Documentarists hit home(s) at VIFF

This year’s Vancouver International Film Festival features several documentaries that touch on subjects such as family relations, self-expression and preserving culture.

Here are three directors The Source spoke with about their films.

Shut Up and Say Something

As an admirer of spoken word artist Shane Koyczan’s work, director Melanie Wood was happy to work on a film featuring the man and artist.

Koyczan’s longtime friend Stuart Gillies trusted Wood in telling Koyczan’s story. The film explores the man and the artist and how his life affects his art.

“I think both Stuart and I realized that someone who was as articulate as Shane could really go a long way telling not just his personal story but a greater archetypal story that we can all relate to,” says Wood, who is a longtime freelance filmmaker based in Vancouver.

It is also a father-son story.

“The film is about love and the power of love. If nothing else, people will come away, I’m hoping, really looking at their lives and their relationships and their family and just realizing how important it is to think about them and not just brush them aside in our busy lives,” says Wood, who became passionate about telling real stories when working in current affairs.

Koyczan’s estranged father was willing to be a part of the film.

Wood says that Koyczan’s father was willing to be a part of the film. “In the end, [his father] has his say about why that was, but it was brave. Imagine being Shane’s dad and agreeing for us to come up with our cameras and have that reconnection captured on film. I just really take off my hat to him. He is amazing,” she says.

Unarmed Verses

Unarmed Verses is a documentary that shines a spotlight on low-income students, such as 12-year-old Francine, who are faced with vacating their cramped homes to make space for a high rise that they are economically barred from in North York. It follows Francine as she finds her voice by enrolling with her peers in a local arts workshop that focuses on poetry and music.

Charles Officer wanted to tell stories of the black youth in his film Unarmed Verses. Through a friend, he met the community that was off the beaten track. He spent a year and a half getting to know them before he started filming. It was there that he met the people who would be included in the film. He wanted to explore the concept of racism.

“I went in there to find out what’s breaking the hearts of these young black kids in these communities that don’t have much agency over things. That was the intention and it just so happened that it was going through a revitalization [of a housing development]. I was looking for the characters first. What was happening in the community was just happening as I stepped into it,” says Officer.

His film premiered at the Hot Docs festival in Toronto where it won the best Canadian documentary film.

When asked why he named his film Unarmed Verses, he explains the title was a play on the word “unarmed.” He points to the Trayvon Martin shooting in which George Zimmerman was found not guilty.

“We often spend so much time focused on what’s happening in the United States, but in this country we don’t address the exact same things that are actually happening here. It doesn’t matter that it’s happened in another place. The fact that it’s actually a problem here where unarmed black youth are killed, there are no borders to that….These children don’t grow up with guns in their hands and criminal minds, [but] the stigma attached to community is that they’re not safe, that they need to be completely torn down to be worthy again. It’s not true,” he says.

Since the film’s completion, there hasn’t been any follow up with the residents of the redeveloped complex.

“So no one checks in to see if they’re alive, if things worked out ok, if there are issues, so the saga continues,” he says.

Keep Talking

In 2012 Chicago-based filmmaker Karen Weinberg went to teach a weeklong class in Alaska where she met young adult students working on preserving their language and culture. She instantly became fascinated with the village of Kodiak and its people.

As an editor with a documentary focus, she felt it was time to direct her own film, Keep Talking.

In the film, four young women are fighting to reclaim and revitalize the Alutiiq language, which has less than 40 fluent speakers left. Women are very much at the centre of efforts to revitalize Alutiiq in Kodiak.

“Once I met this group and learned more about their language revitalization movement, I was hooked by the idea of helping to share their story of the Native Village of Afognak,” Weinberg says.

She wanted to ensure that the community felt represented in the film so she held numerous feedback sessions with film subjects, elders, advisors and test groups.

Throughout the process she felt like a confidante, yet was able to ask uncomfortable questions and remain objective. Her hope is that people will reflect on their relationship to their own heritage and ancestry, but in a modern context.

“The film speaks to the future of linguistic and cultural diversity and invites the viewer to reflect on where we are headed without a greater push toward interpersonal connection,” she says.

She hopes indigenous communities struggling with language loss will see things they can relate to, so they don’t feel alone in what can be a very lonely journey.

“I think it helps to see stories of others dealing with similar issues, especially when there are measurable successes and wins. We all need stories of hope,” she says.