From Grassroots to Global Networks

15 mins read

The theatre seats about 900, and the screen is a massive 17’ x 36’ extravagance of shimmering light. It is the kind of exhibition space for which most independent doc makers would give an eyetooth. On one memorable night in Montreal, the images were of horribly injured Haitians. It was the world premiere of Kevin Pena’s Haiti: The Untold Story, an accusation and indictment of peacekeeping practices in Haiti. Pena had arrived that day in Canada with his documentary, only just edited, secure and hidden on the hard drive of his laptop. He had never seen it on a large screen, let alone shown it to anyone outside of Haiti. In the audience, in response to the difficult images, members of the Montreal Haitian community began wailing high- pitched vibrato screams. The impact of the film, combined with the voluble outrage of those most closely affected, created an intense experience for everyone in the audience. It demonstrated the extraordinary power of political cinema and explains, in part, why a grassroots screening series in Montreal is growing into an international distribution and exhibition phenomenon.

Meet Ezra Winton. Tall, awkward and charming, Winton is the creative energy behind Cinema Politica, a film series started at Concordia University that has grown to include screenings across Canada, and in the United States, Europe and Latin America. Winton is a graduate student in Communications at Concordia but, thankfully, lacks the nerdiness of most graduate students. “What drove me to do it,” he explains, “was wanting to have a public space to share my experience of political cinema with others.”

Winton’s love for political film was born when he saw Mark Achbar and Peter Wintonick’s hugely successful Manufacturing Consent, their homage to Noam Chomsky’s analysis of mass media in the late 20th Century. “I just remember sitting in the chair and thinking: Holy shit! I didn’t know any of this! I didn’t know how concentrated the media was; I’d never heard of East Timor; I don’t even know if I’d heard of Noam Chomsky. There was something about the way the film was put together that really spoke to me and dug into me.” At first, he was amazed, and then he was angry. “When the film ended, my friend and I practically ran out of the theatre to go and start the Courtney, B.C. chapter of the East Timor Alert Network, and to start telling people about media concentration. I thought, if this has happened to me and my friend, then it can happen to lots of other people.”

The Perfect Film

Cinema Politica screens political film, with an emphasis on documentary, and focus on Canadian cinema. Part of the success of the series is Winton’s willingness to search beyond the obvious political film fare to locate little known, but well made, documentary gems.

Reading through a representative sampling of the films screened over the past year helps to explain the series’ success. Winton has shown God Sleeps in Rwanda (US/Kimberlee Acquaro and Stacy Sherman, dir.), which looks at the aftermath in Rwanda and the fact that the population is 70% female because of the genocide, and how women are rebuilding it; The Future of Food (US/Deborah Coons, dir.), examining the growing crises in global food production and distribution; Zero Degrees of Separation (Canada/Elle Flanders, dir.), about two gay couples whose love transgresses the Israeli/Palestine political borders and is tragically complicated by the on-going crisis; Let Them Stay (Canada/Shirley Douglas, dir.), about American soldiers who have fled to Canada to seek asylum rather than face another tour of duty in Iraq and Continuous Journey (Canada/Ali Kazimi, dir.) about the 1915 Komagata Maru tragedy, when a ship bearing Sikhs was refused entry into Canada, cementing an anti-Indian immigration policy, which lasted until 1947.

Winton looks for a particular combination of politics and aesthetics— the latter not to be confused with budget. He wants “films that have in-depth analysis of a problem or issue or story and tell it in a way that anyone in an audience can understand—but that also have skillfully executed aesthetics.” As much promoter as cinephile, Winton makes sure that a line-up of rare gems is peppered with crowd pleasers like The Weather Underground (US/Sam Green, dir.) and Popaganda: The Art and Crimes of Ron English (2004/US/Pedro Carvajal, dir.). “A lot of people had heard of the film Popaganda,” he comments. “Ron English is well known, it has a lot of rock-n-roll in it—it had some buzz and mainstream politics happening. It’s a lot easier for people who aren’t political to say they’re going to see a film about somebody who is jamming advertising than it is for someone to see a film about genital mutilation. You put the odd crowd pleaser in there and it builds an audience of non- political people. They start coming as regulars, and then you put in the more radical discourse, the more radical texts, the more non-mainstream films.” It seems a little ‘exhibition subversion’ goes a long way. Audience numbers and student body appreciation of the series have grown steadily in the three years that Cinema Politica has been screening films.

Unsealing the Conversation

Winton likens films to sealed conversations: they happen on the screen, audiences watch them, but they can’t participate. At least, not until the film is over. Another reason for the series’ success is the public forum that follows each screening. Directors, experts, participants in the films, community groups, grassroots organizers and activists all play a role in moving the dialogue from the screen into the theatre. “You can be a voyeur to the discussion,” Winton says, “and be engaged on your own terms while you sit there quietly watching the film. But after provocative, exciting and sometimes haunting political films, audiences want to be engaged beyond the sealed discussion. They want to talk.” The proof, he says, is that audiences stay after the films, “even if we don’t have a speaker afterwards. Being able to harness that desire and energy to engage in discussion about the issues raised in the film is a good first step for unsealing the conversation.”

A Network that Grows Organically

The popularity of Cinema Politica runs counter to industry “wisdom” that says political cinema is a hard sell, often a no sell. It’s not. And, apparently, the demand for political cinema far outstrips supply. This helps to explain the unusual organic “franchising” taking place with the creation of affiliated screenings in four countries over the past 18 months. Screenings have started in Paris; Burlington, Vermont; Mexico City; across Canada in Sackville, Ottawa, Kingston, Courtenay and Vancouver. Just recently, students in Tampa, Florida contacted Winton to find out how to start one there.

Calling them franchises isn’t quite accurate. Cinema Politica is organized through a Montreal organization called überculture, an activist group that wants people to reclaim their cultural surroundings. They garnered a reputation two summers ago when they toured Wal-mart parking lots across Canada with hotdogs, clowns in cages and pamphlets trying to raise awareness about Wal-mart’s environmental and human rights record. (The story of the tour is told in Wal-Town: The Film, an NFB co-production directed by Sergio Kirby, which premiered at the 2006 Montreal World Film Festival).

Winton has named affiliated screenings “locals” in a not so subtle nod to organized labour. Each affiliated “local” was started by someone who either attended a screening in Montreal or found Cinema Politica online. And while they use the name, locals must, for the most part, struggle to set up their own screenings as best they can with whatever resources they have. Überculture sometimes helps with posters and, of course, with films. In exceptional cases, more help has been offered. Students at the University of Mexico, for instance, also needed a video projector and a generator. It seems the university has the nasty habit of cutting power to the auditorium during political events. Überculture helped the students raise money for the needed equipment.

And so, almost by accident, Ezra Winton finds himself at the centre of a growing international network of exhibition spaces hungry for the same kinds of films that he loves to screen.

Follow the Money

When Cinema Politica started, it had almost no budget, which necessitated working out deals with distributors and filmmakers for reduced screening fees or having them waived, or sharing door proceeds. Admission was, and still is, by donation which allows anyone to attend. Last year, Citizenshift, an NFB initiative, came on as a sponsor providing the series with a small budget to help offset film costs and promotion. And this year, Cinema Politica began collecting a small fee levy from students to help finance the running of the series. The point of the series is not to collect money at the door, but to expose the public to otherwise unavailable films. “These grassroots screenings end up creating a buzz around films,” says Winton. “What happens is, because our screenings are free, or by donation, a lot of people have told me that after they see a film they like, they seek it out to purchase. A lot of the films we show are by independent filmmakers who rely on money from screenings and DVD sales exclusively because they have no theatrical release.”

“Buzz” and DVD sales are what Cinema Politica has to offer independent filmmakers, neither of which is to be underestimated. With an average audience of 400 people per screening, there are at least as many networks of families and friends who will hear about these new political docs. Filmmakers may make as much money from DVD sales as from exhibition fees, and sometimes more. “Katharine Dodds of Good Company calls what we do viral marketing,” comments Winton. “When you don’t have the money to make glossy ads, and you don’t have access to mainstream media because you can’t afford to advertise, what are you left with? You’re left with the activist tactics of getting the word out.” Cinema Politica offers independent filmmakers a promotional machine and opportunity to get their films viewed in its growing distribution network.

Radical Exhibitionism

Underneath Winton’s cheerful and hectic film-promoting exterior lies someone who wants to see political change. “I think the role of documentaries hasn’t changed,” he says. “They are meant to provoke, agitate, inspire action, and to provide informational and emotional solidarity and support. They are meant to be agents and tools of social transformation.” Fortuitously, and doubtless part of the reason for _Cinema Politica_’s phenomenal success, the North American industry is experiencing a documentary renaissance, with more theatrical releases of docs in mainstream theatres than ever before.

Winton pins the renewed interest in documentary on the growing awareness, especially among young people and students, of extreme media concentration. “They’re getting the same news stories everywhere they look, or almost everywhere, because on the web people are seeking and finding alternative information and stories. Inevitably, it’s going to spill over to film and docs.” What strikes Winton as inevitable, alas, may take longer than some media activists would like. To satisfy the growing craving for political cinema, why not start a screening series like Cinema Politica in your community? Everyone else is…

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