DOXA Documentary Film Festival gets bigger and badder

The DOXA Documentary Film Festival revealed its 2012 program at a launch held at the Media Club yesterday (April 4). “We’re bigger, better, and badder than ever,” programmer Dorothy Woodend told the Straight with a chuckle in a phone interview just hours earlier. “Every year, we grow in these little leaps and bounds. This year we have about the same number of films, just over 100, but we have more screenings than we’ve ever had before.”

Now a healthy 12 years old, the festival—running May 4 to 13—is also breaking new ground with its opening-night presentation. Constructed from thousands of hours of surveillance footage, the National Film Board’s Bear 71 is an interactive web documentary tracing the life of a mother grizzly at Banff National Park.

“Basically, we’re exploding the box of what conventional documentary cinematic presentation can be,” said Woodend, who knew she had the “more involved and action-packed” opener she was looking for when she heard that Bear 71 had “grown men weeping in the aisles at Sundance”.

Rather shrewdly, the festival is upping the emotional ante by presenting Bear 71 within the grand confines of St. Andrew’s-Wesley United Church, complete with live musical accompaniment by Tim Hecker, Loscil, and cellist Heather McIntosh.

A little more straightforward, but no less powerful, is festival closer Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry. Somewhat serendipitously, director Alison Klayman’s remarkable portrait of the dissident Chinese artist happens to be screening on the fourth anniversary of the Sichuan earthquake that buried more than 5,000 schoolchildren alive in 2008.

Ai Weiwei’s subsequent Sichuan Earthquake Names Project, launched in defiance of the state’s shoddy investigation of the tragedy, is one of the reasons he’s been viciously and relentlessly targeted by the authorities.

Harassment of a different kind is the subject of Fredrik Gertten’s Big Boys Gone Bananas!*. “This is one that really kicks you in the bum a little bit,” said Woodend of the film that spearheads this year’s Justice Forum. Gertten’s 2009 Bananas!* looked at the successful lawsuit launched by Nicaraguan plantation workers against fruit giant Dole, and his follow-up monitors the hellish fallout that ensued.

“Dole launched a counterattack,” Woodend said, “not just against the people who won the court case but against Fredrik Gertten himself and the Los Angeles Film Festival, who had, you know, the audacity to show his film. So it’s really about what happens when a corporation with all its considerable resources sets out to ensure censorship of the most draconian variety. The sequel is far more horrifying than the first film was, in a strange way.”

Mercifully, DOXA also has its lighter moments this year. Potentially inflammatory subject matter aside, Brishkay Ahmed’s new film, Story of Burqa: Case of a Confused Afghan, heads up the fest’s Spotlight on Canadian Women in Documentary on what Woodend calls a “cheeky” note.

“Brishkay, she’s a firecracker,” Woodend said. “I like that kind of pointed, sharp aspect of her filmmaking. It allows you to engage with subjects that are quite difficult but not in a really heavy, pedantic way. Then you can deal with stuff that’s harsh, but it’s not a bummer of a film, even slightly.”

Woodend is also excited about the introduction of a discussion series copresented with the Philosophers’ Café called Philosophy on Film. “It came out of us standing around at the Cinémathèque last year watching people huddle out on the plaza trying to stay out of the rain because they wanted to keep talking about the film that they’d just seen,” she explained, “and I thought, ‘You know, we gotta give people a place to go and sit down and have a coffee or a beer and talk about the film in a place that’s conducive to that.’ ”

Let’s hope the café is open late—if there’s one thing that’s become increasingly clear since DOXA debuted, it’s that documentary film has arrived at something of a golden age. Woodend noted that in our confused and increasingly compromised mediascape, documentary film provides the “in-depth, long-form journalism that you just don’t have access to inside the mainstream media as much”.

“It’s a level of deep personal engagement with these stories,” she said, “and you just don’t see them in any other forum in quite that level of complexity. Which is sort of the glory of documentary. I think that people are attracted to them now more so than even 10 years ago because there’s no other place for those stories to be told.”

For the full schedule, visit