Mainstream cinema is not welcoming for some people. While it can often be seen by many as a tool of enjoyment, others beg to differ. There’s a lack of representation plaguing the film industry both on screen and behind the scenes. Even when diverse perspectives are offered, there is no promise that these complex issues will be portrayed with accuracy.
This year, a number of different organizations have brought films revolving around marginalized groups and human rights issues to the Niagara community in hopes to locally combat the lack of adequate representation on chain theatres and streaming services.“When you look at the history of cinema it tends to be dominated by certain approaches of making films and that leads to certain kinds of storytelling and certain kinds of narratives being presented,” said Anthony Kinik, assistant Film Studies professor. “Oftentimes, the big players in the industry tend to favour the same kind of storytelling over and over again.”
Organizations at Brock University with the purpose of accepting, assisting and educating people in these areas have put together film series furthering their own initiatives this year. But, with Niagara having such a lively art community, through film screenings, there has already been plenty of effort made to give voices to those who need it over the years.
Film has locally been recognized as a place to see unique perspectives; for these varied organizations, it’s just a matter of getting the community to recognize this as well.
At Brock, the Brock Human Rights and Equity (HRE) department also began the HRE Film Series this semester. At the beginning of the school year, Brock Pride, Brock Student Justice Centre (SJC) and Ontario Public Research Interest Group (OPRIG) Brock put together the 2SLGBTQ+ Movie Marathon in hopes of garnering interest in films showing the complexity of LGBT+ identities. Beginning next semester, they will be launching their own film series in conjunction with the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre (PAC) and the Niagara Arts Centre (NAC).
For the Niagara community at large, the most prominent example is The Film House, located in the PAC. While The Film House screens a wide variety of programming worth looking forward to, a highlight is the consistent output of independent and foreign cinema with the intent of bringing diverse narratives to Niagara. Oftentimes, the films shown there are a far cry to films commonly featured in chain theatres.
“We work to create a program that uniquely responds to the interests of people living [in Niagara], so of course that means issues of social justice are going to emerge. There’s work to do in our community,” said Stephen Remus, Minister of Energy, Minds and Resources at NAC. “And film explores these issues in ways that are compelling for audiences and that are relatable. It’s a form where there’s a lot of fluency and we can bring stories from around the world to the screen.”
This school year, many of these films have been brought to The Film House through the Brock University Film Society (BUFS), an organization that has been operating within Niagara since 1975. The main intent of BUFS has always been to bring independent and arthouse cinema to Niagara.
Anthony Kinik is one of the organizers behind BUFS and, as such, is dedicated to ensuring that the community is given only enriching cinematic experiences through the Society.
“Our interest in the programming committee is just to bring as wide a diversity of films as possible to St. Catharines and that’s been the case for a long, long time,” said Kinik.
While BUFS is not meant to revolve around bringing marginalized voices to the forefront, Kinik stated that it often happens whether the programming committee intends it or not.
“We’re interested in bringing independent films and arthouse films to St. Catharines and when you start to get into those films, oftentimes, you start to get more perspectives from minority points of view and disenfranchised points of view,” said Kinik. “In some ways, it’s kind of conscious but in other ways, once you start to program films that are more independent in spirit and mind, it’s then that you start to find more films that deliver a greater diversity of points of view.”
Independent and arthouse cinema have always been the places where creators who had their voices stripped by the mainstream media could finally have their stories be heard. Not only can stories be told in a way that differed from popular cinema but perspectives and concepts that seemed to have no place in a chain theatre could finally find a home.
“There was a desire [in film history] to open up opportunities to other kinds of storytellers so they could tell all different kinds of stories and independent cinema has always been the place where those kinds of perspectives appear first,” said Kinik. “Sometimes they make waves and sometimes the dominant industry pays attention and then they start to incorporate those kinds of ideas and stories to a certain extent. But, there’s always room for more.”
While these unique narratives exist in the world, they’re hard to find unless one goes looking for them due to the lack of accessibility. It is for this reason these film series are so important for the community, who may otherwise not find these films and, therefore, not hear these stories at all.
Mackenzie Rockbrune of HRE stated that the committee who selected the films that they showed had to dig deep for lesser known films in order to find films that were suitable for their intentions.
“A lot of people don’t really realize that these shows are out there,” said Rockbrune. “The shows [we picked] are slightly not mainstream in a way, so a lot of people are like ‘oh, I didn’t actually know this show was happening, I didn’t know this was what this show was about.’”
Rockbrune went on to state that part of the intent behind the creation of the HRE Film Series was that they felt students were not being exposed to films that told hard-hitting, diverse stories about real world problems.
“We made a film series because we want to show a lot of diverse films on campus because on campus we don’t have a lot of diverse films offered to the students at all,” said Rockbrune.
In terms of the LGBT+ film series taking place next semester, Remus stated The Film House’s programmer, Kasia Smuga, has been working with Kerry Duncan of OPIRG Brock to put together a slate of films exploring LGBT+ issues.
“We’ve been screening films that delve into issues of identity and sexuality from the outset. It’s such a large part of the zeitgeist and film is frequently on the frontier of exploring these issues. As you might expect, the ideas that this series explores are pretty broad. There are both queer and trans stories, but there are often other social issues driving the story such as xenophobia, immigration and class,” said Remus. “I think the common threads might be that these films speak to the complexities of identity and the role of activism in making the world a fairer, more just place.”
A common thread between all these film series was the need to ensure exposure to media that differed greatly from portrayals in the mainstream. For instance, Talia Ritondo of HRE stated that she found a lot of problems with the way that mainstream media portrays delicate human rights issues. Through organizing a film series and careful curation of what students would get to see, HRE ensures that students who come to their showings were exposed to an informative and diverse group of stories.
“The media sensationalizes everything, that’s what they want. That’s not what they’re supposed to do but that’s how they get people to listen to them. It’s frustrating as someone who’s working in the sexual violence field and just seeing all of these things that are really wrong essentially,” said Ritondo. “I think the movies and shows that get a lot of attention are still kind of geared around white people’s trauma and it ignores, like, literally everyone else on the planet, which is quite frustrating, because there’s a lot more violence against people of colour, Indigenous people … and it’s just not being portrayed. I think that’s why we wanted to show [these problems] happening to different people.”
Rockbrune agreed with the sentiment, stating that they were hoping for an intersectional approach to the Film Series.
“I think it’s really important to see human rights issues portrayed in film. Film kind of depicts what society’s going to see in a way. If you aren’t showing very diverse actors or a very diverse cast, they’re gonna think that’s mainstream, that there’s only white people out there in the world,” said Rockbrune. “For instance, a lot of films don’t touch people that have disabilities, physically or mentally, so a lot of people don’t come to the realization that that’s out there. So, I think that’s a good thing to bring it to the mainstream so people can realize people are out there that are different and that diversity is important.”
When speaking of diverse, nuanced stories and unique perspectives in film, there is often an emphasis put on what is portrayed on the screen. In recent years, mainstream cinema has made occasional attempts to bring minority voices to the forefront. We see rehashings of old films and narratives with characters that are suddenly a minority or the introduction of minority characters into the later installments of franchise films.
But people and their complex identities cannot be watered down to token characters; the lack of representation in popular cinema extends far beyond that.
“For instance, there’s been a lot of talk about the diversity within The Fast and Furious franchise but the bottom line is that the films themselves are very formulaic and the people who are oftentimes making those films are not necessarily from a minority perspective and the people who are making money off of those films are definitely not coming from the minority. So the issue of characterization is just part of the mix,” said Kinik. “There’s more to it than just characterization, it’s diversity of characterization, nuance of characterization, different types of stories, different forms of narratives and also different approaches to telling those stories, too.”
The issue also extends to everything that happens behind the scenes as well. While Hollywood can try to put forward their attempts at telling these stories, they are incomparable to ones being told by people who have lived them.
“As ridiculous as it sounds, it’s still difficult for women to make films a lot of the time or to get the kind of backing it takes for their films to be seen by a lot of people. Even the issue of women filmmakers is still an issue in the early 21st century when you think that’s something that should’ve been solved a long time ago,” said Kinik.
Kinik went on to state that one of the main problems with the lack of marginalized identities being recognized in mainstream cinema is due to the unwillingness to let new voices speak up and express themselves.
“As soon as you get more voices, you get a greater diversity of voices and then you get a greater diversity of stories being told, too,” said Kinik.
These diverse stories are a necessity. Films can expose people to the harsh realities that others face — something that may have never even dawned on them in the comfort of their own lives.
“I think it’s important to take people out of their own echo chambers and place them in maybe places of discomfort where they’re not used to talking about specific things. I will say ‘sexual violence’ around people and everybody tenses up and you can see them twitch a little bit, but we have to talk about it or else it just erases it,” said Ritondo. “I think talking about marginalized people in these contexts as well, hopefully sparks that small conversation, hopefully lights a little light in people’s brains alerting them that this is an issue, especially because it’s so underrepresented in the media. So, put it somewhere. Watch this movie.”
Ritondo stated that she believes that if people are alerted to the fact that these issues exist in everyday life, it’ll stick with them. She believes that film and the discussions that come with them are a good avenue for this.
“Maybe someone will go home and watch another film and it’ll spark the same theme that they saw with us and they’ll think, ‘oh my god, it’s in here, too’,” said Ritondo. “That’s really important because once you start seeing it in the media that you recognize already, you can start seeing it in your everyday life and in human interactions. Then, that’s when you realize how big of a problem it is and how much you have to fight for people’s rights and people’s equity in that way.”
In the context of the HRE Film Series, Ritondo stated that she hoped that people would be able to develop a critical lens to look at film — and, by extension, the real life issues some portray. Rockbrune stated that this often seemed to be the case at their screenings.
“[People] don’t realize that there’s another level to a lot of films. They’re just taking a lot of them at face value – for instance, they’ll think ‘oh, it’s a show about the 1700s, some kind of love, romance show’, but then they’ll look at it more and see that it’s actually talking about slavery and how slavery was abolished in England,” said Rockbrune. “So a lot of times, they’re kind of shocked in a way, thinking ‘oh, [film] can happen on another level. Films can portray more than just comedy or romance’.”
In many ways, these organizations popping up around Niagara offer a new experience for the local community. Cinema can be eye-opening and life-changing; it can expose viewers to a realm of possibilities they never would have considered before. That’s why exposure to unique perspectives in film is so important and why it is slowly being cemented as a pillar of the local art community.
“I think the best of [the film series] will be the empathy that is grown in the audience members. One of the contradictions with a society preoccupied with the self is that it becomes more difficult for people to empathize with one another and then it gets harder to bring people together to face challenges and advance change. I think the LGBT series is an example of how we might be able to build those empathetic bridges, for us to keep in mind what it’s like to be in the ‘other’s’ shoes,” said Remus. “That’s a thing people tend to forget, we’re all ‘others’.”