Who goes to a film festival to see old movies? Faced with an ever-changing film distribution landscape (read: streaming), film festivals have increasingly been positioned as a space for world premieres – a place, just like the digital platforms that are changing them, that hinges on being the first. This isn't always a bad thing, but this reality does put retrospectives in an awkward place. Already often relegated to sidebar status, retros can feel reminiscent of a time when seeing a movie in theatres was the only way to consume the art form.
In this way, retros seem to willfully ignore that many of the films screened under their banner can be found online. But retros aren't hiding their heads in the sand, as looking backward isn't just rooted in nostalgia or an elitist snobbery of the era of movie palaces. (Although, there really isn't anything else like experiencing a cinematic world along with a room full of strangers.) Retrospectives nod to film's history, pointing to where what's new came from.
The only problem is that film's history, like all of history, is incomplete. Not just in the sense of it being a modern medium, but that the film canon – those films that are granted special status and considered essential – is far from inclusive. If an alien life form were to pick up an interest in movies upon landing on Earth, after glancing at most first-year cinema-studies syllabi or perusing film sections in book stores, these otherworldly beings would be led to believe that filmmaking was only done by white men. (A belief that many homo sapiens also seem to hold.)
This reality – thinking about who has been left out of the film canon and why – was the starting point of a conversation between director of programming at Hot Docs, Shane Smith, and myself, the result of which was this year's Redux program. With the aim of bringing "documentary gems back to the big screen," Redux occupies that position of the retrospective at North America's biggest documentary fest. This year, however, Smith was curious about how we could go about rewriting the past with present-day programming choices.
This started with the selection process. As one of the issues with the canon is that it's written by a few – academics, critics, programmers – our approach to the Redux was more an act of curation. We e-mailed some 70-plus women in the Canadian film industry – producers, actors, directors, writers, critics, programmers, teachers – and asked them to name a Canadian doc directed by a woman that they felt merited recognition but has historically been overlooked or undervalued.
From here, we tried to curate the most complete list (or, at least, as complete as any list that is limited to six slots can be). Surprisingly, themes and groupings came together organically, as the rather disparate set of films formed around one idea. From the queer-centric Forbidden Love to the groundbreaking Mohawk Girls, to the more-than-still relevant Sisters in the Struggle to the incredibly current Tiger Spirit, to the poetic Tu as crié: LET ME GO to the illuminating P4W: Prison For Women, each documentary revolves around the idea of voices: amplifying marginalized ones, cultivating inner ones, championing the right to have one.
While these films may have already been screened and seen by doc fans, the hope here is that they might take on new dimensions when placed in the context of expanding the film canon. In other words, the old becomes new.
Hot Docs runs April 27 through May 7 (hotdocs.ca)