Whistler Film Festival 2012: Director Karen Cho on the Status Quo of feminism in Canada

When Montreal-based director Karen Cho won the World Documentary Award at the 2012 Whistler Film Festival on December 2 for Status Quo?, a film about the ongoing struggle for women's rights and issues in Canada, she said that she was "absolutely shocked". She said she had seen the other films in the competition, which she regarded as "high-calibre docs". But she said she was thrilled that it had garnered such attention at a festival like WFF. (She also received a standing ovation.)

"To have it recognized in a more mainstream way really will help propel the issues that the film talks about into the spotlight and hopefully get people talking and thinking about these things," she told the Straight shortly after her win. "So I think it's great for what we're trying to do with the film is create change."

When a National Film Board of Canada producer had initially approached Cho to make a film about women's rights in Canada, she told the Straight (in a phone interview prior to the festival) that she actually didn't know much about feminism and thought that most of the battles had already been won.

The project, which was based on comparing the Royal Commission on the Status of Women (tabled in the House of Commons in 1970) with the present day, changed her view of what feminism was all about.

"When I was talking with women through the research, I realized that a lot of these issues that were brought up in the past or fought for in the past, they continue to be concerns for women, in some ways, women are losing grounds on rights that might have already been won or it's issues like, in the case of childcare and violence, that are still continuing," she said.

While she was shocked that "so many of the issues are still around today", one particular film shoot in Fredericton, New Brunswick, proved to be an eye-opening experience for entire film crew. She said they went to film at an abortion clinic where protesters were known to throw holy water on women entering the clinic and "shaming them for a situation they already don't want to be in".

The film crew soon found that they themselves had become the target of attention.

"Word got around town that we were filming at the abortion clinic," she said. "We were filming…and someone put a boot on our car. We were parked in a parking lot for two minutes, turned our back away from the car, and we had a boot back on the car. And then we called the tow company and the guy who's supposed to take the boot off the car was like 'I saw you filming at the clinic. What's your film about?' And then the producer said, 'On women's rights.' He said, 'What does that have to do with Fredericton?' There's a real kind of hostile atmosphere there."

The film also captures Canada's multicultural diversity both in a range of interviewees and content, which is something Cho said she actively pursued.

"It's not all about the differences between men and women," she said. "Today, we see it as it's equally about the differences between women themselves….It's the intersection between race, class, sexuality, all of those things…."

"You can’t expect all women in the world to agree on everything, especially because their life situations are…different from each other. So I think it's healthy to have these debates and to also think about things outside of your point-of-view. The world looks a lot different if you are a woman of colour, if you're a poor woman, if you're an immigrant woman, than it does if you're a university-educated, full citizen of Canada woman. So when we think about policies or how to improve women's lives, we have to think of ways to uplift all of women's lives, and not just a few at the top."

She addresses a wide variety of topics ranging from the ongoing issues surrounding missing and murdered aboriginal women in Canada to the live-in caregiver program, in which Filipina domestic workers are separated from their own families (who remain in the Philippines) while they take care of Canadian families.

"We're essentially profiting from the poverty and misery of other countries and using these women as a kind of cheap form of labour to do work that's very necessary," she said. "Childcare is extremely important…but we don't treat these women as if their jobs are important….You really have to question the morality of these programs that we're setting up."

Cho (who previously directed In the Shadow of Gold Mountain, about the Chinese Head Tax and Exclusion Act) is hoping that this film will be "used as an advocacy and educational tool and a tool for social change" and that it will change perspectives as it did for her.

"I never thought that women's rights were an issue that would affect my life, or affect me in any way," she said. "And through learning the history and seeing the condition of women's lives today, I realize that these issues aren't issues of the past; they're my issues today."

The film will be screened as part of International Women's Day activities on March 8, 2013, and have both online and VOD releases around the same time.

But if you're interested in learning more about feminism in Vancouver, check out this community profile written by Michelle Da Silva in the Straight's Best of Vancouver issue. What's more, today (December 3) Manology, a course addressing issues in 21st century masculinity (also featured in the Best of Vancouver), is offering a session on feminism that is open to all genders. It takes place at 7 p.m. at the Roundhouse Community Centre (181 Roundhouse Mews).

You can follow Craig Takeuchi on Twitter at twitter.com/cinecraig.

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