As I mentioned the other week, Vancouver’s DOXA documentary film festival is coming up. In fact, it opens tonight! I’m a partner for the screening of Anne Braden: Southern Patriot coming up on Tuesday, but that’s not the only film I’m going to try to attend. There are a whole bunch of other films on issues of women’s rights, queer issues, and other social justice-y topics. It makes it hard to choose.
I was interested in what goes in to planning the festival and why it’s important for DOXA to show documentaries that deal with these kinds of social and political issues, so I did a quick interview with Dorothy Woodend, DOXA’s Director of Programming. Here’s what she had to say:
Q: Can you tell me a bit about how and why DOXA started?
The very first DOXA festival was held in 2000. It started as a small, grassroots event, with the intent to show films that you couldn’t see anywhere else at the time. The emphasis was not only on documentaries that engaged with social justice issues from around the globe, but also films that embodied the art of the documentary, meaning films that challenged the the nature of the genre. We have worked very hard to maintain the original intent of the festival, while actively keeping pace with changes in filmmaking practice. As documentary has evolved and developed over the past twelve years, DOXA has grown alongside it.
Q: How does the festival choose the films that will be shown?
DOXA employs a very rigorous method choosing films for the festival. Every October, we issue an open call for film submissions that is sent around the globe to filmmakers, distributors, film institutes, film schools, and organizations. We have always kept our submission fee extremely low, so that it is not a barrier for anyone who wanted to submit a film to the festival. We also research films that in production, look at what other festivals are screening, as well as invite a number of films. We have a two-tiered system of screening films at DOXA. The screening committee, which is roughly 10-12 people, is the first set of eyes to look at the submissions. Ideally, a film is seen by at least 2-4 people, in order to ensure that there is a breadth of opinion and taste. The programming committee is a smaller group of people who decide on thematic strands, pair features and shorts, and integrate the program as a whole with the aims of the festival’s mandate.
Q: Why do you think it’s important to explicitly promote films that address specific social issues like women’s rights and the environment?
I think it is extremely critical that we show films that address women’s issues, social justice, environment, The failure of traditional media has really allowed for the development of documentary to act as a form of long-form journalism. There are so many stories that would never see the light of day, if it wasn’t for the courage and commitment of individual filmmakers. I am always perpetually bowled over by what documentary filmmakers can do through sheer perseverance, tenacity and occasionally just plain old cussedness. I think that level of authenticity, for lack of a better term, is what drives audiences to actively seek out documentary films. We are living in a pretty strange and volatile time, and a great many of the films we show, dive deep into just how odd, terrible and curious the world is at the moment. The emotional impact of many of these films is what I am always struck by as well. These films do not pull any punches, and for that reason, they provoke, even demand a response.
Q: How do you think documentaries can further social change?
I definitely and most fervently believe in the power of documentaries to change people’s minds. I have seen it happen over and over again. Because so many of the films that we present at DOXA deal with very challenging ideas and issues, they often confront audiences with stories that they need to actively engage with. DOXA is not a passive film-going experience, where you turn off your mind, and escape. We want our audience to be actively question their own thinking and understanding of issues. Partly we do this through the films we show, but also by offering the opportunity not only to talk with the filmmaker, but also with experts in the field. The films that screen in the Justice Forum and the Rated Y for Youth programs are always paired with a panel of speakers. The intent is to foster a conversation that encompasses everyone, so that it’s not just the panelist lecturing to an audience, but a place where everyone can participate. The ideal moment for me is when audience members turn to each other and start talking.
Q: What makes DOXA stand out among all the other film festivals in Vancouver?
I think what makes DOXA different from other festivals in the city is a commitment to always push ourselves, to try something new every year, whether that’s a performative documentary event, installation, online component or this year, our Special Spotlight on the Future. I think this is where the fun stuff happens, out on the edge.
Q: What are you most excited about this year?
I am really excited about the films that really push the boundaries of what is possible in documentary. Some of the most interesting films that came in this year, you weren’t even entirely sure what they were, as they combined very different elements (science fiction, surrealism, narrative, etc.). These hybrid-type films are really exciting to me as they basically flout the conventions of the genre, and force you to confront your own expectations as a viewer about what documentary really means, or, even what reality means. The debate over what constitutes pure documentary has been raging for a while and I liked that these films entirely bypass that tired old idea and do precisely what they want to do. They’re fearless in this way, and I find that really fascinating. By its very nature film requires a restructuring, an arrangement of images and ideas in order to make art. Reality is what you make of it, and I don’t mean that facetiously. We all construct our reality all day every day, and that’s why I like films that do away with pretense that documentaries are somehow not as constructed as narrative film. This harkens back to the festival’s original mandate – to celebrate the art of documentary – and that is exactly what these films are doing.