The Doc Bus has successfully completed its journey from Mile 0, BC to Mile 0, Newfoundland!
On Friday September 20, 2013, documentary filmmaker and OPEN CINEMA founder and director Mandy Leith reached St John’s Newfoundland, the final destination of a 17 week odyssey to explore the future of documentary and community building across Canada. *insert trumpet sounds*
Following is Mandy’s first brief report on the journey. Stay tuned for more facts, figures and stories from the road…
Connecting the Docs!
During 120 glorious, adventure-filled days on the road, the Doc Bus and I met with 165 documentary filmmakers, festivals and industry organizations in 26 cities across Canada, covering 13,000 km across 10 provinces. The response to this documentary outreach project on steroids has been overwhelmingly positive and inspiring — and exhausting! I’m still recovering from all the driving, planning, meetings, camping, driving, photo-blogging, sharing, doc bus maintenance, GPS navigation, driving, back pain, tendonitis, emergencies, botched westfalia repairs, driving, rescheduling, iPhone emailing, driving, more driving — and a few hours more driving. Holy Moose, Canada is vast!
It’s going to take me a while to integrate and write-up this fantastic journey across our wild and beautiful country. I plan to spend the next few months sifting through the thousands of photographs, hours of audio interviews and video footage, and a couple of spiral notebooks of ideas and contacts. But here’s what I can say for certain: the majority of the people I met, consisting of a broad cross-section of documentary industry players from all 10 provinces, greeted the idea of a Cross Canada Community Cinema network with excitement. The concensus is that the timing is right to work collaborately to connect documentary screening initiatives and festivals to each other, to filmmakers and to audiences across the country. Despite an overall sense of doom and gloom that is hanging over the industry, audiences for docs are on the rise and there is a readiness to explore the potential of online connectivity and hybrid events. I was thrilled that many, if not most people told me they felt inspired by our conversation.
Documentary Builds Community
I embarked upon this pilgrimage with three decades of documentary experience and a bold vision for the future. My mantra throughout the journey was: documentary builds community. That’s certainly been the truth of my experience with OPEN CINEMA’s doc screenings in cafe style venues followed by open forum discussion with invited guests. Over the last decade, we’ve built “one of Victoria’s most successful cultural enterprises” according to the Time Colonist newspaper and this is borne out by packed audiences at our monthly screening events. So I set out across Canada this summer, to find out if this thesis could hold water; to my delight, it provided a versatile reliable vessel that was able to hold a diversity of flavours and perspectives within a univerally held truth.
At every turn, through every windy mountain pass, across the rainy prairies, way across endless Ontaaarrioo, a travers la Belle Province and on by into the Maritimes, my thesis became a self-fulfilling prophecy: the success of documentary screenings is all about relationships and community building. When I asked documentary folks to tell me what’s working, what’s not working, and what the future holds, over and over their answers related to the need to get to know and work with their local community or audience. And along the way, of course, I began to gather a community of community builders.
The Westfalia Community Model
All across Canada, the amazing Westfalia community provided an inspiring example of grassroots community at work across time and space. Over the last several decades, a remarkable self-organized network of westy lovers has developed a web of support and celebration united by a shared passion: VW campervans and the lifestyle they make possible. This self-organizing community operates on multiple levels, through word-of-mouth, local meet-ups, list-servs, websites and they even have an app: the Vanagon Rescue Squad. On several occassions, the Doc Bus and I received warm support, technical know-how and pay-it-forward generosity (more on that later!) in a time of need. The parallels between westy lovers and documentary lovers was all too obvious: freedom-loving, independant, truth-seeking and full of personality. Huge thanks to the Westy community for offering up an inspiring vision of the kind of network that we might create for our beloved genre.
Throwing Light on an Invisible Film Sector
The #DocBus conversations shed light on an ironic cinematic shadow: the need for support and visibility for the currently under-represented exhibition or presentation sector. There is training and support for every aspect of the screen trade except exhibition or presentation, ironic considering this is the only space where films actually meet audiences. Since the early days of cinema history, this sector has been monopolized by Hollywood distributors, multiplexes and bottom lines. While this corporate model may serve the fictional escapist cinema market, the new digital paradigm and a growing audience for an engaged documentary cinema experience opens the doors to more creative, entrepreneurial, collaborative, hybrid, live and virtual, local exhibition solutions.
During the journey, I shared my passion, experience and vision for creating networked cafe-style screening spaces that are particularly suited to maximizing the community engagement potential of the documentary genre. A topic of great interest to many, notably the CMF and NFB, is OPEN CINEMA’s innovative hybrid event model, combining both live + virtual screenings and engagement strategies that use online tools to scale up local screening events.
A Grassroots Community Cinema Network
This remarkable documentary pilgrimage has seeded a Cross Canada Community Cinema (C4) Network that has the potential to become part of an emerging grassroots alternative distribution model in Canada.
At this early stage in development, the C4 network will aim to do three things:
- Connect community screening programs and festivals to each other, to share knowledge and develop best practices for this virtually invisible film sector. This collaborative space across our vast geography will be especially useful at this time of digital and online transition and emergence.
- Connect documentary filmmakers and their films with community screening programs and festivals, with a view to developing an alternative distribution network.
- Connect documentary audiences to documentary film screenings on a variety of platforms, to develop a culture of documentary watching in Canada.
The conversation has only started. The seeds have been planted, but now they need to be locally watered and nurtured. Will they take root? What are the optimal conditions? Who will weed and till the ground? The real work is just beginning, and it cannot be done alone.
During the next few months, I will be synthesizing my research, following up with the amazing and inspiring documentary folks I met on the journey, and forming an Advisory Group to discuss next steps. It’s very exciting, and I look forward to working with you on this inspiring project. Thanks for being part of the journey.