What do you get when you divide 72 documentaries by 12 volunteer film screeners over seven consecutive Tuesdays from October to December?
Answer: The Salt Spring Film Festival (coming, as always, to GISS the first weekend in March).
Like the community in which it’s flourished for 14 years, Salt Spring’s film festival is unique in so many ways. We know of no other festival where admission is, as a matter of principle, by donation. Or where the films are chosen by a group of volunteers with widely divergent points of view, cultural tastes and backgrounds.
The process actually starts at the end of September, with a few festival volunteers attending the Vancouver International Film Festival, on the hunt for documentaries that fit our broad social justice mandate. Other films come from filmmakers and distributors we’ve worked with in the past, or who have heard of the film festival through the grapevine. (Yes, our reputation is spreading — look out Cannes!)
By the time the screening committee meets at the end of October, there are more than 70 documentaries to be watched and winnowed down to just over 40. It’s a little like the festival itself — no one person can watch them all.
So here’s what we do. Each Tuesday we watch the first 10 minutes or so of 10 to 15 films. A fierce bidding war follows each film as people vie to take their favourite home to watch. At least three people watch each documentary and fill out an evaluation form, rating it from 1 to 10. We’re looking for a number of things here — production qualities, story-telling ability, and the timeliness and importance of the message.
And this is where it starts to get tricky. Not every film with an important message is well-told. Some are too rambling, some are just too long. And not every film with great production values tells an important story.
We’re also looking for balance. Ideally, we want good films on the environment and First Nations issues; food, music and art and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered issues; films on international issues and stories closer to home. Overall, we’re looking for the best of the best.
Naturally, not everyone always agrees. Screening nights can become intense. Critical debate is respectful and articulate. That’s what makes the process so much fun. The screening committee is by far the most popular of the volunteer committees at the heart of the festival’s operations. Talking and arguing over the respective merits of each documentary have to draw to a close by the middle of December. That’s when we need to make our final selections. For a number of films, the decision’s unanimous — either, it’s a no brainer, we have to show this film; or, there’s no way we’re showing this.
A few films, though, can divide the screening committee right down the middle. Half of us love it, the other half hates it. The list of films that are “maybe’s” starts to expand. It’s a little like those reality TV shows where the judges have to make the most persuasive case they can muster to move their personal favourite up the charts.
By the end of what can be a very long night, we’ve come up with a final list (with a little wiggle room for films that turn out to be too expensive or distributors who don’t get back to us in time) of about 40 of the best social justice documentaries we’ve been able to find.
How well did we do? That’s for you to decide at the 14th annual Salt Spring Film Festival from March 1 to March 3. See you at the movies.
Note: The Salt Spring Film Festival guide will be in next week’s Driftwood. For more festival info, see www.saltspringfilmfestival.com.