TAKING A GOOD, LONG LOOK at the situation facing documentary filmmakers and their audiences, the view couldn’t seem grimmer. The writing, as they say, is on the wall—and it’s in fluorescent paint: audience numbers are down. Funding is harder than ever to attain. And, that ever-pervasive bit of nagging conventional wisdom: young people are politically apathetic and not interested in engaging with the issues.
It’s extremely rare to find a success story along the lines of Cinema Politica (CP), the documentary film series that began at Montreal’s Concordia University and shreds, chews up and spits out any and all manner of conventional wisdom. Despite all of the rather dire news and naysaying, CP has proven every one of these tenets wrong: not only are there line-ups to take part in their politically-invigorating screenings and question-and-answer (Q&A) discussions, the series has gone viral, inspiring over 90 chapters on campuses throughout the world. Under the motto “Screening truth to power,” CP has set out to change the world, one film at a time.
CP co-founders Svetla Turnin and Ezra Winton say their beginnings were modest. Eleven years ago, Concordia University’s campus was shaken and stirred by a proposed visit from Benjamin Netanyahu. The right-wing Israeli politician was booked to speak at the university’s downtown campus when all hell broke loose: activists denounced the appearance of Netanyahu, who they argued was directly connected to war crimes against Palestinians. Activists’ response grew more violent as the politician’s September 9 appearance grew nearer; the police were called in, and clashes began. Windows were smashed. Spectators were spat on. Netanyahu’s talk ended up being relocated to a smaller, off-campus venue. The incident led to a lot of soul-searching at Concordia and inspired two very different documentary reflections, Discordia (Ben Addelman and Samir Mallal) and Confrontation at Concordia (Martin Himmel).
Turnin and Winton say this incident led them to recognize how desperately members of the university community wanted to engage in thoughtful, analytical discussions about global politics and social issues. “Concordia was a very politicized campus at that time,” says Winton. “I could see that if we screened films that really connected audiences with issues, we would draw a crowd.”
It’s not so surprising that the CP series’ biggest logistical headaches often revolved around screenings that have touched on Mideast topics. “That and animal rights documentaries,” Turnin notes.
The criteria for what gets chosen for a CP documentary boils down to a couple of essential things. “We ask ourselves, ‘What kind of discussion will this film inspire?’” says Winton. “A post-screening discussion is really important. Can we bring in the filmmaker? If not, can we bring in an activist or someone who’s in the film who can discuss the issues that it raises?”
Winton says the CP selection committee distinguishes between liberal consensus documentaries and activist, take-action films, and they tend to favour the latter. The delineation could perhaps best be likened to the competing philosophies of two of the great progressive playwrights and thinkers of the 20th century, George Bernard Shaw and Bertolt Brecht. Shaw was the ultra-prolific dramatist and man of letters who argued that forward-thinking messages about gender equality, class strife and pacifism could be gently inserted into audience minds via the cultural equivalent of a sugarcoated pill. Brecht, on the other hand, argued that such manners of thinking about cultural reception merely seduced audiences into the comforting notion that, by play’s end, things were being taken care of and all’s well that ends well. Brecht argued for a much more confrontational style of art, the agitprop, take-no-prisoners approach, in which audiences would be implicated directly in the problem addressed and implored into action.
Winton invokes two very different documentaries to further illuminate the difference in approach. “First, The Crisis of Civilization [Dean Puckett, 2011] offers a complete critique of capitalism and the system that we function within. An Inconvenient Truth [Davis Guggenheim, 2006], on the other hand, doesn’t criticize capitalism at all. It argues that capitalism simply needs to be fine-tuned. The liberal fare is fine and it has its place, but we feel like many of those docs are already well represented. Bully, Waiting for Superman —these films are on TV and available on Netflix. The radical stuff is much harder to find.”
“We do show some liberal documentaries,” adds Turnin. “People have to feel good sometimes.” Turnin and Winton cite Sharkwater (Rob Stewart, 2006), the first-person documentary about dwindling numbers of sharks in the world’s oceans, as an example of a leftist documentary they screened.
One of the funny things about CP’s growth into chapters on other campuses is they didn’t really do any aggressive outreach. “People would attend our screenings and find that they really wanted to get involved with an issue,” says Turnin. “People have contacted us to tell how involved they’ve been with an activist group or cause for a number of years, and said that it all began with a night at one of our screenings.”
Soon after CP launched, Turnin and Winton were approached by activists at UQAM, one of Montreal’s French-language universities, who wanted to start their own chapter. McGill soon followed, and then the CP team started to hear from universities in Mexico; Paris, France; Burlington, Vermont; and Courtenay, B.C. Chapters can choose from CP’s now-extensive library of documentaries, and are asked to ensure that a relevant Q&A discussion follows the screening. With each screening, the doc filmmakers make a residual fee; Turnin and Winton say they wanted to make sure the filmmakers were getting some benefit for their hard labour.
Through the evolution—the burgeoning growth of their network—Turnin and Winton have never lost their attention to detail. A change in their MO during the last season is a case in point. During discussions, two or three stand-up microphones were placed in the auditorium to facilitate questions. But Turnin and Winton noticed that those who were most compelled to go to the microphones were overwhelmingly male. They decided that such a gender imbalance could not be ignored. They did away with the stand-up microphones and instead switched to a hand-held microphone that would be handed around the audience. The gender breakdown immediately shifted to approximately 50-50, accurately reflecting the audience make-up.
For Turnin and Winton, attention to such detail is paramount to the success of CP. “Sure, lots of stuff is online now,” notes Winton. “But people will always want to engage with documentaries with an audience around them. That sense of community is at the heart of our success.” “We have been so inspired by [Montreal-based aboriginal filmmaker] Alanis Obomsawin,” says Turnin. “Her way of working, her respect for the people she’s interviewing, her community-based approach and the way she considers all of the ethical questions around what she’s doing—she has set a very high standard for us to follow.”
“There isn’t much money in doing this,” notes Winton. “But it was never about financial gain. The point is to keep creating a sense of community and audience engagement around the social issues these films touch on.”