DocLit: Screening Truth to Power

Cinema Politica’s book catches Canada’s current cultural ferment

4 mins read

Screening Truth to Power: A Reader on Documentary Activism
Edited by Svetla Turnin and Ezra Winton (Cinema Politica, 2014)


In the fall of 2013, my first year as a master’s film student at York University, filmmaker John Greyson and physician Tarek Loubani were detained for 50 days in an Egyptian prison. There were public demonstrations for their release at York (where Greyson teaches) and in cities across Canada and internationally. It was exciting for me to attend the rallies: seeing filmmaker and professor Brenda Longfellow protesting the situation, being encouraged to send letters to the Harper government, and to be around political activists that fight for human rights. The Free Tarek Loubani & John Greyson cause was a success and the two did return to Canada. The crisis brought to my attention that there are social injustices going on throughout the world and, more importantly, that communal protest can be effective.

This current era of creative cultural protest is captured in Cinema Politica’s first book, Screening Truth to Power: A Reader on Documentary Activism. Cinema Politica is a Montreal-based, non-profit screening series of political documentaries, with an emphasis on Canadian work. Its co-founders, Svetla Turnin and Ezra Winton, edited the book and it is a reflection on their organisation’s 10 years of activity (the 10 memorable moments that are described are especially enlightening). The book is full of essays and ‘Dox Vox Mixtapes,’ which are specially curated ‘favourite docs’ lists organized under themes (e.g., LGBT, First Nation, feminist), by a variety of scholars, documentary filmmakers and enthusiasts all generously acknowledged in the book’s biography section.

What Explosion in the Movie Machine (YYZ Books, 2013) did for experimental film in Toronto culture —highlighting its history, evolution, fights and contradictions— Screening Truth to Power accomplishes for the radical documentary scene in Montreal. The Cinema Politica screenings take place in auditorium H-110 at Concordia often with over 700 filmgoers in attendance—their ideal ‘democratic screening space.’ The films are programmed based on their journalistic urgency or controversy. Others are selected in partnership with a human rights/social issue organisation. A recent example was the screening of the controversial documentary on Palestinian activist Leila Khaled.

The book is dedicated to Canadian documentarians Peter Wintonick (cf. POV 93) and Magnus Isacsson, both of whom recently passed away. Legendary documentarians Alanis Obomsawin and Steve James are featured alongside newcomers like Antoine Bourges (East Hastings Pharmacy, Canada 2012).

This openness towards a myriad of social issues and activists gives the book a hybrid, social and generous quality. The variation of the types of essays—some are dry and academic, others more anecdotal or personal; some in English, others in French—suits the free form most readily identified with documentaries. The book looks good too: there are stills from famous documentaries and doc-related quotes that split the essays.

Screening Truth to Power is a must-read for anyone interested in documentary activism, alternative exhibition platforms and the richness of Canadian film culture.

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