photos: Looking at controversy

Looking at controversy

2018 DOXA Documentary Film Festival features flicks about local rabble-rouser Harry Rankin and iconic photographer of North America’s Indigenous people, Edward Curtis.

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The 17th annual DOXA Documentary Film Festival – which kicks off May 3 – will open with The Rankin File: Legacy of a Radical, a local film about Vancouver lawyer and long-term member of Vancouver City Council, Harry Rankin.

Filmmaker Teresa Alfeld developed an interest in Rankin after being asked to archive the Harry Rankin media collection back in 2010.

“I found myself drawn to the multifaceted nature of Harry's character,” she says. “Having grown up in Vancouver with parents involved in city affairs, I found Harry's story deeply captivating and beyond deserving of a film – a story that needs to be told.”

Rankin, who was one of the founders of the Committee of Progressive Electors (COPE), developed a reputation for being an outspoken socialist and radical for the government. The film is a portrait of his legacy told through archival footage and interviews with current-day politicians and activists such as Libby Davies (Vancouver East MP from 1997 to 2015) and former B.C. premier Mike Harcourt, who knew Rankin.

According to Selina Crammond, DOXA’s director of programming, the film touches on issues around accessibility and affordability and allows the audience to ask themselves, “Are these issues as relevant today as they were back then, if not more so?”

“Although Harry Rankin is not a popular name in young activists' minds, he was quite an amazing figure in his day,” notes Crammond. “He ran as an outspoken socialist. He was basically red baited by police and government. But despite all of that, he continued to run for office and stand up for things he believed to be right, such as social housing.”

The documentary will open DOXA on Thursday, May 3. It will return to the festival on May 8, during a Justice Forum Town Hall screening, where the audience will have an opportunity to participate in a discussion about the issues raised in the film.

Regular and guest-curated programs

DOXA returns this year with regular programs, including French French, Rated Y for Youth, and the Justice Forum.

French French is going into its fourth year. This year’s program is a combination of new French cinema and a special program of dedicated to the work of Alain Cavalier. The French director made his name with political thrillers like Le Combat dans l’ile and L’Insoumis, later turning to more philosophical works such as Un étrange voyage and Thérèse.

The festival also has two guest-curated programs.

From Our Eyes, curated by Yi Cui, a filmmaker and educator based in China, features three smaller programs, each made up of several short films by Tibetan filmmakers. The documentaries are told from the perspective of people in the community.

According to Crammond, what's really special about this program is the fact these films haven't actually been seen before outside their regions.

“The screen, on which these auto- ethnographic films are projected, is not simply a mirror, but is also a transformer that intervenes directly in community life,” says Yi Cui, the program’s curator. “For  the herdsmen and monks, the intended audience of their films is not national or international, but local. Their films are made to be shown to the other community members and to provoke thoughts and actions in response to changes around them.”

Inside Extremity, curated by local author and journalist Geoff Dembicki, features three films – No Man's Land, Golden Dawn Girls and Of Fathers and Sons – that look at the rise of right-wing populism and changing trends in documentary filmmaking.

No Man’s Land, for instance, provides a detailed, on-the-ground account of the 2016 standoff between protesters occupying Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and federal authorities. The film documents the occupation from inception to its dramatic demise and tells the story of those on the inside – the ideologues, the disenfranchised, and the dangerously quixotic, attempting to uncover what draws Americans to the edge of revolution.

“In all three films, filmmakers are taking their cameras and sneaking into the communities. In some cases they confront the subjects, but in more cases than not, they go along with it as a means of gaining access and really exposing what's going on,” says Crammond. “It's an interesting look at the power of journalism.”

Representations + Indigenous Perspectives shorts program

In addition to this year’s guest- curated programs, DOXA will feature a Representations and Indigenous Perspectives shorts program, with three films looking at the question of representation. How do you preserve memory and legacies of Indigenous voices? What are the ethics involved in doing so?

Looking at Edward Curtis, by Canadian Métis/Dene filmmaker Marie Clements, navigates the controversies surrounding American photographer Edward Curtis. The short examines Curtis’ work in the Pacific Northwest through The North American Indian, a 20-volume publication representing his 30-year effort to document “the vanishing Indian.”

The film tackles the questions: Was Edward Curtis' work ethical? What are some of the good things that have come out of it? What are some of the critiques?

“It's an interesting look the legacy of Edward Curtis, who was an early settler and documentarian,” Crammond says. “On the one hand, he was taking pictures of people without their consent. But on the other, he’s a famous figure in history for the work that he did documenting Indigenous people from North America.”

Butterfly Monument, by filmmaker Jules Koostachin, documents the creation of a public monument to young Cree education advocate, Shannen Koostachin, who died at age 15. The young woman became famous for starting a movement for “safe and comfy” schools and quality culturally based education for First Nations children. Filmmaker Jules Koostachin led the effort to create Canada’s first public statue honouring an Indigenous youth.

Finally, Inuit artist Asinnajaq plunges us into a sublime imaginary universe – 14 minutes of luminescent, archive- inspired cinema that recast the present, past and future of her people in a radiant new light. Her documentary short, Three Thousand, parses the complicated cinematic representation of the Inuit from a range of sources – newsreels, propaganda, ethnographic docs, and work by Indigenous filmmakers. Embedding historic footage into original animation, she conjures up a vision of hope and beautiful possibility.

The three films will be screening on May 9 and May 11. The May 9 screening will be part of DOXA’s Rated Y for Youth program.

Documentaries for music lovers

“One thing we've noticed through our programming processes is an influx of really amazing music documentaries this year,” says Crammond.

From Ethiopiques – Revolt of the Soul, a documentary about Ethiopian disco funk music in the 1980s, to Queercore: How to Punk a Revolution, a documentary about queercore music that evolved out of Toronto and California, these films look at the power of music to connect, heal, and at times, push for change.

Wajd: Songs of Separation by local director Amar Chebib looks at the journey of three Syrian refugees, Ibrahim, Abdulwahed and Mohamed. Inspired by the traditional music of Syria, the film follows the three men over the course of five years and documents how their love of music helps them find meaning in the aftermath of destruction and atrocity.

The Punk Voyage, another film in this program, takes place in Finland and tells the story of a group of men with Down Syndrome who play in a punk band together. The documentary follows their journey  to play at Eurovision, a popular annual international TV song competition.

“It's a really great film because it's focusing on the dynamics of being in a band and the fact they have Down Syndrome is there, but it's not an issue- driven film,” Crammond says.

DOXA is presented by The Documentary Media Society, a Vancouver-based non- profit organization devoted to showcasing independent and innovative documentaries to local audiences. The festival is comprised of public screenings, panel discussions, public forums, and educational programs. DOXA takes place May 3-13 at various venues. For information, visit

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