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A new chapter for documentary films

by Mackenzie Lad September 11, 2018
A new chapter for documentary films

Envisioning inclusion and documenting the imagined future of marginalized groups

At first glance, ‘Documentary Futurism’ might seem like an oxymoron—if the future has yet to happen, how can it be documented in the tradition of nonfiction storytelling? In their newest project, Cinema Politica seeks to answer that question the way they know best; through the creation and sharing of radical, independent documentaries.

“We came up with this idea of documentary futurism through being inspired by all of the Indigenous film programming we’ve been doing, in collaboration with Indigenous filmmakers and curators,” said Ezra Winton, co-founder and director of programming of the Cinema Politica film network.

“It’s bringing together documentary conventions and ideas of speculation and the imagination, even the fantastical.” Winton noted that, while nonfiction and speculation has been brought together in other forms, the combination has largely gone untouched in the documentary world.

Enhior:hén:ne [Tomorrow], directed by Roxann Whitebean. Enhior’hén:ne explores Mohawk children’s predictions about the state of mother earth 200 years into the future.

“The idea of being forward-looking with documentary has partially come out of 15 years of programming documentaries where the vast majority have focused on the past and the present, and the future part is always just the last 10 minutes,” said Winton. “We’re more interested in the whole thing being more forward-looking and that means not just envisioning inclusion, but ideas about social justice.”

After receiving the Canada Council for the Arts (CCA) New Chapter grant, the project itself started to shift from an imagined future to a reality.

“We called [the CCA] right away to ask, is this just to celebrate, or can this be critical?” recalled Winton. “And they told us they’re calling it the New Chapter for a reason. That they’re more interested in critical perspectives and less about national chauvinism.”

Project coordinator James Goddard came on board not long after, bringing with him knowledge of afrofuturism and experience working in the interdisciplinary speculative arts.

Enhior:hén:ne [Tomorrow], directed by Roxann Whitebean.

Goddard points to the work of Indigenous futurism and afrofuturism, the latter having garnered much attention since the recent release of Black Panther, as the driving force behind the new genre. “[People] are interested in the ways in which marginal groups tell stories about the future,” he said.

“The importance of that, especially for Indigenous groups in Canada, is that there have been literal legislative maneuvers right up until the 90s that the government was doing to erase Indigenous people, to eradicate the possibility of a future. So when Indigenous people tell stories about their presence in the future, it’s an important form of resistance. And that’s true of almost every marginalized community that has experienced a history of erasure.”

Cinema Politica put out a call for film proposals in September 2017. They received over 70 applications, which were then passed on to a panel of jurors for deliberation.

“It was doubly experimental because we removed ourselves from the selection process too,” added Goddard. “Had we played more of a role in the actual selection process, more of our pre-existing ideas about what we wanted from the project would have bled into that.”

We might have been heroes / Nous aurions pu être des héros, directed by Andrés Salas-Parra. In a world with nothing left to mine, communication has become the main resource for humanity to exist. The challenge? To stay connected.

Among the jurors is Nalo Hopkinson, a prolific author of six novels, including Brown Girl in the Ring, which Goddard described as a “landmark text for speculative fiction and afrofuturism.” Joining her is Skawennati, a media artist whose work addresses the past and present from an Indigenous perspective, and award-winning filmmaker Danis Goulet, who produced, wrote and directed the film Wakening, a source of inspiration for the project.

The jury deliberated based on their collective interpretation of the project goals, finally arriving at the 15 films commissioned to inaugurate the new genre. “There’s a lot of variation in the themes they deal with. Obviously a lot of the films deal with environmental collapse, one film in particular focuses on exploring sexuality and gender variants, there’s a film that looks at corporate culture, and a number of the Indigenous films engage with the idea of what happens after the settlers leave,” said Goddard.

“We really encouraged the artists to interpret it as they wanted to, politically, aesthetically, everything. We just basically set the canvas, and even then the edges of the canvas can still unfurl,” said Winton. “My expectations were just that this was going to be interesting and hopefully, probably, amazing. And my expectations were met.”

In the tradition of Cinema Politica, Winton hopes the films will not only start conversations about the alternate realities they present, but serve as a catalyst for grassroots social movements unafraid to look towards an imagined, brighter future. “We’re always tackling present, day-to-day issues, and that’s important, but also imagining a post-capitalist, post-colonial, post-gender binary, post-whatever it is, it’s exciting and it can be politically transformative.”

Featured film still from Lost Alien, directed by Tobias c. van Veen.

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