Montreal documentary festival RIDM challenges status quo — and itself

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There has been much talk recently about gender parity in the film world. Canadian funding agencies Telefilm and SODEC, as well as the National Film Board and other organizations, have made commitments to support more films by women.

That talk has extended to film festivals, where things get a little murkier. While Cannes, the Toronto International Film Festival and Montreal’s Festival du nouveau cinéma have all proclaimed themselves in favour of screening more movies by women, their programming hasn’t yet caught up.

Not so at the Rencontres internationales du documentaire de Montréal (RIDM). Our city’s premier documentary fest could well have rested on its laurels: five years ago, it was programming close to 40 per cent female-directed movies — which, for a film festival, is fairly high. But that wasn’t good enough.

“In 2017, we made a really conscious decision to look at our numbers and say, ‘OK, let’s make sure we do have parity,’ ” said executive director Mara Gourd-Mercado.

That year, 48 per cent of the films shown at the fest were directed by women. In 2018, it rose to 54 per cent. This year again, 54 per cent of the 154 films from 47 countries presented at RIDM, Thursday to Nov. 24, are directed by women.

It’s an achievement Gourd-Mercado is proud of.

The festival is also riding a youth wave, with 64 per cent of this year’s filmmakers under the age of 40.

“We have lots of new filmmakers,” said Bruno Dequen, the fest’s artistic director. “A lot of them are coming to RIDM for the first time, or have been selected (by the festival) for the first time.”

Reflecting and perhaps propelling that wave is New Visions, a special RIDM section for Canadian first features.

Add a wide range of international films, and you have a festival that fights for the underdog by giving a voice — and valuable screen time — to women, youth and marginalized communities.

It’s no surprise that the films emerging from such an approach challenge the status quo.

“We’re a festival that questions everything,” Gourd-Mercado said, “that questions itself, cinema, the state of the world. I think our identity is really about the Rencontres (in our title). We’re the meeting point between all these issues, people and discussions.”

“It’s also about creativity,” Dequen said, “and how to be creative with reality. … We’re not necessarily a festival of big issues. We have a lot of films that deal with big issues, but we’re trying to look at documentary films as cinema.

“Sometimes cinema, activism and journalism overlap, but it’s not the same thing. A lot of documentaries are very, very interesting, but they’re not necessarily cinema. They’re trying to make changes, but they’re not necessarily the kind of films we’re trying to program.”

The challenge of building a documentary film festival around discovery is that you don’t have movie stars or big-name directors to help build buzz. So you have to make things easier for people.

Among RIDM’s helpful thematic headings this year are Resistance, highlighting engaged films including Montrealer Alanis Obomsawin’s Jordan River Anderson, the Messenger, and Philippe Bellaïche and Rachel Leah Jones’s Advocate, a portrait of Israeli human rights lawyer Lea Tsemel.