LGBTQ+ inclusive education must be mandatory

Young people deserve an education that reflects who they are.

This year was filled with rallies across Canada for and against LGBTQ+ school policies. Hundreds protested in downtown Montreal in September, followed by an LGBTQ+ counter-protest an hour later. Most people marching against were parents who said, “Leave our kids alone.” Many religious and conservative parents fear that their children might potentially be influenced by their surroundings. What parents have to understand is that their beliefs will not change their child’s sexual orientation, and LGBTQ+ education is essential.

I was always neutral regarding this issue, but it wasn’t until my professor screened the documentary Abu: Father by Arshad Khan last week that I understood the importance of LGBTQ+ inclusive education. 

When Khan was a child in Pakistan, he was molested by a close family member and never understood that what had happened was wrong. Khan later discovered that he is more attracted to boys than girls. Considering that this was taking place in a Muslim country that condemns homosexuality, Khan internally struggled with the conflict between what his dad expected of him and his sexuality. 

Khan did not have anyone that he could open up to, which led to feelings of confusion, loneliness, and depression. After moving to Canada in the 1990s, Khan slowly started integrating into Canadian culture and finally found other gay friends that made him feel accepted and understood. Khan’s homosexuality was a hard pill to swallow, and it took him years to reconcile with his dad. 

Khan’s story demonstrates precisely why schools should educate children about their sexuality. People who belong to the LGBTQ+ community often struggle with discrimination, which can lead to mental health crises such as depression and suicide. Educating them at an early age can help them avoid confusion and isolation, and help them acknowledge their true selves.

One thing that came up in the documentary was how Khan was constantly bullied at school for being gay. I believe that bullying comes from a lack of empathy and understanding. Having an LGBTQ+ inclusive education will introduce everyone to LGBTQ+ identities and the experiences that come with them. 

It is our responsibility to accept and respect each other. We can make LGBTQ+ people feel welcome by taking a stand against bullying, being compassionate and simply loving them for who they are as people. For instance, students’ chosen pronouns should be respected without condemnation. Restricting young people from being who they are will cause anxiety and depression in the long run.

Schools are meant to be a safe space for everyone, regardless of their background. Educators must seek to help children feel secure in their identities rather than suppressing and rejecting them. It is time to update the school curriculum and stop discrimination against what is considered abnormal in the eyes of society. In the end, every child will end up becoming who they truly are, so we should help them get there.


Montreal: a city as racially divisive as any other

Cinema Politica screened Dear Jackie, a telling film about Montreal’s Black history

Dear Jackie is organized as a letter to Jackie Robinson, the first African American professional baseball player. This letter serves as a narration of the context of the film, over images of the city. 

Though Robinson’s story is that of success, his storyline is only a pretext to talk about the broader context of discrimination against Black folks in Canada, and specifically Montreal. 

Director Henri Pardo noted during the Q&A session:

“My intent was not to talk about certain things that I am personally tired of talking about. I didn’t want to talk about racism, I wanted to find out about the people in the neighbourhood”. 

Black people were resigned to only settling in a single neighborhood of Montreal in the 1940s, that of Little Burgundy. It was coined the “Harlem of the North.” 

This film depicts the injustices faced by Black people in Montreal and the changing architectural landscape of Little Burgundy, and how it has changed up to today. 

In the 1960s, when the government built a highway cutting off parts of the neighbourhood, they razed over 400 Black homes, leaving hundreds of people in the streets. 

Today, Little Burgundy is one of the most gentrified neighbourhoods in Montreal. 

Pardo wanted to raise awareness of the little-known history of Black struggles in Quebec, as a call to action.

The film was in black-and-white, which served as a ground for the universalization of experience, where colour could not be understood as a means for separation. 

From a journalist’s perspective, there were clear visual obstacles. The story in of itself, though historically valuable, had an odd angle. 

There was very little archival footage of Little Burgundy and the medium of narration through epistolary form felt forced and almost out of place, as few images of Robinson concretely appeared on screen. 

It would have been interesting to centre interviews of people who lived in Little Burgundy, rather than minimal archival footage that has very little connection to the area. 

The community centre NCC kept on coming up, but there was next to no archival footage of it. People’s spoken words dit not fit the images that were displayed on screen, which made the film at times hard to watch. 

Cinema Politica seeks to not only screen important political films but to also relate community organizations in Montreal that advocate for the causes demonstrated in their films. Representative of organizations such as Brick by Brick and one of their sub-groups Plan Accueil discussed their work in trying to make housing more accessible. 

Ar(t)chives Arts

The displacement and forced assimilation of thousands of children in North America: Daughter of a Lost Bird film review

The film explores the ongoing cultural genocide of Indigenous peoples specifically through adoption policies

The feature documentary Daughter of a Lost Bird, directed by Brooke Pepion Swaney,  centers the story of Kendra Potter as she reconnects with her biological mother. Growing up in a white family with a white culture, she knew she was adopted, but it was only later in life that she learned she had native blood. 

Daughter of a Lost Bird is Swaney’s first feature documentary. She is from the Blackfeet nation, which was cut off from the border forming process. Swaney is most known for helping produce the first season of the All My Relations podcast, along with Matika Wilbur and Adrienne Keene. 

The term “Lost Bird” refers to native children that were adopted out of their nations, mostly by force, and never returned.

This film explores Potter’s search for her mother, understanding the forced adoption of her mother, and coming to terms that she is a direct product of forced assimilation in the ongoing cultural genocide against Indigenous peoples across Canada and the US. 

“When someone says you are Lummi, I can’t wrap my mind around that, I don’t know what that means,” states April, Kendra’s mother in the film. She was raised far from her nation, so though she finds identity in being Lummi she cannot quite comprehend it. 

The film took seven years to make, between concretely finding Potter’s mother April, breaks for mental health, and the actual shooting of the film. 

Though the film is set in what is known as the US, adoption policies and methods of Indigenous erasure were very similar to those that transpire in Canada. 

The Q&A was composed of the Swaney and Na’kuset. Na’kuset has been the executive director of the Native Women’s Shelter of Montreal since 1999, and is from Saskatchewan, Treaty 6. 

Q&A of Brooke Swaney Pepion and Na’kuset, MEG ACOSTA/@city__ghost)

“Because it’s an American film, the assimilation policy that they had was named differently than it is in Canada, but the harm is the same,” Na’kuset noted. 

The assimilation of Indigenous peoples in Canada was known under the name of the Adopt Indian and Métis Project (AIM) project. On record, there were 20,000 children displaced, but as noted by Na’kuset, “the numbers are larger than that.” 

Swaney and Potter met when Potter was cast as an actress in one of Swaney’s films. It was through learning more about her adoption story and the policies of forced assimilation that Swaney wanted to produce a documentary film about Potter’s life. 

It is noticeable that Potter is a capable actress in certain scenes, as she is very comfortable as she stares directly at the camera. This has the effect that the audience almost feels like she is seeing past the camera, past the spectators, as if daring the audience to judge her.  

It’s in moments of reunification with her mom that the audience feels they are seeing a real version of Potter. She is not as aware of the camera in scenes reuniting with family members she’s meeting for the first time. 

When moving back to Montana after finishing her studies in New York, the filmmaker was able to reconnect with her family. 

“My mom and I grew up off-reservation, it was nice to come home, but also complicated; I have family members who are struggling with addiction, and I have nieces and nephews who are out there in foster care.”

Moving back to Montana let Swaney gain the knowledge that, “all of these topics are close to every Indigenous person, it’s not one’s own personal experience.” It’s a series of colonial policies that have constantly tried to erase and assimilate Indigenous folks. 

This film served to raise awareness about adoption programs in the US, and their direct impact on people’s identities and cultural losses. 

Crowd at Cinema Politica screening, DAVID BEAUDOIN/ @3.2.888

“Where I feel like there’s a huge difference is between our societies, is the native voices are so much more present and louder in Canada than in the States.”

Swaney’s commentary throughout the film provides context to the story. She comments on her discomfort at times of almost projecting what she wants Potter to feel with her mother. She ends the film by stating that Daughter of a Lost Bird is ultimately Potter’s story. 

In her closing notes, Na’kuset discusses one of the projects Native Montreal is working on. It’s a new project for housing women that seeks to offer supportive housing. In relating it to the film, she says: 

“This is how we get our children back.” By supporting native women who need housing, there is the possibility to return forcibly adopted children to their families and cultures. 


Questioning women’s genders: the ongoing repression of women athletes of colour

Category: Woman — A film about the lived realities of women athletes deemed men because of their achievements 

In coordination with four other Concordia groups, Cinema Politica organized its weekly screening of renowned political documentaries with the film Category: Woman, on Oct. 17. 

The film, directed by former olympian Phyllis Ellis, relates the story of three women athletes from around the world who are condemned for their achievements: Caster Semenya from South Africa,  Dutee Chand from India, and Annet Negesa from Uganda.   

Surpassing other women in their categories or breaking records made them objects of an investigation into their gender. They were accused of being male and had to undergo medical examinations. 

While the media put into question their gender, they were attacked from all sides. 

The accused women were deemed to have a higher than “normal” testosterone level and were told they needed to medically alter their bodies to continue to compete.

“They told me it was a medical evaluation, but they did a series of tests to test my testosterone levels,” Negesa said. 

Phyllis noted that “women were prohibited from competing because they wanted to create a so-called level playing field” with other women. 

This is known under the name of the hyperandrogenism controversy. 

While some of these athletes changed categories, others like Annet had to undergo surgery to reduce testosterone levels in order to continue to compete in their sport. 

“I am a female, I was born a female, I will race as a female,” Negesa stated in the Q&A. 

After beating the 200m running record, Dutee Chand’s gender was questioned. The Indian 100m racer won her case against the IAAF, now called World Athletics, questioning her gender — and thus, her performance. 

Expecting to get qualified for the Commonwealth Games in 2014, Chand was actually dropped by the Athletics Federation of India, who stated that “hyperandrogenism made her ineligible to compete as a female athlete.” 

The athlete appealed her case at the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Lausanne where she won, and was able to continue to compete. Her story is not that of most women threatened by the hyperandrogenism controversy. 

As Phyllis noted, “Men can be celebrated as being different, but no one is asking Michael Phelps to cut off his legs, or stopping them to compete, to level the playing field.” 

It has been repeatedly deemed that women who were succeeding in their domain could not be women and therefore needed to have their androgen levels tested. Several remarkable female athletes have faced exclusion from competitive sports because they had higher than the deemed normal testosterone levels in their bodies.

Through the film, we follow Negesa’s story from getting accused of being male, to having to undergo surgery. 

Negesa is the first person in the world to come forward with her story. She started the Q&A by stating, “I was a victim of the IAAF regulations.” She said this with intense resentment, as she went on to explain her story. 

“It demolished everything I was working for.”  

She’s now in Berlin seeking asylum because she receives death threats in her home country of Uganda based on questions of her gender. 

Phyllis ends the film on a note of resistance: “They want to protect women, we don’t need protection.”


Just As I Am follows Montreal’s Shira Choir as they persevere through turbulent times

Director Evan Beloff’s new documentary highlights the collaborative vocal power of the Shira choir, revealing both the pain and triumph that the team has experienced during such an isolating time

Montreal filmmaker and Concordia alumni Evan Beloff’s new documentary Just As I Am details the formation of Montreal’s Shira Choir, a talented group of singers with special needs. Set to the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, Just As I Am presents viewers with a much-needed escape from the gloom of the past 18 months as it follows choirmaster Daniel Benlolo and choir members navigate barriers caused by the pandemic, while simultaneously shining a light on the absence of resources for those with special needs.

“[This was] definitely the most challenging film I’ve ever made, from both a personal and professional artistic POV,” explained Beloff. “It was initially a film exploring inclusion, the power of music, and a choirmaster who acts as the emotional glue of his special needs choir. But very early on, when the pandemic hit […] I was forced to make creative and technical decisions that would impact the narrative and visual aesthetic of the film.”

The documentary highlights the collaborative vocal power of the choir, revealing both the pain and triumph that the team has experienced during such an isolating time. “We’re all struggling with the same issues,” said Beloff. “Adults with special needs are no different than the rest of us. Inclusion is essential for us to become a compassionate society.” Despite the past 18 months being nothing short of a nightmare for most, the team has learned that there’s still a light at the end of the tunnel. “The pandemic has created the opportunity for us to light the darkness,” added Beloff.

In the film, the choir members can be seen practicing virtually in the early stages of the pandemic. As the year progresses, the choir is able to meet in person with safety measures set in place. It is apparent that the team is composed of a tight-knit group of individuals, each of them playing an equally important role in one another’s lives. While some technological issues arise during a few of the virtual practices, choirmaster Benlolo and the team persevere, unwilling to succumb to the virtual barriers that the pandemic has imposed.

While Just As I Am showcases each member’s passion for song, it is about so much more than just music. “I believe it’s a sweet film, a film that celebrates life even in the midst of all the sickness and death which we’ve experienced collectively over the last 18 months,” said Beloff. “The Shira Choir is a marvelous group of adults with special needs who have a tremendous amount to teach us about simplicity, kindness, directness, and enjoyment in each moment.”

For more information on the Shira Choir, please visit their website. Just As I Am can be viewed through CBC Gem.


Photograph courtesy of Keith Pun

Reframing Britney Spears in the cultural landscape

What can we learn from a retrospective look at Britney Spears’ time as a pop star?

What does Britney Spears have in common with a can of Pepsi?

They share the neuron that’s fired in your brain.

“A celebrity face may function as a reinforcing stimulus whereas the product is a neutral stimulus,” according to a study that analyzes celebrity product endorsement.

Translation: consumers with a positive association to a celebrity will generate warm favouring to the product they endorse, even when their stance was otherwise neutral to the product, as seen in neuromapping.

The recipe goes like this: place a celebrity next to the product in a commercial, and the product will tap into some of the happy memories you have of the celebrity, located in the cerebral cortex of the brain.

So, we see how this relationship impacts the product — Pepsi inherits the feel-good memories I have when I think of dancing to Britney Spears’ “Baby One More Time” when I was five years old.

But how does this connection between product and person impact my impression of Spears?

Do we start to relate Pepsi more to Spears, or is it the other way around?

I’m talking about human objectification. I’m talking about concepts like “celebrity brand” and, its echo, “finding your brand,” which flips a profit off self-objectification.

On the page, this may read like a jump to you — the idea that self-branding is an act of violent objectification. But the brain doesn’t parse between “positive” objectification, like a lucrative advertising campaign, and “negative” objectification, like vicious online threats to celebrities.

The brain cannot tell that I am only self-objectifying, as in “branding,” in order to, say, sell myself to this company I want to work for. The brain only fires neurons.

The normalization and commodification of objectifying ourselves and others works to divert our attention from who people are to how people appear. This distinction facilitates cruel online “trolling.” It turns people’s suffering into memes. It rewards snappy hatefulness.

Objectification of ourselves and others is ultimately subversive to the age-old battle for women’s equality, as it reinforces systems of violence that exclude women from medical, legal, and financial independence. Example: Spears.

Reality check: Spears’ first hit single, “Baby One More Time,” with its super suggestive lyrics and iconic baby-doll school uniform, was first released when she was just 17 years old.

From a young age, we drank Spears like lemonade on a hot summer day. Her “brand” in the early days of her career — a girl next door type who played dumb half the time and spoke in a baby voice — made it possible; encouraged it even. As she grew up, our consumption of Spears intensified, with paparazzi following her every step for our benefit. I want to watch her personal life unfold. I want to know why Britney and Justin broke up — whose fault was it? As this objectification intensified, it did so with consistent sexist bias.

Our brains are elastic. They learn from repetition, reinforcement, and other sly tricks. The dawn of neuromarketing broke open a new day in the advertising world. Its repercussions permeate public identity, culture, celebrity fate, moral shifts, personal finance, and so much more.

Spears is the intersection point of all these other consequences.

A recent documentary by The New York Times Presents, “Framing Britney Spears” chronicles the experiences that have led Spears to endure a lifelong pursuit from paparazzi, suffer various mental health episodes before an unforgiving public, and to experience a conservatorship for more than a decade, which charges her father with managing her fortune, among other things.

Looking back, we can agree that what happened to Spears was unacceptable, and many who were ousted in the recent documentary have come forward with their own reckoning with the situation. I remember watching the 2007 “Leave Britney Alone” video in high school, tickled by the outburst, and completely oblivious to the rightful urgency of the message.

But the issue of objectification persists in mainstream culture and news. Jojo Siwa, a child celebrity who self-identifies as the first person “to be licensed as a brand,” is celebrated as a feminist icon for “owning” her brand.

Siwa is 17 years old, around the age Spears was when she first released “Baby One More Time.” These are people, who are literally children, celebrated for the relatability of their brand. People are congratulated for living an experience publicly that appears authentic while they treat their real life experience as a commercial, with products seamlessly embedded into their human experience. This is called an “ownable” brand.

The major distinction between Siwa and Spears is the latter’s sexualization for profit. Spears was sexually objectified from a young age, a phenomenon many of us can now agree is wrong (don’t ask someone whether they’re “still” a virgin during a televised interview!). Siwa’s team, in contrast, have managed to create a brand that exploits Siwa’s youth and bubbly — almost childish — personality, rather than cash in on her sexuality.

This distinction is not a feminist celebration. This is not a success. Spears is a living example that even the most talented and wealthy women can still be subjected to unimaginable harms and systemic oppression that excludes them from financial, medical, and legal autonomy.

Our brains can’t distinguish between “good” and “bad” objectification. The problem isn’t that sexual objectification, such as the objectification Spears endures, is bad, it’s that objectification in itself changes how our brains perceive the world, which then impacts how we relate to one another.

Humans were made to connect because together we are stronger. But if our brain no longer distinguishes a person from a product, then that weakens our natural inclination to bind at a granular level. It weakens our capacity to communicate effectively, to form meaningful bonds, to have each other’s backs.

For decades we drank Spears the persona and Spears the person.

Her manager says she may never perform again, and honestly I understand the decision. She expressed that she’s “taking time to be a normal person,” a rightful boundary that swells me with shame, as it should.

My brain registers Spears like a can of Pepsi: the person, the persona, the product — despite her humanity. Now it’s my job to rework that understanding, to retell her story with respect and compassion as I reflect on the times I danced to her music, soaking it up.


Photo collage by Kit Mergaert


Julian Sher on narrating curious stories through documentaries

Workshop series invites students to explore documentary filmmaking

The Department of Journalism held a workshop on Nov. 18 led by Julian Sher, veteran of investigative journalism and former senior producer at the CBC, on making crime and war documentaries.

The workshop was the second of a visual series organized by Francine Pelletier, the department’s journalist-in-resident. The focus of the workshop was on using documentaries to tell stories of unfamiliar persons and nations and demystifying their lives.

Although Sher has been making documentaries for 35 years, he still finds it challenging.

“Every time you do a documentary, you get into this hellish situation in the edit room,” he said, “[where you tell yourself,] ‘This is the worst piece of crap I’ve ever made.’ And then somehow, miraculously, it turns out usually well.”

Sher analyzed three of his TV documentaries during the workshop. The first one was Steven Truscott: His Word Against History. When he was 14 years old, Steven Truscott was convicted of murder and spent 10 years in jail. Thirty years later, in 1999, Sher made a documentary about his story. “I said, ‘Steven, I’m a journalist, I am here to dig for the truth. I’m not here to prove you innocent,’” Sher said. “And [Truscott] said, ‘I have no trouble with that.’”

In 2007, Truscott’s conviction was overturned.

The film starts with scenes from the actual prison where Truscott spent 10 years. “The visuals of the prison are stunning,” Sher said. “It was one of the most — no pun intended — arresting scenes.” The film recreates some scenes from 1959, but Sher said it’s best to avoid recreation, because it would look fake. “Avoid it at all costs,” he said. “And if you have to do it, then do it in a minimalist way,” adding that, in this case, they had no choice but to recreate.

“The music should never tell you what you’re supposed to feel,” he said.

“Music is one of the trickiest things in documentary,” Pelletier added. “One of the most frequent errors is overusing music.”

The second documentary, A Mother’s Ordeal, narrates the story of Brenda Waudby, a mother accused of murdering her toddler. Sher said that to have a story, the character must go on a journey. In other words, they must grow and change over time. The difficulty is that when the documentary is being made, the character is usually at the end of their journey. So, to illustrate the journey, the trick is to ask the character to talk about their story from the beginning to the end.

“So in the pre-interview, when Brenda said ‘I was a bad mother,’ I said, ‘We have a story,’” said Sher. “We take you on a journey too, where you thought she was guilty until the end of the movie.”

The third documentary analyzed was Afghanistan: Between Hope and Fear, filmed in Afghanistan. Sher filmed the parts which take place in Kandahar. It was particularly challenging because of what he called the 20-minute rule.

“You can never be outside for longer than 20 minutes. Because that’s when … you could get kidnapped,” Sher said, so he had to make a very detailed list of exactly what shots he needed.

Documentaries that discuss an issue — war in this case — and have no specific protagonist are called issue documentaries. “I hate issue documentaries,” Sher said. “They can be exceedingly boring. They’re a nightmare to make.”

For character-based documentaries, you follow the story of the main character, but for issue documentaries, it can be difficult to know where to start, he explained.

Sher encouraged workshop participants to start making documentaries. “You can do your own filming and put your stuff on YouTube,” he said. “Just keep doing it until you get better.” To make good documentaries, you have to think about what makes you special, Sher said.

“[For example,] you come from a certain community that nobody has access to,” he said. “Or leave Montreal and go somewhere nobody has gone to. Think how you can be a foreign correspondent in a way nobody else could be.”

Pelletier added that there is a huge appetite for documentaries.

“There are documentary film festivals. People want to see documentaries,” she said. “The problem is it’s hard to finance”

“It’s a nightmare,” Sher agreed. “It is really hard to get financing, even when you are an established filmmaker. But don’t give up!”

The workshop was the second in a series of three. The last one will be on Dec. 9 with David Gutnick about radio documentary and podcasting.


Photo credit: Julian Sher


“Exploring Nature” at Montreal’s International Documentary Festival

RIDM’s 23rd edition showcases some of the best nature documentaries from the past year

The Montreal International Documentary Festival (RIDM) kicked off its 23rd edition on Nov. 12, allowing filmgoers the opportunity to screen a wide variety of documentaries from the comfort of their own homes. The 2020 festival showcases some of the best documentaries from the past year and boasts a wide selection from all over the globe.

This year’s festival is divided into eight thematic categories, each available for a period of seven days. Among the first sections available for screening is “Exploring Nature,” an assortment of films about the environment and our complicated relationship with it. Here are just a few of the nature docs that caught my eye!

Watch The Concordian’s interview with Bruno Dequen, RIDM artistic director below.

Cenote (dir. Kaori Oda, Mexico/Japan, 2019)

Despite its presence at RIDM, Cenote is far from a conventional documentary. Director Kaori Oda is even reluctant to label her latest feature a film, instead referring to it as an “experimental documentary.” With its swirling, often disorienting camera work and its hypnotic auditory cues, “experimental” is certainly an apt descriptor, as Cenote is more akin to a sensory experience than anything else.

As its title suggests, the film examines cenotes; deep, natural sinkholes formed by collapsed limestone. Armed with an 8mm camera and an iPhone X, the Japanese filmmaker travels to Yucatan, Mexico to document the land’s many cavernous pits and explore their ties to the ancient Maya civilization. Opening text explains that Mayans saw cenotes as spaces of great spirituality, areas that connected present life with the afterlife. Ritualistic offerings in the form of human sacrifice were habitually presented to the Rain God Chaac, who Mayans believed lived at the bottom of the cenotes. Given this information, the cenotes develop an air of intrigue and Oda’s dreamlike and indistinct imagery paints them as something otherworldly and mythical.


Stray (dir. Elizabeth Lo, United States, 2020)

Stray opens to a quote by Greek philosopher Diogenes of Sinope which tells us that “Human beings…would do well to study the dog.” If unconvinced by this statement, one would only need to sit through the next 72 minutes to realize that there is indeed a lot to learn.

Stray documents the lives of several dogs living in the streets of Istanbul and Turkey, primarily focusing on a hazel-eyed canine named Zeytin. Zeytin wanders through the city in search of food and shelter, encountering numerous other strays and passersby along the way. Eventually, she is “adopted” by a group of teenage vagrants, all refugees living in similarly poor conditions.

What’s particularly striking about Lo’s film is how instantaneously we become invested in the plight of the animals. Stray appeals to our empathy at a very instinctual level; it doesn’t require any frills or embellishments to evoke an emotional response from its viewers.

As Zeytin roams the streets, she sees crowds gathered in protest, a couple arguing on a restaurant terrace, homeless men keeping warm by a barrel fire. She stares attentively. How much does she really understand? While the animal world lacks many of the intricacies of the human world, the film shows us that there is in fact a significant overlap found in our shared compassion, curiosity and desire for companionship.


Jiíbie (dir. Laura Huertas Millán, Colombia/France, 2019)

Jiíbie is a medium-length documentary that examines the cultivation and production of coca powder in the Amazonian community of Muina-Murui. Immediately, the film makes its purpose clear; “This is not a movie about cocaine,” a title card reads. For its many centuries of spiritual and ritualistic use by the native people of America, the coca plant cannot shake its reputation as the raw material from which the narcotic is extracted.

Jiíbie aims to dispel the many misconceptions associated with the plant by showing us the reverence it holds within these communities. In intimate detail, we watch as the Indigenous people of the Amazon crush, burn and mash the coca leaf into powder for spiritual purposes, all while listening to local stories and myths centered around the plant.

While it might not rid the leaf of its negative connotations, Jiíbie is still a powerful educational tool and a fascinating insight into the world of coca powder production.


Icemeltland Park (dir. Liliana Colombo, United Kingdom/Italy, 2020)

In a far-off future, nature is exploited to the point of no return. Unrestrained industrialization has led to the creation of an amusement park where attendees can watch the environment decay in real time. Sounds scary, right? This is the inventive premise behind Icemeltland Park, and sadly, Liliana Colombo’s dystopian vision is far too realistic for comfort. Colombo’s darkly satirical take on climate change takes us on a guided tour across the world to watch glaciers melt as part of a hypothetical theme park attraction.

The film is composed almost entirely of iPhone footage pulled from YouTube and runs with its clever framing device all the way to the very end. Included are “commercial breaks” and popup text that orders viewers to “please keep recording” despite the potential danger and implications of the horrific events unfolding. It’s a film that speaks to our indifference and general apathy towards climate change and how greed and spectacle triumph over the environment. Icemeltland Park ends with a foreboding warning that more natural catastrophes will come at the hands of climate change. An ominous message, but a necessary one, nonetheless.

The Montreal International Documentary Festival runs from now until Dec. 2. For more details including tickets and programming, please visit their website.


Veteran journalist Francine Pelletier on making documentaries

Documentary journalism workshop series invites students to become creative storytellers

The Department of Journalism held a workshop on Oct. 21, led by Francine Pelletier, the department’s journalist-in-residence, about different forms of documentary making, what makes a good documentary and what makes it a unique form of storytelling.

The workshop was the first of a visual series, through which Pelletier plans to increase the profile of documentary journalism within Concordia. Documentary filmmaking lies at the intersection of journalism and arts, where the artist uses creative storytelling to raise awareness and make an impact in the world.

“Documentary filmmaking combines the best of journalism, telling great stories, and the best of you, finding the creative side in you,” said Pelletier.

After leaving her job at CBC in 2001, Pelletier became an independent documentary filmmaker and has made 11 films so far. She made the switch because documentary making “had exploded” in the 1990s and was a hot medium. She also found it to be a more creative type of journalism and more satisfying to work independently.

Pelletier said the oldest feature-length documentary is perhaps Nanook of the North (1922), which captures the struggles of an Inuk man and his family in the Canadian Arctic. It established the cinéma vérité form, where the filmmaker is but a passive watcher. Pelletier said the film Harlan County, USA (1976), which narrates a coal mine strike in the US, is a notable example of this form. She emphasized that this does not mean the filmmaker is neutral.

“In fact, documentary filmmaking is often called point-of-view filmmaking,” she said. “In this case, [the filmmaker] is definitely on the side of workers and not employers.”

Michael Moore, with his first documentary Roger & Me (1989), invented a new documentary form, in which the filmmaker is the main character. Another documentary form, which is simply an extended television news item, shows an orthodox correspondent who represents the audience and interviews affected people of the story. An example is the Canadian film Just Another Missing Kid (1981), which won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 1982 (Pelletier said it is “too corny” for today’s taste and would never win an Academy Award today).

Pelletier said that the 1990s was a wonderful decade for documentaries, as the equipment required to make one became more accessible, causing the number of independent documentary makers to explode. Digital cameras were invented, which are much smaller and lighter than analog ones. 

“[So] little women like me can go out and actually use a camera and not die from the 50-pound weight of the television cameras,” she said. Also, many documentary film festivals, like Toronto’s Hot Docs festival, the largest documentary festival in North America, started in the 1990s.

Today, documentaries have various ways of reaching people; they appear on newspaper websites and services such as Netflix. Pelletier said the first documentary she watched on Netflix was Blackfish (2013). It is about the consequences of keeping whales in captivity, and narrates the story of Tilikum, a captive whale at the marine park Seaworld, who was involved in the deaths of three people. The film was quite impactful, and in 2016, SeaWorld announced it will end its live performances involving whales.

“What’s amazing about documentary filmmaking is that anyone can do it; if you’re really passionate about something, it’s possible to do a great story and really make a difference,” Pelletier said. “I always joke that it is the easiest way for a nobody to become a somebody.”

Another reason to make documentaries is to keep the light shining in the right direction, Pelletier said. 

“There is a truth in the documentary because you aren’t telling people what to think; they’re seeing it for themselves.”

To make a good documentary, “The story is key,” Pelletier said. “The essential ingredient to any good story is conflict or tension.”

One does not need a huge scandal — even telling a personal story compellingly can make an effective documentary. For example, Dick Johnson Is Dead (2020) describes the decline of the filmmaker’s old father in a creative, playful manner.

Pelletier said that another ingredient of a good story is a strong character.

“Any story is carried by a character,” she said.

Finally, she stressed that there are many ways of making a documentary about a given story; the filmmaker needs to be creative and find a suitable form for their message.

The workshop was the first of a series of three. The second will be on Nov. 18 with Julian Sher, about making documentaries amid conflicts and wars, and the third will be on Dec. 9 with David Gutnick about radio documentary and podcasting.


An interview with Far from Bashar director Pascal Sanchez

The filmmaker, screenwriter and documentarian opens up about his latest feature

Filmmaker and screenwriter Pascal Sanchez sat down with The Concordian to discuss his newest feature film, Far from Bashar, ahead of its Sept. 25 premiere at the Cinémathèque Québécoise.

Sanchez’s career began on the TV series La Course destination monde, a television competition focused on young burgeoning filmmakers. Sanchez won the competition and went on to make a number of short films and series. His first feature, The Ailing Queen, won an award at the Montreal International Documentary Festival (RIDM) and received the Gémeaux for best documentary in the nature/science category.

Far from Bashar documents the lives of the al-Mahamids, a Syrian family forced to flee the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria and relocate to Montreal. Though they are far from the war, they remain haunted by both the conflict and the life they left behind. Sanchez’s film is a beautiful and delicately observed chronicle of a family’s new beginnings and the past that continues to plague them.

The Concordian: In the film’s press kit, you state that Far from Bashar was initially imagined as “The daydream of a Syrian child … plunged into new surroundings.” What drew you to this concept for the film?

Pascal Sanchez: Basically, it was an intuition. It was a curiosity and a desire. I wanted to get closer, to film the gaze of a child discovering the city for the first time. I wished to document a child that must create a new life, but at the same time, live with their past and the war, which is something very difficult to live with. So for me, it was an important context. I thought that there was something there, something that I wanted to discover. During the research of this film, I asked within the Syrian community to meet some families and to have contact with a child, and then I met the al-Mahamid family. When I met the family and Adnan [the father of the al-Mahamid family], I changed my mind immediately and the project then became a film about the whole family. But I think it’s still the same film, because I wanted to be as close as possible to the inner life, the thoughts of these newcomers in Montreal. And the film is still that. So, the contact with the family was a normal part of the process.

TC: Many films about the conflict in Syria focus on the background and history of the war. Your film takes an opposite approach by instead giving attention to those impacted by its violence. At one instance in the film, Adnan even tells the camera, “people always ask about the historical city, but they forget about the people.” Was this something you had in mind when you set out to make the film?

PS: I didn’t want to make a report or statement about the war. My focus was to be as close as possible to the individuals and their inner life. To document the way they live and their experience of being away from their home and having to build a new life. Also, dealing with some sense of guilt about being survivors and their anxiety for the people left behind. So for me, it was a very difficult and complex situation. I never wished to make a statement about that, I really wanted to let their reality, let them, speak for themselves. It didn’t feel legitimate to make some sort of statement about the war, to say it is one way or another, even though I have my opinions. But at the same time, one thing that was really compelling to me was that Adnan was an activist for democracy in his country and he had to face a lot of repression, a lot of loss. And in my opinion, this part of the conflict was really largely hidden. We didn’t know, and we still don’t know, a lot about that aspect, so it was important for me to follow Adnan and the family.

TC: The film documents the al-Mahamids through several different seasons. We see the youngest daughter celebrating Halloween and later we see their neighbourhood enveloped in snow. How long did the filming process last? Did the presence of cameras and crew pose any problems for the family?

PS: Yeah, it was a long process! Almost one year of filming. I had to adapt to their schedule and to their needs and realities. But they were very open to my presence. They opened their door to me and let me film. I would ask “Can I come and film this? Can I follow you to the university?”, and they would tell me either yes or no. It was a long process, but it was also a kind of cohabitation and we learned to know each other.

TC: You say that Adnan agreed to be filmed because he wished to show that “We [Syrian refugees] are good people.” However, the film does not outwardly tackle issues of prejudice or discrimination. Was it a deliberate decision to avoid such discourse in the film?

PS: I didn’t want to make a statement about that, but it’s a really strong background to this film, sure. And I think the common ground that we have with Adnan and the family is also that, to change the perception of Muslim families. I didn’t want to address it directly in this film, but if the audience notices that, I will be very happy. The family will be too. And the way we film by going softly, and by going also in a truthful approach, it makes a real sense of the encounter with them. So, the answer is yes. It’s a really strong background to film.

TC: Despite the gravity of the film’s subject matter, I could not help but feel a sense of hope emanating from the film. We see the family thriving in their new environment and their firm conviction that they will one day be reunited with their lost loved ones is nothing short of inspiring. Would you consider Far from Bashar to be an optimistic film in that sense?

PS: Yeah I think so. It’s a difficult question because in the film, the family shares their very private moments. It was a very particular and difficult period of their lives. But we also see their courage and the way they deal with those issues. So yeah, I think it’s optimistic. I think it gives a sense of what is good in humanity, in what is good in people.

Far from Bashar is now playing at the Cinémathèque Québécoise. For showtimes and tickets, visit


Solidarity in art: FIFA reinvents itself

Watch films from one of Montreal’s biggest festivals online until March 29

The Festival International de Films sur l’Art (FIFA) was set to take place from March 17 to 29. Along with all other public gatherings,  they had to cancel last week, for the first time in 38 years. They announced the decision five days before their opening ceremony, only to be reborn online two days later.

“Art is nothing without its stories,” reads the festival’s website. They are known for showcasing, among other things, portraits of artists, documentaries about various forms of art and experimental films. Their new online platform, hosted by Vimeo, now gives viewers the opportunity to become art experts and refine their film tastes, from the comfort of their homes.

“We’ve seen such a remarkable wave of solidarity for the festival,” said Jacinthe Brisebois, head of programming. Indeed, on March 18 only, not even 24 hours after its release, the festival’s online viewing platform had sold more than 1,200 tickets.

“Surprisingly, many of our featured films this year relate to art therapy, proving that art helps our well-being and that we need activities that stand out of our daily lives,” said Brisebois.

 We Are Not Princesses, a Syrian-American documentary by Bridgette Auger and Itab Azzam, opened the official launch of FIFA’s online platform on March 17. It follows a group of Syrian refugees in Beirut as they put together a rendition of the Greek tragedy Antigone by Sophocles.

“It’s a beautiful story of resilience,” Brisebois said. We get to know each of the actors’ difficult life stories, and how they relate to Antigone, who became one of the most prominent examples of strength and resilience in classical literature. Daughter of Oedipus, Antigone is remembered in Greek mythology (mostly thanks to the Sophocles’ tragedy) for having fought fearlessly for her brother Polynices’ honour against King Creon.

We Are Not Princesses also won the grand prize of the festival, awarded by a special jury of artists and programmers.

The Canadian documentary Traces of Hope, by Christine Doyon, is another story of healing through art in the Middle East, and one of the most important films of the festival, according to Brisebois. A group of young Syrian refugees, also in Lebanon, are invited to create an animated short film, and through their creative process, discuss what art means to them.

FIFA also remained true to their old habits, as many of their feature films remain documentaries on the lives of artists—this year, that included documentaries of artists such as Marcel Duchamp, Ernest Pignon-Ernest, Raôul Duguay, Paul Auster, Leonardo da Vinci and many more. They also feature documentaries on various stories of the art milieu, such as Caravaggio’s lost painting and how a Brazilian diplomat saved a massive east German art collection.

Nicole Gingras, a part-time instructor at Concordia’s Faculty of Fine Arts, curated a selection of experimental films titled FIFA Experimental. Most of that selection is now also offered on FIFA’s online platform.

Marjan Ansari, a Concordia MFA student, directed a film presented as a part of FIFA Experimental. Titled Paper Planes, it was created in collaboration with Concordia’s Department of Contemporary Dance and is also part of the festival’s Spotlight on Iranian Art Films. The short film shows choreographies around Montreal, inspired by the real lived experiences of refugees and Ansari’s own story of immigration.

The entire selection is available here until March 29 at midnight. It costs $30 for unlimited access to over 150 films.



With files from the Festival International de Films sur l’Art (FIFA).


Take a load off, Fanny

How The Band went from supporting cast to legend

On Friday, the documentary Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band was released, cataloguing the rise to frame and subsequent breakup of The Band—one of the most influential bands of all time. Despite their status, they still remain relatively unknown compared to artists of similar scale, so sit back and get ready to learn about how The Band cemented their place in history.

In March of 1965, Bob Dylan released Bringing It All Back Home and changed popular music forever. Splitting the album between acoustic and electric performances for the first time, this felt like a betrayal of the folk roots that earned him the title of “voice of his generation.” His electric performance at the Newport Folk Festival that same year only cemented that fact.

Now a pariah from a large part of not only the folk music scene, but his very own fans, Dylan embarks on his first electric tour across the country. Before he takes off, he needs a backing band and his search takes him to Friar’s Tavern, a small club on Yonge Street in Toronto. There—for the first time—Dylan hears Levon and the Hawks play.

Before picking up the moniker of “The Band,” they had gone through a slew of names, most prominently a series that followed the standard “name of lead singer followed by name” format with lead singers Ronnie Hawkins and Levon Helm. It wasn’t until Dylan’s famous world tour in 1966 that the name by which they would be best known began making appearances.

Touring with Bob

Marketed as “Bob Dylan and his Band,” the tour would go down as one of the most memorable moments in the history of live performances. A disgruntled fan shouted “Judas” at Dylan towards the end of the show and his response was to turn to the band and demand they “play it fucking loud.” They proceeded by launching into a wildly raucous version of “Like a Rolling Stone.”

After the tour, Dylan got into a motorcycle accident that almost killed him and decided to take some time off away from the limelight. Enter Rick Danko, The Band’s bassist and one of the songwriters who offered up a home he rented in Woodstock. Little did he know that he just inadvertently created one of the most iconic settings in rock history: Big Pink.

Affectionately called so for the pink siding on the house, Dylan and the rest of The Band confined themselves to Big Pink for over a year, creating a multitude of tracks that would end up being released as bootlegs and gaining so much praise that Dylan decided to fully release them. Off the strength of that, The Basement Tapes have been gradually released over more than a dozen volumes.


In October of 1967, Dylan left Big Pink, and this is when The Band established their legend. Over the course of the next few weeks they wrote a collection of songs that would grow into one of the greatest folk rock albums of all time. When trying to pick a name, the one they had been known by throughout the entirety of their tour with Dylan just seemed right. So they stuck with it and the group from that point on was known as The Band.

Their debut record was a stunning homage to their creative fortress and allowed them to push their own sound and rustic, folky aesthetic. Music From Big Pink was an instant classic and featured one of the greatest songs of all time: “The Weight.”

Bewilderingly poetic and consistently grounded, yet over the top with the protagonists quest to simply do good, “The Weight” is an Americana in its most distilled form. Pure, unwavering, and crushingly honest, the album as a whole served as a launching point for their magnum opus.

Side Note: If there is anyone out there that thinks it’s “Take a load off, Annie” and not “Take a load off, Fanny,” get your brain checked because it’s broken. I will not be entertaining debate on this matter. You are simply wrong.

Now, back to their masterpiece. A year later, Big Pink had lost its magic, so they needed a change of scenery. From upstate New York, they trekked to the Hollywood Hills and began to operate out of the pool house of Sammy Davis Jr.

In September of 1969, just over a year after their debut, The Band released their eponymous follow-up and, from this, would cement themselves as one of the most important groups of the 1960s and ‘70s. The record is filled with classic songs like “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” “Up on Cripple Creek,” “Look Out Cleveland,” and “King Harvest,” and Helm’s voice is just as resounding and attention-grabbing as it was on their debut.

The Last Waltz

On Nov. 25, 1976, after years of touring, the world of music stood still as one of the greatest farewell shows of all time went down in San Francisco. 

Ronnie Hawkins, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Neil Diamond, Dr. John, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Ringo Starr, Muddy Waters, Ronnie Wood, and Neil Young were all in attendance along with The Band themselves. On top of that, the concert film was directed by none other than Martin Scorsese and went down in history as one of music’s most memorable celebrations.

Beef between band mates, legal issues, and power struggles are almost as synonymous with most groups as the music they make. But through that all, The Band stands as a pillar in American music and one of the most important contributors to the counter-cultural revolution.


Graphic by @sundaeghost


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