Cinema Politica St. John’s turns one

Over the past year the St. John’s chapter of the popular on-campus documentary film series has proven the power of film to educate and foster healthy public dialogue about important issues

“I think that the arts—and I mean that very broadly: visual arts, music, film, et cetera—is a really accessible and non-intimidating way of engaging with social and political issues,” says Paula Graham, a PhD student of sociology at Memorial University in St. John’s.

I first met Graham at Harbourside Park during the Occupy movement, a spectacular moment in history when people around the world began assembling in public spaces daily to share ideas and talk about some of the most pressing issues facing us today. People from different walks of life came together over a common desire to confront the madness and injustice of a global economic system that marginalizes and oppresses some as a means of privileging others. Many of us learned to communicate more effectively with others as we understood more and more the significance of our shared humanity, and thus our collective power. But when it came to engaging others outside the group and growing the local conversation into a broader public dialogue, we realized just how disenfranchised we actually were.

Understanding problems like colonialism, systemic human rights abuses, poverty, climate change and how capitalism works are crucial to any effective action in addressing them, but those of us participating in Occupy Newfoundland quickly found that even as a united group we were unable to meaningfully engage the media and public in developing a deeper understanding of our societal woes. No matter how important a topic may be, if people don’t want to talk about it they don’t want to talk about it, and indeed engagement is one of the biggest challenges facing the global social justice community. However, some found ways to carry the conversations initiated at Harbourside Park out into the community. Graham is one of those people.

A conduit for participation

Last April she initiated a local chapter of Cinema Politica, a documentary film series sustained by a Montreal media-arts not-for-profit collective that in recent years has grown into what it says is the largest volunteer-run, community and campus-based documentary-screening network in the world. Having attended other universities with Cinema Politica chapters, and in search of a way to bring people together to learn and talk about pressing issues, Graham says starting a St. John’s chapter of the film series just made sense.

“You don’t have to be an expert in anything to come watch a film,” she says. “You don’t have to be an expert in anything to go listen to a band. And if a band is singing about political issues, or if a film is about political issues, then it’s kind of…an avenue for talking about really dire things, where people can hopefully feel comfortable offering their opinion and also comfortable asking questions.

“I think that people are really scared to admit that they don’t know stuff,” she continues. “And I think a discussion after a film screening is a pretty accepting place in terms of asking a question that maybe you don’t want to ask in a more formal setting.”

Last April, with the support of Memorial University’s Department of Sociology and the help of some volunteers, Graham organized Cinema Politica St. John’s first film screening, Surviving Progress, in the university’s Arts building. Ever since, she says, the  monthly screenings have consistently drawn good turnouts. The group has even teamed up other community groups to host screenings, which are often followed by panel discussions or casual conversation about the films’ subject matter.

“The times we’ve collaborated with other groups have been perhaps the most important [with] the most diverse audiences, which is kind of the point of Cinema Politica,” Graham explains.

“[E]very time that happens I notice that there are people who attend the screening who have never come before, which makes me think that these collaborations are really important because they’re [attracting] a whole other group of people.”

From fish farming to fracking: facilitating important dialogue

Last November Cinema Politica teamed up with the People and the Sea film festival, which is curated by Memorial University sociologist Barbara Neis, to screen Salmon Confidential, a film about how British Columbia’s salmon farming industry is introducing viruses to wild Pacific salmon.

“At that screening we had a speaker and a number of people who had experience in fishing—who came from a fishing family—and also researchers who work on fish stocks,” Graham recalls. “There ended up being a conversation between these people who I don’t know otherwise would have connected with each other. So I really hope, and I do think it’s true, that Cinema Politica St. John’s is offering a place where these people can, even if they don’t talk to each other, know each other exist — and that there are people out there in different fields or different professions who are thinking about the same issues, even if they don’t agree.”

Graham recounts another screening, Vanishing of the Bees, which documents the global phenomenon of bee colony collapse disorder. “There were a few people who were bee keepers who happened to be at the screening, and so other people in the audience could ask questions to them,” she recalls. “And that was cool. It wasn’t just us talking about bee keeping — there were people there with direct experience, so it was cool to give people that opportunity.”

“There ended up being a conversation between these people who I don’t know otherwise would have connected with each other.  – Paula Graham

One of the things that sets Cinema Politica apart is the interaction and conversation that typically follows a screening. People are often moved to share ideas and discuss possible solutions to problems highlighted in the films, Graham says, but in traditional film screening settings aren’t given the opportunity to stay in their seats and talk to one another.

“There’s a possibility for conversation at every screening but we don’t necessarily have a panel or a speaker at every one,” she explains. “But when we do I think that kind of facilitates discussion even more.”

Cinema Politica’s next screening is Tuesday, April 8, when it will be screening Gasland 2, a sequel to the Academy Award nominated film that explored the negative impacts slickwater fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, is having on communities around the United States. Like Salmon Confidential, Graham hopes the screening will bring together people with different interests and positions on fracking, particularly since the province of Newfoundland and Labrador could make some important decisions on whether or not to let the controversial practice, and means of accessing natural gas, into the province.

Since its mandate is to bring people together, Cinema Politica does not impose a flat fee for admission to its events. All screenings are “pay-what-you-can”, a system that makes attendance and participation in discussion accessible to everyone when those who can afford to pay what admission to a film might normally cost, or more.

“When we collect donations people are really willing to give,” says Graham. “We get a lot of professors and [working] professionals who often donate. But also a lot of students and a lot of people who regularly attend who don’t necessarily donate — that’s totally fine, and it says to me that they appreciate having a financially accessible thing to do.”

As an added bonus, Cinema Politica is bridging a gap between the academic and wider communities by attracting people to the Memorial University campus who might not otherwise go there. “As far as I can tell,” says Graham, “I think Cinema Politica is encouraging more of a relationship between the university and the community.”

Cinema Politica co-presents ‘Gasland 2’ with the Council of Canadians, Tuesday, April 8 at 7 p.m. on the Memorial University campus in the Bruneau Centre for Innovation and Research’s lecture theatre, room 2001. For more information visit Cinema Politica St. John’s website.

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