On Friday (March 8), the importance of International Women’s Day will resonate strongly for Karen Cho. Not only will the Montreal-based filmmaker be thinking about some of the victories achieved by the women’s movement and ones that have yet to be won, but her documentary Status Quo? will be streamed for free on Canada’s National Film Board website from March 8 to 10 in recognition of International Women’s Day.
However, when Cho was approached by the NFB five years ago to make a film about the women’s movement in Canada, she admits that she knew very little about feminism. She was interested in social and political issues, such as the head tax and the status of refugees in Canada, as reflected in her previous films In the Shadow of Gold Mountain (2004) and Seeking Refuge (2009), respectively, but when it came to the struggle for women’s rights, Cho believed this to be history.
“I didn’t consider myself a feminist, and I didn’t think feminism affected my life. I’m a relatively privileged person. I’m half-white, educated, middle-class, and for my reality, I had all my rights. I was totally equal,” she told the Georgia Straight by phone recently. “As I got into making the film and met young women who were on the front line of some women’s rights issues, I began to realize that not only is feminism not dead and very necessary, but these issues are ones that also affect my life.”
Status Quo? looks at work done by feminists in Canada from the launch of the Royal Commission on the Status of Women in 1967; to the rise of rape crises, assault, and women’s centres in the 1970s; to the decriminalization of abortion in 1988; and to the organizing young feminist groups like RebELLEs are currently doing.
To make the film, Cho and her film crew traveled across the country, capturing the individual and group experiences of women in Canada while bringing attention to issues such as violence against women, reproductive justice, and the childcare crisis.
“In some ways, these issues are kind of like the 101 of feminism, the real basic staples of the feminist movement,” Cho said. “In some respects, I think those issues are also seen as things that have already been dealt with or battles that have already been won. I knew very clearly from all the research and meeting all these women, there were present-day stories happening right now that were really disturbing.”
One such story involves access to abortion in New Brunswick, where women seeking to terminate pregnancies face strong opposition and a lack of resources.
“It’s very conservative, religious, anti-choice people that essentially run that town, everyone from the politicians, to the media, to the medical service industry,” Cho recalled. “So we ended up filming many women in silhouette because they were scared about their lives. One woman was petrified that if her identity was shown, she actually wouldn’t be hired in the province.”
Another haunting moment in Status Quo? takes place in B.C., at Vancouver Rape Relief & Women’s Shelter. Cho said that what took place during filming that day is something she won’t soon forget.
“We were there on a beautiful day in the summer, and we were just talking to some of the women who worked there. All of a sudden the phone rings, and this call comes through. … The woman on the line, her husband had just thrown a scalding cup of coffee at her in the morning, and she was at work, and she was trying to make an escape plan, but she had two teenage boys. …The women at the shelter knew they had to keep her on the phone until they could find a safe place for her,” Cho remembered. “To think of all the network or transition houses and rape crisis centers in the country and to know that on any given day, almost all of them are full, it really says something about the level of equality that women in Canada have.”
Cho hopes that Status Quo? will act as a wakeup call to the status of women in present-day Canada, and that audiences of the film might feel moved to react.
“There’s so much work left to be done so I hope the film gets people thinking about feminism in a totally different mindset and something that is very necessary—and not just for women, but for families, for men, and for people across a whole spectrum of race, class, gender, sexuality,” Cho said. “I hope the film is a way of celebrating how far we’ve come, but also, taking some of those lessons of the past and getting people to think about how we’re going to apply that to our revolution.”