Keith Strata of Highlands Cinemas in The Movie Man | Scott Ramsay / Doorknocker Media

From Movie Men to Activists, Docs Rule Kingston Canadian Film Fest

KCFF runs Feb. 28 to March 3

15 mins read

Get your ‘eh’ game ready as the Kingston Canadian Film Festival returns with the largest showcase devoted exclusively to Canadian cinema. KCFF kicks off its 2024 edition with the opening night screening of Fawzia Mirza’s acclaimed drama The Queen of My Dreams. The doc front of KCFF, meanwhile, offers an eclectic mix of Canadiana with outdoorsy adventures alongside films for cinephiles who prefer their adventures on the big screen. The festival also features some hard-hitting political docs and activist portraits to get audiences fired up—hopefully with enough energy to join some talking heads in a conversation about all things documentary at the KCFF industry day. And don’t miss the Canadian premiere of one doc that critics call “Canada’s Cinema Paradiso” and the world premiere of a hometown talent’s latest feature.

Here’s what’s happening on the documentary front at the 2024 Kingston Canadian Film Festival:


500 Days in the Wild

Sat, Mar. 2 & Sun, Mar. 3

On Canada Day, 2015, Dianne Whelan left St. John’s, Newfoundland to embark on an epic trek across Canada. Travelling the Trans-Canada Trail and the many waters that connect communities from coast to coast, Whelan made an historic trek and captured it on camera. 2224 days and 24,000 km later, Whelan landed in Victoria, B.C. having traversed all corners of the Canadian landscape. The film, which won the audience award at the Whistler Film Festival, sees Whelan brave the elements and find harmony with the landscape as the first person to trek the Trans Canada Trail in its entirety. It’s a daunting challenge, but Whelan embraces her inner Cheryl Strayed and keeps putting one foot forward after the other, conquering all fears with some help from loved ones along the way. Whelan also connects with Indigenous communities throughout the journey home. She draws upon traditional knowledge and practices to learn more about the history that informs her path. (The film also opens in the rest of Canada on Friday, so stay tuned for an interview with Whelan this week!)


Boil Alert

Thurs, Feb. 29 & Fri, Mar. 1

Witness activism in action in Boil Alert. The film by Stevie Salas (Rumble) and James Burns (The Water Walker) follows musician and activist Layla Staats as she visits Indigenous communities in Canada and the USA to learn about water pollution. The film explores the ripple effects of colonialism that endure in boil advisories and mountains of plastic bottles that impact the environment. Throughout the film, Staats connects with community members and listens empathetically to their tales of loss. “We were there to raise awareness and make an impact for the future, and the only way we’d be able to do that was if we opened up and were vulnerable,” Boil Alert director James Burns told POV’s Audrey Chan. “If we did a doc with experts explaining all the terrible things happening to the communities with statistics, it would go in one ear and out the other for a lot of folks. But when we put a human face on it, it makes a massive impact. We end up having the same conversation that we do in those talking head docs, but it drives us to feel more connected to the people.”


Dark Highway

Thurs, Feb. 29 & Sun, Mar. 3

Kingston lands the world premiere of local filmmaker AJ Edmonds’ exposé that will have them looking at their region a little differently. Dark Highway offers an eye-opening account of sex trafficking along the 401. Edmonds tackles the subject with empathy, compassion, and journalistic rigour as she offers alarming stories and statistics about the exploitation of vulnerable people happening in open sight. Dark Highway features surprising interviewees from survivors of sex trafficking, who outline harrowing stories of physical and emotional abuse, but also a reality check for the open secret and accounts of what happens in the aftermath of seeking justice. The film gains perspectives from activists, researchers, and former players who seek justice reform to protect the rights of survivors in a system that sees too few traffickers held accountable for their crimes. The frankness with which survivors tell of crimes happening in broad daylight, often in proximity to witnesses who look the other way, demands attention.


I Am Sirat

Fri, Mar. 1 & Sat, Mar. 2

Canadian master Deepa Mehta returns to her documentary roots with the groundbreaking semi-self-portrait I Am Sirat. We’re calling the film a “semi-self” work since it’s a truly collaborative affair as Mehta invites her star, Sirat Teneja, to join her as director. The film tells of Sirat’s journey coming out to her mother as a transgender woman and taking steps to legally affirm her gender. The doc lets Sirat tell her story on her own terms under Mehta’s guidance with clear framing to illustrate which images are shot by which director’s hand and which are by Sirat. “I said it had to be done in a way that I’m not the director telling you ‘action,’” Mehta told POV during an interview last September at the Toronto International Film Festival. “I said, ‘Sirat, the only way I can do it is if I facilitate you telling your story.’” The doc features footage shot vertically by Sirat on her iPhone, while horizontal framing signals Mehta’s images. The film’s opening title cards signal the authorship of the two perspectives from the outset. “I have objectivity, but Sirat is in control of the narrative,” adds Mehta. “That was very important for me. I didn’t want to control her narrative. It’s her story.”


I’m Just Here for the Riot

Thurs, Feb. 29 & Sat, Mar. 2

While doc fans are still rioting in the streets over My Octopus Teacher’s Oscar win, a months’ long investment in awards season looks like small potatoes compared to the mania of hockey hosers rooting for the home team in the Stanley Cup finals. Directors Kat Jayme and Asia Youngman look at the fallout from the 2011 Vancouver riots that shocked Canada and the world. I’m Just Here for the Riot revisits the zany footage depicting Vancouverites brazenly taking to the streets after their beloved Vancouver Canucks lost the Stanley Cup to the Boston Bruins in Game 7. The case proved especially bizarre as a turning point for social media, since the mob of hockey hosers extensively documented its own carnage, which led to the arrests of some rioters and trials in the court of public opinion for others. The film turns the question of the mob back on itself as people who were identified from the footage reflect upon their actions, but also the consequences of a momentary mistake that now lives online forever. Read more in Susan G. Cole’s review of the film.


The Movie Man

Thurs, Feb. 29 & Fri. Mar. 1

Anyone who loves movies simply must see The Movie Man. This acclaimed film somehow of popcorn is only making is Canadian premiere after generating buzz south of the border. There’s no better place to see it, though, than in the seats of The Screening Room as the aroma wafts through the air. It’s a love letter to the moves as director Matt Finlin whisks audiences to the small town of Kinmount, which has a population lower than the seat count in most multiplexes. Yet the small town houses the famed five-screen Highlands Cinema, a true “movie house” if there ever was one. The film introduces the Highlands’ cantankerous owner, Keith Stata, who keeps the haven for film buffs running and manages an eclectic movie-museum and tourist destination to help draw crowds from all corners of cottage country. The Movie Man gives audiences a look into all the work that goes into keeping the projectors running, but it’s also a revealing portrait of the challenges that independent cinemas faced during the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic as extended closures hit places like the Highlands hard. The doc also offers the highest cat quote since Kedi as an added bonus. Cinephiles and cat people, rejoice.


Someone Lives Here

Thurs, Feb. 29 & Fri, Mar. 1

One of three films nominated for the Toronto Film Critics Association’s inaugural Rogers Best Canadian Documentary award, Someone Lives Here is a notable portrait of Toronto’s housing crisis. Director Zack Russell makes a compelling feature debut by approaching the story from two angles. The bulk of the action follows Toronto carpenter Khaleel Seivwright who builds “tiny houses” to provide shelter for the city’s homeless. Seivwright understands that these small homes aren’t permanent solutions, but his devotion to helping Torontonians one by one admirably draws attention to a broken system. Russell observes as Seivwright encounters indifference from city hall as bureaucrats work to shut down his mission, rather than aid him. In the thread, Russell gains perspectives from Taka, an offscreen participant who shares her perspective about daily life on the city’s streets. It’s a notably empathetic work and a call for action in a city that’s failing more of its own people with each passing day. Read more about the film in Audrey Chan’s interview with Russell.



Thurs, Feb. 29

The traumas and resilience of residential school survivors fuel this personal NFB documentary by Dr. Jules Arita Koostachin. WaaPaKe (Tomorrow) sees Koostachin explore intergenerational trauma and ask how pain is passed down from one generation to the next. The director begins with her experience as the child of a residential school survivor, incorporating the voice of her mother, Rita, into the film and draws upon the lessons of oral storytelling she learned from her Cree grandparents. “There’s great vulnerability here as Koostachin and her family, including her son Asivak, share how they’ve collectively felt Rita’s heartache. With pain comes healing, though,” I wrote while reviewing WaaPaKe at VIFF, where it won Best BC Film. “One participant, a counsellor named Maisie whose siblings and father shared Rita’s experience, explains that the route to breaking the cycle of lateral violence comes by confronting intergenerational trauma, by speaking up. The experience might be pure hell for all involved, but the process of making WaaPaKe proves palpably cathartic.”


Documentary Panel!

Fri, Mar. 1

Last but not least, POV will be participating in KCFF’s industry day. Join me in conversation with Someone Lives Here director Zack Russell and Dark Highway director AJ Edmonds in a talk about the art of non-fiction. This discussion will look at different approaches to documentary form and offer an opportunity for attendees to ask questions of the participants.


The Kingston Canadian Film Festival runs Feb. 28 to March 3.

Pat Mullen is the publisher of POV Magazine. He holds a Master’s in Film Studies from Carleton University where his research focused on adaptation and Canadian cinema. Pat has also contributed to outlets including The Canadian Encyclopedia, Paste, That Shelf, Sharp, Xtra, and Complex. He is the vice president of the Toronto Film Critics Association and an international voter for the Golden Globe Awards.

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