KDocs Film Festival says "Action!" on social justice

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      Imagine a social-justice film festival that begins with a Q & A featuring David Suzuki and ends three nights later with a keynote address on the state of western democracy from John Ralston Saul. In the hours between, imagine a slate of documentaries covering issues that include Indigenous rights, homophobia, clergy abuse, penal reform, and the ethics of gene-splicing technology, each with a panel discussion, Q & A, and extensive contact with the filmmakers and the activists they portray.

      Now imagine that you don’t need to imagine any of this. When the KDocs Film Festival returns to the Vancity Theatre on February 20, it brings all of the above and more. As explained by founder and festival director Janice Morris: “I’ve seen situations where guests and the audience get talking and three hours later they’re still sitting in the lounge. Next thing I know, they’ve cooked up some project that’s going to the UN next year. My intent with KDocs is to always create that space.”

      Founded in 2011, KDocs grew out of Morris’s involvement with a Kwantlen University task force on student disengagement. “Formal classrooms,” deduced the English prof, "aren’t the only or always the best place to learn.” Her passion for film in turn prompted the first single KDocs screening in 2012. It was an attempt, she says, “to bring the classroom to the community and the community to the classroom.” It has since become the city’s premier social justice film festival, now growing to a four day event with an unmatched line-up of powerful new titles and auspicious guests, open to all of Metro Vancouver—including 12 of its 14 titles that are rated for youth.

      This year’s program begins with Inventing Tomorrow—about high-school students involved in the annual Intel International Science and Engineering Fair—followed by director Ian Mauro’s acclaimed collaboration with Suzuki, Beyond Climate. Two films, Morris pointedly notes, that “acknowledge the positive actions that are happening globally”.

      The following day brings Baljit Sangra’s incendiary doc about sexual abuse in an Indo-Canadian family, Because We Are Girls, with the director in attendance along with the subjects of her film, the Pooni sisters of Williams Lake, B.C. Morris witnessed the eight-minute standing ovation that followed its premiere in Toronto. She asserts: “It’s not an exaggeration to say that this film, for many people, would be life-changing.”
      Senator Kim Pate will be on hand for the screening of Conviction—a formally daring look at the Canadian women’s prison system—while Toxic Beauty profiles Johnson & Johnson whistleblower Deane Berg, who is also present to discuss the severe risks posed by the cosmetics industry. Killing Patient Zero ends day two with its account of the pathologizing of Quebec flight attendant Gaetan Dugas during the advent of the so-called “gay plague”.

      Day three begins with Tasha Hubbard’s award-winning Colten Boushie doc, nîpawistamâsowin: We Will Stand Up, prior to screenings of Prey, Push, and Human Nature—films about clergy abuse, global housing, and the CRISPR gene-splicing tech, respectively—accompanied by guests, including the Indigenous Community Legal Clinic’s Patricia Barkaskas and a recorded keynote from the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Housing, Leilani Farha.

      “They all have this common thread: the fight to tell the truth. It’s central to all of these films,” Morris remarks, obliquely referring to closing-night film Bellingcat: Truth in a Post-Truth World. If media distrust is a hallmark of our present moment, so is the sense of government subverted by antidemocratic forces. Ending the festival, Fred Peabody’s The Corporate Coup d’Etat unapologetically takes that view. Naturally, Morris is delighted that Canada’s leading public intellectual will preface the film with his thoughts.

      “I tried very hard for weeks to land him,” she says of John Ralston Saul. “I almost died when I got the call.” Significantly, a Kwantlen colleague once noted that “people don’t say no to Janice”, although this might be due partly to the quality of her KDocs vision, which also includes one-off screenings and a YouTube channel (KDocs Talks) curated by Morris’s colleague and director of community outreach, Greg Chan. Whatever form it takes, the goal is consistent.

      “The endgame for us is really the action that follows the film,” she says. “Having that person there after watching? And having the exhibitor space where people can mix and mingle with these individuals? This is an invaluable experience that I know firsthand. I’ve intentionally contained it to a specific type of theatre so that everybody is together. And if you want to chat to David Suzuki, you can do that—he’ll be right there.”

      In other words, as the city's number one event for activism and film, the KDocs mission really begins once the lights go up.