What do a transplant surgeon from the Foothills Hospital, a broadcaster from Burundi, a conservationist from the Calgary Zoo and a private sponsor of Burmese refugees from British Columbia all have in common?
Usually, not a whole lot, unless one was playing a globalized adaptation of Clue. But from Friday, November 18 to Sunday, November 20, they — and a handful of other equally diverse personalities — will speak at the sixth annual Marda Loop Justice Film Festival about their expertise and involvement in social justice issues.
That doesn’t sound like a typical film festival, but this one isn’t exactly run-of-the-mill. Although the movies scheduled during the three days are all high-quality pictures (In the Name of the Family scored the Best Canadian Feature at Hot Docs in 2010, while The Red Chapel won the Sundance World Cinema Jury Prize the same year), the focus of the festival isn’t the medium.
“We’re distinctly not about the film,” says Jenny Krabbe, the director of the festival. “We’re about the topic. We’re a little bit of a different creature in that way.”
Instead of handing out prizes and awards, the Marda Loop Justice Film Festival is all about the “justice.” That’s where the aforementioned speakers step into the picture. After each of the 11 films are screened throughout the weekend, a local expert (or two) will speak to the audience to contextualize the cinematic experience. This opportunity is a key factor in ensuring that the films aren’t simply treated as entertainment.
“There’s not enough of an opportunity in our culture for conversation, especially in the public,” Krabbe says. “Sure, you converse, but you converse with groups that you know in your own lives or through work associations. That face-to-face conversation is needed, so that’s an important element in the festival.”
The educational and motivational nature of the festival hasn’t dissuaded people from checking it out over the years. After all, it’s free. Between the first year of the festival in 2006 (which Krabbe says had “zero people who knew what they were doing on the organizing team”) and the second year, attendance grew by half. The third festival increased in numbers by another quarter. Last year, the attendance fell slightly for the first time, but Krabbe points out that the weather “was flipping cold.”
It is inevitably difficult to run a film festival without charging money for tickets. Everyone that helps organize the event, including Krabbe, does so on a volunteer basis. All money to pay for the festival expenses comes from sponsors, donors or grants. Marketing is minimal and is restricted to 10,000 pamphlets, a couple of bridge banners and the occasional newspaper ad. But to Krabbe, those aren’t negative things. Instead, they help to maintain the community feel of the festival.
“People are eager to do the word-of-mouth thing for us because they recognize that it’s free,” she says. “That makes us more genuinely grassroots, because they feel a bit of ownership. If someone feels that this is great, then they’re going to have to tell other people because it’s not going to otherwise reach everywhere.”
Well, that’s not entirely true. The festival has been so successful over the past couple of years that it’s inspired four, soon to be five, “satellite” adaptations, which reach even farther. So far, there are two in Ontario (Sarnia and Markham) and two in Alberta (Red Deer and Canmore). Another is soon to be launched in British Columbia (Dawson Creek). All of them use the same logo, same insert-geographic-region-here title and most of the same films. That way, most of the pressures are taken off the planners.
“They’re essentially event organizers, so they don’t have to do the work of finding the content except for the conversation leaders,” Krabbe says. “For them, it makes it manageable.”
So in the age of donor fatigue and information overload, are the festivals actually motivating people to do anything? That question was partially answered in a survey that the Marda Loop organizers asked attendants to fill out last year. Krabbe admits that most people wrote that it raised awareness. But she added that a fairly good majority answered that the festival motivated them to take action on an issue, whether that was writing a letter to a politician or joining an activist group.
“The responses were certainly positive enough to make us say, ‘This is worthwhile to keep going.’”