Cultural Crossroads: Cinema Politica: Activist projections

Activist projections

Wide-angle view from Con-U: Winton and Turnin
Photo: Russ Cooper

Montreal's Cinema Politica screens underground docs in universities around the world

Documentaries chronicle the fast-paced, ever-changing shape of our world today, and the genre has become an increasingly popular one that offers critical perspectives often absent from mainstream media.

Cinema Politica, based in Montreal, is a progressive grassroots cinema distribution network that brings challenging documentaries to audiences – for free. Co-founded by Ezra Winton and Svetla Turnin, the local cultural project, based out of Concordia University, has played a key role in bringing documentaries to university campuses across Canada and globally. Cinema Politica has also forged close relationships to grassroots activist campaigns, marrying documentary film and struggles for social justice.

Hour had the opportunity to speak with the Cinema Politica founders for the Cultural Crossroads interview series.

Hour In the past decade, documentaries have emerged as an important medium for pressing social and political issues. What stands out about the way the genre has evolved? How has Cinema Politica helped promote underground documentary film in Canada?

Ezra Winton There was a spike in the popularity of documentary: The watershed film was Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine and the Canadian example is The Corporation. The Corporation was a big turning point for Cinema Politica because when the film was first released it attracted our biggest crowds. But popular documentaries at the theatre are aberrations. Most documentary films still have a very difficult time finding screen space and the vast majority has trouble reaching audiences beyond film festivals. Cinema Politica has been a small part of this rise in the popularity of documentary film, and we hope to continue to play a role. We attempt to connect new audiences with great documentaries.

Svetla Turnin Also, in the last 10 years there has been a shift in the genre: Documentary used to be quite formulaic, while in the last 10 years there has been a great deal of innovation, creativity and new ways of making documentary films as well as attracting new audiences.

Hour What motivates you to screen the films that don’t make it at the box office?

Turnin Both of us are communications and media studies students. Once you immerse yourself in the field you realize how limited the perspectives [are as] offered by the mass media. Cinema Politica was motivated by that absence of alternative perspectives, by this void.

Winton There is a lack of diversity in the films presented in commercial cinemas and the mainstream media. Cinema Politica is motivated by diversity, access and action. [We] offer a more diverse palate of perspectives through the documentaries screened. Many are off the beaten track, or films that people can’t easily access. While some of the films we show do play at festivals, most are quite difficult to find, [even online]. We show films that not only address marginalized stories but also inspire people to take action and participate in politics and culture.

Hour Local filmmaker Brett Gaylor’s recent film RiP! A Remix Manifesto expressed a new political and aesthetic critique about the public commons and was produced to challenge definitions of copyright. What do you enjoy most about the direction of documentary in recent years?

Winton Documentary film technology has improved drastically, so docs have become more mobile, accessible and higher quality. For these reasons their reach is expanding. More people are able to make better films with less money. RiP! A Remix Manifesto was made with $500,000 and a film like Experimental Eskimos was made for even less.

Also, documentary is going multimedia. Katerina Cizek’s multimedia film project Highrise is a perfect example of how documentary film isn’t just shown on a theatre screen [but rather across] different platforms like mobile devices and computers. With Highrise you can choose which narrative thread to follow, so there isn’t one standard narrative thread developed by the filmmaker. There are many interesting new developments. For example, RiP! A Remix Manifesto encourages people to remix the film online.

Turnin I think the nature of documentary film allows filmmakers to really tap into the key issues of our time, from the environment to the creative commons. Another example is Dreamland, a documentary about the recent financial crisis in Iceland. The filmmaker seized the moment and created an amazing film that is now spreading awareness on issues facing Iceland from a critical perspective. Also Dreamland has inspired debate in Iceland, leading many to ask critical questions.

Hour: Today documentation is part of our daily lives. An interesting interview with author Douglas Coupland describes this as the age of hyper-productivity. He argues that by tweeting about our every move or action we are now in the process of constant self-documentation. Does this water-down the critical appeal of documentary? Why does the genre matter?

Winton Documentary film has always been, and hopefully will continue to be, a medium that is able to facilitate critical interventions in the public sphere and cultural realm. As a critical intervention, documentary is able to analyze and comment on changes in our society from within the process of change. [Although documentary] uses new social media formats, the genre also continues to use classic techniques to tell stories – the standard talking head, the use of archival footage and animation, these are all elements that have been used in documentary film for decades. Documentary is always developing as a responsive, evolving medium to address the key issues of our times.

Turnin For me, it is interesting to find the links between documentary film and memory. Documentary film plays a role in creating and building up our collective memory banks. Documentary film is a critical intervention in that it chronicles reality while offering critical perspectives. It allows us to see a diversity of views and opinions about our world, and the issues that we face as a society.

Hour Sometimes there are tensions between a documentary film’s relationship to social action, activism and change. Some filmmakers outline their film’s objective in relation to political struggles or activism, others align their work with social movements, and some simply document political events as a participant/observer. Cinema Politica has built many bridges with activist groups. What is the relationship between grassroots social movements and documentary film? What context do you create for screenings and why?

Winton It is important to consider the message of a film and the social context. Take a film like Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. It was a huge film that developed a major following. But in my view the ultimate message of the film was that people needed to change the type of lightbulbs they use to avert environmental catastrophe – hardly a transformative message. In selecting our films we take into account the quality of the political message in the film.

Also, while films are moving to smaller screens and becoming more mobile, Cinema Politica remains a more traditional cinematic experience in the sense that we project documentaries onto big screens in public university settings. We screen films that tap into the energy of students, in learning and discovery environments. Also we often invite the filmmakers to our events and encourage them to dialogue with the audience. Often we see people leave our screenings inspired to get involved in different social movements, something we see as very positive. This is part of our goal as Cinema Politica.

Turnin At universities, we have access to a very wide and diverse audience of young people in their formative years. They are open to new ideas and willing to challenge traditions. Cinema Politica is offering an alternative forum for education. It is an education that isn’t focused on the classroom, on TV or in commercial cinemas. It’s about inciting people to think critically and consider different perspectives.

Cinema Politica
For more info:
Next screening? Girls Rock, April 12 at 7:30 p.m. (H-110 at Concordia University)

Co-presented with the Montreal Rock & Roll Camp for Girls

Stefan Christoff is a regular contributor to the Hour and can be found at

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