Layla Staats in Boil Alert | TIFF

ReFrame Film Festival Returns With Over 60 Social Justice Docs

Highlights from this year's festival

13 mins read

Catch some festival favourites from Canada and around the world as ReFrame Film Festival kicks off its 20th edition tonight. The Peterborough festival screens over 60 documentaries this year with a full in-person slate followed by virtual screenings of select films. Among the docs that audiences can catch in-person are the activist portrait Boil Alert, which kicks off the festival tonight, along with stories about the fight to create space for distinct communities in Big Fight in Little Chinatown, genre and gender-bender hybrid works like Orlando: My Political Biography, and the visually awesome environmental essay Songs of Earth, which absolutely must be seen on the big screen.

Meanwhile, audiences might want to brace themselves for the emotional impact of Lac-Mégantic: This Is Not an Accident, which screens all four parts of Philippe Falardeau’s intense study of the rail disaster that devastated a community. Audiences looking for catharsis, though, can sweat it out with Smoke Sauna Sisterhood, a prize-winner from last year’s Sundance Film Festival that creates a safe space for women to unleash their emotions. For audiences looking online, the festival includes docs like Periodical, which unpacks the politics of menstruation, and Dear Ani, a fan’s love letter to his letters to singer Ani DiFranco.

Here are some highlights from this year’s festival for audiences looking to attend either in-person, online, or both!


Boil Alert

Tonight at 7:00 pm

Q&A with activist Layla Staats and Jonny Neuman, Senior VP of Development at Seeing Red 6Nations

This year’s festival kicks off with a portrait of activism in action with 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.”


Friday, Jan. 27 at 8:00pm | in-person only

Get a timely portrait of the fight for LGBTQ+ rights in countries where queerness is a crime with Queendom. This documentary by Agniia Galdanova observes Russian drag artist Gena Marvin as she risks all by being visibly queer and turning heads with her provocative outfits. Among her bold statement pieces are a full-bodied Russian flag and a blood-soaked tribute to the cries of Ukraine. “Queendom creates a safe space for Gena to demonstrate her art as Galdanova lets her performances shine,” in wrote while reviewing the film. “Observational interludes let Gena pose, writhe, and crawl in picturesque isolated locations. The film has a fine eye for portraiture and composition, taking in the strange and surreal forms that defy categorization.”


Allihopa: The Dalkurd Story

Sunday, Jan. 28 at 12:30 | in-person and online

Audiences seeking something a bit more upbeat will find it in the inspiring sports doc Allihopa: The Dalkurd Story. This film by Kordo Doski tells the story of Kurdish refugees in Sweden who formed a soccer team of their own when no nation could represent them in the World Cup. “Too many sports docs only concentrate on their storylines and characters, ignoring the actual games themselves. Not Allihopa, which is well-shot with excellent coverage of the matches,” wrote POV editor Marc Glassman while reviewing the film. “The football isn’t ignored, nor is the politics and, especially with the co-captains, you get a sense of how well adjusted many young Kurdish Swedes are to their new country while still maintaining a love for their homeland.”


Don’t Forget the Shorts!

It’s perfect weather for some shorts as ReFrame kicks off in an unseasonably warm January. (Maybe catch a film on climate change while you’re there?) But the festival has some swell short film offerings, both as paired works with feature docs and as full programmes of shorts. Highlights in the festival include Last Respects (Saturday at 8:00pm, in-person), the Hot Docs award winner about a Montreal priest who gives respectful send-offs for deceased people, often unhoused ones, whose bodies go unclaimed. (Read more about the film in Megan Durnford’s filmmaker diary.) Meanwhile, the NFB doc Modern Goose (Friday at 10:00am, in-person and online) offers an unconventional take on nature documentary with its quacking portrait of geese in the city. (Read more about Modern Goose in our interview with director Karsten Wall.)

ReFrame also offers the wonderfully life-affirming animated documentary Madeleine (Sunday at 12:30, in-person and online) and a unique portrait of life in Palestine with A Short Film About a Chair (Friday at 10:00am, in-person and online). On the local front, the fest screens Kirby’s House (Saturday at 5:15, in-person and online) a portrait of a Pembroke man with an intellectual disability as he maintains an independent home. Learn more about Kirby’s House in Alejandra De La Huerta’s interview with director Rob Viscardis below. Viscardis will be at the festival for a Q&A following the screening.


Maboungou: Being in the World

Friday, Jan. 26 12:30pm | in person

Audiences looking to maximize the in-person experience might want to flex their dance muscles with Maboungou: Being in the World. This mid-length documentary by Philip Szporer and Marlene Miller profiles Montreal-based French-Congolese choreographer and philosopher Zab Maboungou. She shares her attitude for harnessing the body to provide harmony in body and spirit. On Saturday, ReFrame offers an add-on to the festival experience as Szporer and Miller deliver a full-day workshop about the creative process that goes into capturing a subject’s story in documentary form.


Long Distance Swimmer – Sara Mardini

Saturday, Jan. 27 at 12:30pm | also online

Cinephiles may have encountered the story of Sara Mardini in the Netflix drama The Swimmers. The documentary Long Distance Swimmer picks up where the documentary left off and explores Sara’s story as she endures a courageous legal battle after she was arrested while helping fellow refugees. “While waiting for the wheels of justice to grind towards her day in court, she becomes depressed, searching for what to do with herself,” wrote Susan G. Cole while reviewing the film. “But she finds a purpose when she embarks on a speaking tour to raise awareness of the increasing threat to humanitarian efforts and she is a spectacular communicator. She is, in fact, more charismatic than the actor who portrayed her in the fiction film of her story.”


Manufacturing the Threat

Saturday, Jan. 27 at 2:45 PM | in-person only

An eye-opening exposé comes in ReFrame selection Manufacturing the Threat. This film by Amy Miller (Tomorrow’s Power) takes a hard look at the state of policing in Canada and zeroes in on abuses of power that go under(or un)reported in mainstream media. Miller looks at the stories of people like John Nuttall and Amanda Korody, who were initially convicted as part of a bombing plan that was cooked up by RCMP officers looking to make an arrest. The film shows how the controversial Project Souvenir operation made Nuttall and Korody’s case the first incident of terrorism charges overturned due to police entrapment. The doc situates their story among many in a system that’s spiralling out of control while Canadians remain glued to stories about the USA. (Stay tuned for our review during the festival.)


Mr. Dressup: The Magic of Make-Believe

Sunday, Jan. 28 5:15pm | in person

End this year’s festival with a bittersweet note of joy as ReFrame closes with audience favourite Mr. Dressup: The Magic of Make-Believe. The film by Rob McCallum chronicles the legacy of Canadian TV icon Ernie Coombs, who delighted generations of children as Mr. Dressup. The doc zips through decades of archival material as Coombs entertains and educates audiences with his grab-bag of costumes pulled from the tickle trunk. The film’s also an unexpected ode to public funding and the necessity of supporting quality content for all ages. “The power of Mr. Dressup was showing kids every single day the wonder of creative exploration and the unlimited potential of imagination, no matter where you are in Canada, coast to coast,” McCallum told POV’s Rachel Ho in an interview. “No matter what your background is, Mr. Dressup and his approach to what we could do with our time united everybody without conflict.” Executive producer Greg Floyd will attend the festival for a Q&A.


The 2024 ReFrame Film Festival runs Jan. 25 to 28 in person.

The online festival runs Jan. 29 to Feb. 4.


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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