Picture this: you love documentaries. I don’t mean L-U-V, love. I mean L-O-V-I’m-so-giddy-for-documentary-film-I-can’t-hide-it-E. What would you do about it? How would you show your love and spread the gospel? Well, if you’re Mandy Leith, you’d buy a van, start a crowdsourcing project on Indiegogo and plan to bring the awareness to the entire freaking country (respect). While in the middle of her whirlwind campaign, I got a few minutes with her to answer a few questions about docs, what makes them swell, and her projects. So, Mandy…
1/ What makes a good documentary?
Well in many ways, the answer depends on who is watching! Art is subjective by its very nature. For me, as a filmmaker, a good documentary must have a compelling storyline, a strong narrative arc. The best stories are about someone faced with a dilemma of some kind, which causes them to undergo some kind of transformation over the course of the film. If a documentary can humanize a social justice issue in an entertaining and informative way, that’s a great documentary in my books.
A lot of people are drawn to documentaries because they are interested in the issues, such as food security or climate change or homelessness. Documentaries are one of the few remaining forms of investigative journalism, so audiences are often looking for in-depth insight into a topical issue. I also believe that social justice documentaries have an obligation to end on an upbeat note, with a call to action or a sense of how to move forward to resolve problems or injustice. Documentaries are powerful catalysts for further action, and I feel it’s important for the filmmaker to think about what tools or information he or she is leaving the audience with.
2/ If no one had ever seen a documentary before, what 3 would you recommend?
Ooh, tough question! The first documentary ever made was Canadian, so I’d suggest they watch where it all began: Nanook of the North
And finally, I’d suggest another great Canadian documentary that has contributed to a growing awareness about social justice issues: The Corporation
There are so many more….!
3/ I’ve seen all those except Nanook. So I second your recommendations while being shamed into watching that one. What was the first good doc you remember seeing?
One of the first really powerful documentaries I saw was the 7up series – which has been following a group of British school children every 7 years as a kind of cinematic sociological study. I was probably 12 years old when 14up was just being released, and I was fascinated to watch the insightful character studies about kids my age. I was intrigued by the way the film made these ordinary young people into dynamic onscreen characters and how it offered insight into the human condition and the role of fate, upbringing, circumstance, personality and luck. I think I saw the power of documentary to tell an extraordinary story about ordinary people.
4/ Why do you think documentaries aren’t as popular in the mainstream as film?
It’s a bit like comparing apples and oranges! Mainstream Hollywood cinema is in the money-making business, so it generally produces films that will make a lot of money at the box office by appealing to a large demographic, via escapism or entertainment value – for the most part (there are exceptions). Documentary films are a different beast altogether; they have more in common with investigative journalism than escapism; docs are often entertaining, but they also ask the audience to think – about humanitarian or social justice issues, so it’s a different kind of experience than mainstream films. So I would argue that in their own way, documentaries are just as popular.
I have a theory that because documentaries generally address challenging issues, they are best suited to cafe-style or cabaret-style venues that are more condusive to conversation and connection. The traditional darkened row-seating in regular theatres is well-designed for the more passive entertainment experience of a mainstream film, but I feel that the real value of the documentary experience is lost in that type of venue. That’s why we offer cafe-style seating and food at OPEN CINEMA, as this allows documentary viewers to fully engage with others around a serious topic. This kind of community style venue offers a more conversational, inspirational and action-oriented experience, which I believe documentary audiences are looking for.
5/ What the heck is Open Cinema?
OPEN CINEMA is a documentary screening program that I founded in 2003, with a mission to use film as a tool for community engagement. From October thru April we screen thought-provoking documentaries in cafe-style venues followed by open forum discussion with invited guests. We partner with local non-profits and community groups to provide a community networking opportunity to talk about important social justice issues, with food and cash bar. Since October 2012, we’ve also been developing an innovative hybrid event model that expands our engagement beyond our live venue. Using Twitter and Livestream and online film streaming where possible, we’re mirroring our live event in a virtual ‘space’ and engaging a world-wide audience. At our Season 10 finale on April 24, 2013 (which also happened to be our 100th film!), we had a live full house plus an online reach of 123,000! (Check out example’s of Open Cinema’s hybrid events for Occupy Love and Play Again)
6/ Tell me about “Get on the Doc Bus”
Get on the Doc Bus is OPEN CINEMA’s summer documentary outreach project – a cross Canada pilgrimage to explore our country’s documentary legacy and to build community (online and offline!) along the way. I want to connect with other documentary programs across the country to share our hybrid event model and build a grassroots network of documentary community builders from BC to Newfoundland! There are dozens, maybe hundreds of small and large community cinemas across Canada, but many of them are working in isolation, working for little or no pay and figuring things out as they go. I want to connect these powerful community building initiatives to each other, so we can develop offline and online tools to screen more documentaries, engage a wider community and develop a shared learning network that can help to support our struggling documentary industry. If you like watching documentaries, we’re looking for your support to make this exciting project happen through our Indiegogo campaign until May 15th, 2013. Watch the video and please spread the word:
Thanks Mandy! Best of luck bringing docs to the Great White North. If you want to support this rather fun audience outreach project, Mandy would love your support in seeding a Cross Canada Community Cinema Network to support our country’s struggling documentary industry. Donations are always nice and could really make this a reality. Show your doc love.