up. With film, that's often an integral element, taking it apart scene by scene, re-examining it in light of other people's perceptions, so that your viewpoint becomes multiply fractured, like looking through a kaleidoscope. 

The other interesting thing about a film festival, is that you often get the chance to talk to the person who made the film you just watched. Margaret Atwood famously quipped (and I'm paraphrasing) that wanting to meet a writer because you liked her book is like wanting to meet a goose because you like foie gras. But, sometimes, you meet some pretty interesting geese. Certainly, the artist and what the artist creates are not always one and the same, but then again, sometimes, they are. For good or for bad. 

Too personal?

Making films isn't as expensive or technically difficult as it used to be. So in this autobiographical age, what happens when everyone thinks his or her own story is worthy of being documented? In fact, if it isn't documented, does it really exist at all? What does the sheer proliferation of individual narratives have on the idea of film as an artful, crafted thing? Forgive a digression for a moment, but I had the strange experience a while ago of being at a wedding (it wasn't actually a wedding, but a ring ceremony, which somehow makes it worse) in which the happy couple subjected their invited guests to a recreation of their entire relationship, from the emails they'd written after their first meeting to skit reenactments of their first few dates, to video documentation of the proposal, which involved, horrifyingly enough, the groom to-be in a pink fuzzy G-string pulling a ring out of somewhere.

I do not mean to be unkind, but something stuck with me about this experience.

The need to document everything blurs the line between the public and the private. Indeed, it smears that line out of existence. The idea that a film is ever truly objective may have been discarded a while back. But when does a film become overly subjective? That hasn't been worked out entirely yet. A number of films playing in DOXA this year take a highly personal take on events, which comes with a whole host of ethical complexities. 

The opportunity to hear these issues hashed out takes place at 3:30 P.M., Friday May 29, with a panel discussion on documentary ethics called Where is the Line?, featuring local filmmakers Murray Siple (whose film Carts of Darkness recently captured a Leo Award for best documentary), Meghan Haldar, who also picked up a passel of Leos for her film Dirt (which screened last year at DOXA), and the lovely Tami Wilson (whose film Flesh has become required viewing for anyone with the slightest interest in the politics of meat production). The panel is curated by a force of nature otherwise known as Haida Paul.

Second chance to see popular docs

DOXA runs till Sunday (May 31), during which there are a number of repeat screenings for films that sold out, including Who the Jew are You?The Queen and I, and The One Percent.

On Saturday May 30, the stupendously great Frederick Wiseman film Welfare screens at 2:30 P.M. at the Vancity Theatre. This is a documentary filmmaking at its very best.  

If there is one film you shouldn't miss in the festival, I would also suggest The Garden, which screens at 9:00 P.M. this Friday at the Pacific Cinematheque. If ever there was a micro/macro analogy for the mess we're in with this beaten down old planet, Scott Hamilton Kennedy's film about the farm in South Central L.A. is as good as it gets. As a cautionary fable, it clearly illustrates what happens when ego, self-interest, hurt feelings and money combine to derail the greater good. 

For me, being at the festival is not unlike the feeling of Christmas holidays, when the house is wadded full, and your entire family is shouting and carrying on in the other room, and a piece of you relaxes, and thinks contentedly, "I am home." 

Related Tyee stories:


Read more: Film

Share this article

The Tyee is supported by readers like you

Join us and grow independent media in Canada

Facts matter. Get The Tyee's in-depth journalism delivered to your inbox for free.


The Barometer

Tyee Poll: What Kind of Stories Have Been Helping You Stay Grounded?

Take this week's poll