DOXA documentary festival premieres NFB’s Shameless Propaganda

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“You forget how left-leaning and radical the NFB once was, under Grierson.” - Dorothy Woodend

By: Tessa Perkins

First published in The Peak.

“Documentary in Canada is in an embattled moment,” explains Dorothy Woodend, director of programming for DOXA, Vancouver’s documentary film festival. There was a time when National Film Board (NFB) short films were played before Hollywood blockbusters at the local cinema, but it is a time most likely forgotten. For Woodend, the decline of Canadian film and documentary is detrimental to the country; “It feels so insidious,” she said, describing the gradual crumble of the support for Canadian film institutions such as NFB.

This year DOXA presents the world premiere of Shameless Propaganda, an NFB film about, well, the NFB. For its 75th anniversary, the film documents the work of this important Canadian institution, including profiling one of its most important leaders, John Grierson.

“[Shameless Propaganda] is a real celebration of Canadian and B films,” said Woodend. “You forget how left-leaning and radical the NFB once was, under Grierson.” She describes the film as humorous in many parts, affectionate, and presenting Canada in a way we can all be proud of, reminding us why these kinds of organizations are important: “It’s about what Canada really is.”

The current “systematic dismantling of ideology” is such a shame because Canada has been a leader in the art of documentary films. “Other countries look to the NFB,” explained Woodend, “they set a precedent for documentary practice.” With these institutions receiving less and less funding, it’s harder to access Canadian films. “That’s why it’s so important for DOXA to show as much Canadian film as possible,” said Woodend.

 “You forget how left-leaning and radical the NFB once was, under Grierson.” – Dorothy Woodend, Director of Programming

While Canadian film in general is struggling, DOXA is getting bigger each year, with over 1,200 submissions this year and a program of over 100 films. “We look very hard for Canadian films,” explained Woodend, “and we want to include as much Canadian and local content as we can.” This year’s closing night film is Vancouver filmmaker Brent Hodge’s A Brony Tale, a film about the male fans of My Little Pony. Woodend said it’s very nice to be able to close the festival with something Canadian and more importantly local.

One broad theme of this year’s festival is Secrets and Lies. Inspired by the recent news of Edward Snowden and the many references to surveillance culture, Woodend said this theme went in many directions from there as all kinds of films were submitted.

The selections to be featured at the festival include John Lundberg, Mark Piklington, Roland Denning and Kypros Kyprianou’s Mirage Men, a film about the FBI infiltrating a UFO community. Woodend also highly recommends Anna Odell’s The Reunion which she said is “a bit wild” and deals with high school revenge.

Selecting all the films for this festival is not an easy task, and the volunteer screening committee spends many hours watching all kinds of documentaries. The open call for submissions each October allows almost anyone to submit their film with a low cost entry fee of $15. The goal is to always keep the barriers to accessibility very small and Woodend said it’s nice to be able to discover talented emerging filmmakers. “You want to discover their first films,” she said.

Over the years, much has changed at the festival, including the way the committee watches each submission. “When I first started at DOXA, we received all the submissions as VHS tapes,” said Woodend. “This year almost every film was sent as an online screener,” but she said this major shift to online has only happened over the past six months. Processes must be constantly reinvented with the technology changing rapidly.

Canada’s largest documentary festival, HotDocs, just concluded in Toronto; Woodend explained that DOXA is different in many ways. “DOXA is not an industry festival,” she said, so people aren’t trying to buy and sell films. It’s also much smaller than HotDocs and is an audience driven festival. “Vancouver is not Toronto,” said Woodend, “the industry and audience is much smaller, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less valuable.”

When filmmakers come to DOXA, the goal is more about appreciating film with the audiences and networking with the other filmmakers, rather than pitching their own films. The humble DOXA always tries to maintain the ethos of its origins: a documentary festival with a focus on social justice and grassroots activism that promotes local and national films.

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