Documenting your journey – the impact of photography

Oh my gosh, it has been way too long! I have a long list of films and topics I am eager to share, and hope to get up-to-date over the next month or so.

I am now living in Vancouver and working for the Vancouver International Film Festival after completing a contract in Toronto working on the Inside Out LGBT Toronto Film Festival, and the Bent Lens World Pride Film Festival in partnership with TIFF and Inside Out. I also worked as a Theatre Manager for the Vancouver Queer Film Festival last month, and will be starting work with the programming committee at DOXA next month. In November, I will be the Box Office Coordinator for the Vancouver Short Film Festival, and VIFF starts this Thursday and runs until October 10th! Needless to say, it has been a busy, film-filled few months! (And I’ve still been viewing films outside of work! Thank you, Netflix.)

My office at VIFF is in the same building as their theatre, and yesterday a friend and I watched Finding Vivian Maier. It was a really beautiful film, and reminded me a lot of the Alfred and Jakobine, which was one of my favourites from Hot Docs last May.

I was curious about purchasing one of Maier’s prints, and in my research found this article in the New York Times about the current legal battle regarding her work’s copyright. It’s interesting to think of the filmmaker/subject’s rights to materials when the work has been discovered posthumously, especially when the deceased artist doesn’t have any remaining family. And should it matter if they do? What makes a family member more entitled than someone else?

Hot Docs 2014: Take Two

I was hoping to post these updates the following day after the screenings, but there has been way too much going on over the past few weeks, so the next few posts will be recaps of the Hot Docs 2014 Festival. As well, because I am now venturing into my own projects and the filmmaking process, I will differentiate between content and production commentary.

On my second day of screenings, I saw Slums: Cities of TomorrowAbsences, and the Homestretch.


I appreciated the attention to language in Slums: Cities of Tomorrow. One character argued that we should call slums an “informal settlement,” as slums have a negative connotation. That was not to say that we should not recognize what these communities are, being communities of poor people, but rather change the words we use to avoid contributing to the discrimination facing people of certain socioeconomic realities. Referring to these individuals as “homeless” creates a blurry mass, and defines who these people are without putting their stories into context or even asking them themselves. Instead, using the term “people experiencing homeless” humanizes the subject and also differentiates the individual from the institutional and social forces that construct their lived realities. Indeed, one of the main scholarly characters argued that this is important because our concept of hardwork leading to success simply isn’t true; if wealth comes from one’s own merit, then people in an informal settlement should be incredibly wealthy as they engage in hard labour for survival.

The architecture of slums and the layout of “modern” cities shows how people communicate and how they are governed. Often, the intervention of government and the creation of subsidized housing is completed in a way that isn’t suitable for living a healthy life. I also appreciated that the film shows informal settlements from all over the world, including the United States and France.

One key argument of the film is that the western world has constructed and enforced an unsustainable development model on the rest of the world. After all, every country is technically continuously developing (thus there should be no “us” [the developed] and “them” [the developing]) – but what is the world at large striving to develop into? If “they” should strive to be like “us,” what would the future look like for both humanity and the environment?

One of the closing scenes of Slums: Cities of Tomorrow is a rant in the style that I love: a blurry-eyed philosophical run-on sentence at 3 am in which a man argues we should pool our resources and abandon wanting to be a celebrity for how much of the world’s resources we use in one lifetime, and instead live gently with less. “What a sad epitaph,” he comments, to be living with a hunger for more and not less. This is what the film refers to as “psychological poverty,” where everyone is poor in regards to human nature’s seemingly limitless capacity for growth: we want more, not what we already have.

Western societies see hope as existing in a private escape. However, people living in informal settlements continue to acknowledge that improvements to quality of life are only possible when fought for as a collective, public action. This film ultimately argues that we need to see the beauty and value of “other” ways of living, and restore social hope to societies that are in favour of individual hope and power.


Slums had excellent sound mixing and a great musical score, which is essential to maintaining an audience in a topic-driven documentary. Their archival material was also especially compelling to show how slums began and continue to develop in the western world, as we associate slums largely with eastern countries. This film also had great sequences due to its large amount of diverse b-roll.  This large amount b-roll was probably possible to obtain by the director because they spent a lot of time with their subjects before starting to film. Financially, the producers initially wanted a budget of $750,000 (especially since there was a lot of travel involved for the crew), however, they completed the film with a budget of approximately $400,000.


Absences was compelling because of the interesting links between the stories: the absent father, the mother who abandoned her children, the slow loss of someone with Alzheimer’s and the sudden disappearance of a sister. The greatest message of the film was definitely that it is impossible for someone to passionately seek something unless it had been lost.


Absences had good audio and cinematography, but I wasn’t overly impressed by the story or editing. It seemed beforehand that the filmmaker had excellent access to the characters (her mother was one of them), however, it didn’t feel that way nor did it feel like it had delved deep enough.


Loneliness was a constant theme in The Homestretch that really impacted the audience. It was incredibly humbling, especially being given the opportunity to speak with the main characters after the film, who were four out of 19,000 students experiencing homelessness in Chicago. One pivotal moment in the film in which the audience was completely silent was when Roque, a high school student whose father was deported and whose mother didn’t want to live with him, moves in with one of his teachers and discovers the theatre. He auditions for the role of Hamlet and is granted the opportunity. During rehearsals one day, another teacher says he isn’t being “believable” enough in his performance; that she wants to be able to believe that death is the only escape from Hamlet’s reality of a mother and father who abandon and betray him.


It was obvious that the directors had great relationships with the characters and communities in which they were filming, especially considering the access they were granted with local organizations. Definitely important for a topic-driven documentary!



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Hot Docs 2014: Take One

The first film I saw at this year’s Hot Docs Festival was Vessel, a film about a non-profit that provides abortions and reproductive health information to women who reside in countries that criminalize such services. The organization, Women On Waves, began as a yacht with an on-board medical facility that is built into a shipping container, which would dock in various countries where abortions are illegal and bring women on board so that they can make their own reproductive health choices within international waters. Interestingly enough, the first bit of funding the project received was an arts grant.

This is a genius initiative from a former Greenpeace activist and medical practitioner, Dr. Rebecca Gomperts, who while working for Greenpeace realized that there was a disconnect between women, their rights, and the law. The project works within a legal loophole: in international waters, only twelve miles away from shore, a boat is to abide by the laws of the country in which it came from. As Women On Waves is based in the Netherlands, where abortion is legal, women who have abortions on this boat while in international waters cannot be charged or accused of engaging in illegal activities.

The film is moving, especially when you hear the audio from phone calls or read the text from e-mails sent from women seeking help. I was brought to tears out of both frustration (especially at the aggressive and violent male protestors), and pride in what the organization was able to accomplish. The film follows their journey in Ireland, Spain, Portugal (who tried to deter the boat by sending two warships to greet them), Morrocco, and Ecuador (which is a highlight, as the organization begins a hugely successful phone campaign, launched by blanketing the giant statue of the Virgin Mary that towers over the city with a poster of the hotline’s number).

There are many moments in this film where a feminist may cheer in pride. For example, Gomperts gives a perfect response when asked “Have you ever had an abortion?” When a journalist asks this, she says “that shouldn’t matter. Would you ask someone who is working for Amnesty International if they have been tortured?” However, later on in the film it becomes important to Gomperts to reveal that not only was she currently pregnant, but that she had previously had an abortion and was thankful that she had been able to choose when to start a family. Gomperts’ gusto is particularly compelling as you watch her launch herself on the boat and cut it free from protestors attempting to tow them out of a Spanish port, or when she gets particularly fierce during a television debate with an anti-choice male commentator.

The information within this film is crucial for women from all over the world, not just those who are from countries in which abortion is illegal. Considering the inadequate access to abortion services in Canada – including the recent closing of the Morgentaler clinic in New Brunswick – legality in theory does not always equate accessibility in practice. I had no idea that you could perform a safe, early abortion yourself using Misoprostol, and I encourage anyone looking for more information to keep an eye out for the animation from Vessel as it becomes available to the public. In the meantime, you can find more information here, on the Women On Web site.

The film follows the rapid growth of the organization, from less than twenty abortions performed on the yacht, to over 100,000 e-mail inquiries responded to in 2012 alone. They have now helped women in over 135 countries and have provided individuals in 23 countries with training on how to disseminate reproductive health information and navigate legal loopholes. While there are an incredible amount of illegal and unsafe abortions performed around the world every day, this film and campaign gives me hope that with some creativity and drive, women will become empowered with the tools necessary to act on their choices.

The women depicted in this film are the types of women who should be our heroes. Gomperts bravery and commitment to establishing universal access to safe abortion methods is extraordinary, and she argues that the fear of backlash is the same as self-censorship – a mantra any activist should hold close.

I found this movie inspirational as someone who is interested in the reproductive justice movement, and also as a budding filmmaker. The director, Diana Whitten, discovered Women On Waves during her graduate studies in which she was researching off-shore practices. Surprised to find that there was an organization operating off-shore in the name of social justice, and not crime, she investigated further and spent the next seven years creating this film.

This is Whitten’s first film, and it was comforting to see that even if you don’t necessarily have the best camera work or audio recordings, with a strong enough story and compelling characters, not to mention the importance of the topic, it doesn’t matter. You can still screen at North America’s biggest documentary film festival to a sold-out theatre, right after winning Special Jury Recognition for Political Courage at SXSW, and spark an educational campaign that has the potential to liberate women all around the world.

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Human Rights Watch Film Festival

Documentary lovers: check out the Human Rights Watch Film Festival happening at the TIFF Bell Lightbox over the next two weeks, from February 27th – March 6th. Some of my favourites include In The Shadow Of The Sun, Valentine Road, and Saving Face.

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VIFF Film & TV Forum

VIFF has some great videos up right now covering a wide range of topics pertaining to film and production. Check out the one below, Stories from the Edge, about documentaries in 2013. Their channel can be found here. 

The Best Film Festivals in Toronto –

I’ve been working for Inside Out LGBT Film Festival for almost a month now, and absolutely love the festival circuit in Toronto. Here are the best film festivals in Toronto according to What are your favourites?

By far the most popular and high profile festival, the Toronto International Film Festival is an easy and predictable pick for the top of the list. Every September, TIFF brings a buzz to the city as well as nearly 300 films. It’s the last stop on the festival calendar for many filmmakers, which makes TIFF the first stop for Oscar predictions. Everyone talks about the big Hollywood galas, but TIFF is best at finding and supporting innovative and independent filmmakers internationally and at home, and gives them one of the biggest platforms for their work.

Hot Docs
Holding it down as North America’s largest documentary festival, Hot Docs has been providing Torontonians with some of the best documentaries from around the world for 20 years. With almost as big a following as TIFF, but with a more down to earth atmosphere (reasonable prices, free daytime screenings for students and seniors) Hot Docs is definitely one of the best festivals around. Its expansion into its own cinema of year round programming speaks to its popularity and success.

Toronto After Dark
Toronto’s preeminent Cult, Sci-fi, and Horror film festival, Toronto After Dark showcases some of the weirdest films out there. Past years have included cult favourites like Human Centipede and Black Dynamite as well as appearances from Eli Roth and Simon Pegg. There’s even a discount for people dressed as Zombies on their annual Zombie Appreciation day. There isn’t another festival like it in the city and fans of cult and horror movies are some of the most fun audiences around.

Inside Out Film Festival
For 24 years the Inside Out Film Festival has been promoting queer cinema in all its forms to the city, starting the summer off with a bang. Inside Out’s programming is always eclectic, with screenings ranging from local short films and boundary pushing features to powerful documentaries, like last year’s Oscar nominated film, How to Survive a Plague. Plus, they have three great parties during the festival and some of the most passionate audiences in the city.

Reel Asian Film Festival
Coming up to it’s 17th year, Reel Asian is Canada’s largest Asian film festival and its programming is as diverse as the continent which it covers. Spanning six days every November in downtown Toronto and now also Richmond Hill, Reel Asian showcases some of Asia’s best artists in film and video, presents art installations and some pretty fun parties, as well as an annual pitch competition which gives local filmmakers an opportunity to make their idea a reality for screening at the following year’s festival.

Toronto Jewish Film Festival
Throughout its 20 year run, the Toronto Jewish Film Festival has continuously provided the city with a wide range of films that touch on the Jewish experience from all over the world. TJFF’s programming continues to evolve each year, looking for new ways to showcase Jewish film. Last year they explored African and Bollywood through the Jewish lens and their yearly sidebar series, retrospectives of influential Jewish entertainers, are always inventive and unique. Previous years have celebrated comic book writers like Harvey Pekar and the 3 Lennie’s (Bruce, Cohen and Bernstein). They also offer free day of student tickets, which adds to this festival’s welcoming atmosphere.

Planet in Focus
Have the fluctuating temperatures this fall got you wondering what is happening in the world? If so, make your way to the Planet in Focus film festival in November to find some answers. Focused primarily on documentaries and experimental shorts about our changing planet from around the globe, PIF also screens over 100 films and offers free and discounted programming for schools and kids. It’s one only a handful of film festivals with a spirit of art and activism at its core.

Cinefranco is all about French language cinema, as the name would suggest. Selections from francophone Canada and the rest of the French-speaking world are presented every March, often with special guests in attendance. Additionally, they present a youth festival leading up to the main event and year round programming, with highlights from French cinema from around the globe. Previous years have included Canadian Screen Award nominated Quebec films, many of which never find theatrical distribution in English Canada. It’s a great way to support Francophone films, while brushing up on your language skills (although subtitles are present at all screenings, just in case).

By far the most unique festival out there, Images Film and Video Festival is in a league of its own. Focusing on experimental film and video art, Images’ programming is possibly the most avant-garde and innovative in the city. One of the most amazing experiences I’ve ever had at a festival was during Images 2010 for their closing night performance by Shary Boyle, who has since gone on to represent Canada at the Venice Bienniale. Images is continually pushing boundaries in the realm of film and art.

Open Roof Festival
Possibly the most laid back festival on the calendar, Open Roof is a festival of film, music and food. Less about premieres and red carpets and more a fun summery atmosphere, Open Roof screens films once a week from June through August, with live bands accompanying each screening and top-notch food trucks for pre and post movie snacks. Previously located at the Amsterdam Brewery, Open Roof has since moved to the Moon Lot View on Queens Quay for even more breezy summer vibes.

Reel World
In many ways, Reel World is not just a film and video festival, but a grassroots movement focused on giving opportunity to and celebrating diversity in the arts. Every April, Reel World screens film and videos from a variety of communities as well as provides support and encouragement to new filmmakers through their Reel World Foundation. Founded by actress Tonya Williams (from Young and the Restless and Polka Dot Door!) they also promote local filmmakers with a promise of 50 to 75% Canadian content. Reel World is a festival with a message.

European Union Film Festival
If you missed seeing the latest films from some of Europe’s finest at TIFF in September, don’t fret. There’s a good chance many of them will turn up at the European Union Film Festival. Collaborating with EU consulates and cultural institutes, this completely free film festival takes over the Royal every November, offering up some great films from EU nations, from Ireland to Estonia and all the places in between. Get a glimpse of some of next year’s contenders for Best Foreign Film Oscars 3 months before everyone else.

Regent Park Film Festival
Totally independent and always free, Regent Park Film Festival work with and for the community, presenting a variety of films and events, both international and locally produced. Using film as a way to reach out to the community and beyond, the Regent Park film festival has expanded to include year round programming such as summer outdoor screenings and community workshops, always at no cost. Going into its 11th year, it shows how art and film can be inclusive and engaging at the same time.

Toronto Palestine Film Festival
Taking place every September, the Toronto Palestine film festival is ready for anyone who didn’t get enough of a film fix from TIFF. Only in its 6th year, this festival has quickly established a strong audience for its selection of Palestinian film and music. In addition to highlights from the year’s best Palestinian films, there is also an annual art show and the very popular Palestinian Brunch, one of the hottest tickets of the festival.

ImagineNative Film and Media Arts Festival
Since 1998, imagineNative has been showcasing emerging and established indigenous film and new media artists from Canada and beyond. With a wide range of features, shorts programs featuring local talent, plus great new media exhibits and their annual concert The Beat (featuring popular aboriginal performers), the imagineNative festival gives voice to a diverse collection of indigenous artists from all over the world.


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From Nothing, Something: A Documentary on the Creative Process

Last night I saw the documentary From Nothing, Something: A Documentary on the Creative Process at the Hot Docs Bloor Cinema. It was a fascinating look at the creative intelligence of various people who have achieved unique success in their various fields.
What was interesting seemed to be that, while everyone has a different journey in regards to how they achieve success, it was possible to gather common themes amongst the stories. These included:
  • Inspiration will come at the most random times. Don’t feel bad if you are feeling uninspired, but rather seek out environments in which you are open to inspiration. Having writer’s block? Go for a run. Can’t get the melody quite right? Go swimming. Unsure about your fashion design? Attend an art gallery opening. Doing something active, push yourself out of your comfort zone, or try something new. The more you put yourself out there, the more you are open to new ideas.
  • Critics are important as they either make you look at your work from a different perspective, or motivate you to keep doing what you’re doing. Never let a critic stop you, whether you agree with them or not.
  • Timing is important, but closely linked with the response to inspiration. Yes, there is an element of luck involved with achieving success, which largely has to do with visibility, networking, and who you know. But you have better odds at good timing the more you put yourself out there.
  • Manipulate situations to suit your needs and interests.
  • Work as hard as you can.
  • Just do it. Yes, this attitude is bound in all sorts of complex social hierarchies that challenge the accessibility of this notion. But do what you can to push yourself towards your goals. There are no rules or guidelines, and everyone has their own way of “just doing it.” But if you believe you are meant to do something, then you will. Adopting that as your mantra will make it easier to forgo that well-paying desk job when you really want to be a painter, or staying in on a Saturday night to spend your beer money on studio time.
Like Crazy Derby Love and so many other films From Nothing, Something inspired me to spend more time on my passion projects and pursue building a career that is off the beaten path.

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Crazy Derby Love

Last week I went to see Crazy Derby Love at the Hot Docs Bloor Cinema, and I’ve got to say, being close to this theatre tops my pro list for having moved back to Toronto for six months. The filmmakers were in attendance and hosted a great Q&A afterwards. The film itself is well edited and compelling; the variety in the personal experiences and reasons for competing allows the diverse audience to identify with the subjects and the competitive nature of the sport and journey allows for great storytelling.

What I find most interesting about documentaries is that, for me, I often find myself wondering if I could do what the subject is doing (in my own way, of course, and tailored to my interests). When it comes to personal transformation and engagement in creative or physical expression (whether that be music, sports, theatre, or art) as shown through documentary, I often feel motivated to set goals for myself to see if I could do it. That being said, I’ve started to train at a boxing gym. I am determined to have my first amateur fight by the end of 2014! The gym I am training with now is called Newsgirls Boxing Gym, and Savoy Howe (the coach) was in attendance at this film. An audience member mentioned that boxing is great supplemental training for Roller Derby, so who knows where I’ll end up next.
One of the things I love about Roller Derby and Boxing is that women are encouraged to take up space. Being big and tall are seen as assets; indeed, you are more intimidating to your competitors. The women portrayed in Crazy Derby Love came in all shapes and sizes, fostering an accessible and safe environment for women to try their hand at the sport without judgment or ridicule. I am looking forward to adding this film to my feminist documentary collection.

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One interesting, under-reported trend in modern cinema is the increasing prevalence of the female documentarian. Whereas the statistics for female directors in Hollywood at large are predictably depressing, with only three wide-release movies in 2013 directed or co-directed by a woman, women are quietly producing incredible work in the documentary sector. In my home country (the UK) we’ve recently seen powerful, original, brilliant work by Carol Morley (Dreams of a Life), Jeanie Finlay (Sound It Out), Clio Barnard (The Arbor), Beeban Kidron (InRealLife)… seriously, if you wanted to use this post as a set of NetFlix recommendations, you wouldn’t be disappointed.

Want evidence of how accepted and respected female directors have become in the documentary sector? The Directors’ Guild of America, an organisation that you will be surprised to learn is a guild of American directors, just published its list of nominees for Best Documentary. They include two men – Joshua Oppenheimer (The Act of Killing) and Zachary Heinzerling (Cutie and the Boxer) – and three women. The actress Sarah Polley’s film Stories We Tell, about discovering an old family secret, is the most high-profile film on the list, but there’s also Jehane Noujaim’s The Square, about the unrest in Egypt, and Lucy Walker’s extreme sports film The Crash Reel.

A surprise omission, and one that I suspect the Oscars will honour, is Blackfish, the film exposing conditions at SeaWorld. That one was directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite. A woman? Uh huh.


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Whistler Film Festival

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On my last weekend in Vancouver, I headed to the Whistler Film Festival. I had never been to Whistler before, and it definitely made me wish I was an avid skiier! (Although I managed to convince my family to go skiing during our Christmas holiday, and I’m hoping I will get in a few more day-trips before heading back to the west coast in July so that I can feel confident skiing the baby hills).
The festival was much bigger than I thought it would be, and it was convenient having the theatres so close together. I only managed to see four films within the two days I was there (Best Man Down, Hi Ho Mistahey, Siddharth, and Cas & Dylan), but both the festival programming and industry events were impressive. Had it not been for the severe cold, I would have loved to explore outside the Village, but it also leaves me eager to return to Whistler – both for WFF, and the scenery.

WFF returns in 2014 for its 14th year, from December 3rd-7th.
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