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Roll Your Own Docs


By Robert Alstead - Posted on 21 January 2006

Tsiporah Grignon, a longtime resident of Gabriola Island, one of the tiny islands just off Canada's West Coast, first saw the NFB-funded documentary Scared Sacred on a visit to a mainland film festival. The film depicts filmmaker Velcrow Ripper in his quest to find hope in the "Ground Zeroes of the world."

Even though Grignon, an active community organiser, saw the film at the end of a long day of screenings, she knew that she wanted to bring it back to the island. So last February, she bought herself a DVD projector and screen for $2,300 (GBP1,140), and with the help of her artist husband, started putting on screenings for any of the island's 4,500 or so inhabitants who cared to turn up.
Grignon screened Scared Sacred on Gabriola on October 14, just as the nationwide Ground Zero Awareness campaign was building through the film's website, via viral marketing, and in the Vancouver media.

Despite the night being miserable and stormy, the film pulled in 100 people. "I was just absolutely thrilled," said Grignon, who had charged viewers a $5 (GBP2.45) entrance fee, of which 35 percent went back to the filmmakers.

With an occasional film program that has included the crop circle documentary Star Dreams and Betrayed: The Story of Canadian Merchant Seamen, the couple have become part of a growing network of grassroots film exhibitors, who are finding that the technology for putting on local screenings is both increasingly affordable and offers a viewing experience akin to going out to a movie theatre.

The NFB has a long tradition of outreach work, but technology is changing the scale of these community events. Borrowing from Tupperware's famous marketing model, filmmakers of Canadian documentaries, such as The Corporation and Being Caribou, successfully urged people to gather around their DVD players at house parties, community centres, churches, and public meeting places to watch and discuss the issues raised in their films.

Robert Greenwald's new documentary Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price recently demonstrated that if the story in the film is big enough, the grassroots marketing campaign could be too. The documentary, which takes aim at the operating practices of the world's largest retailer, opened at thousands of house parties and community screenings across North America to a flurry of international media interest (see my earlier column).

From the point of view of the activist filmmaker, and audiences who feel neglected by mainstream cinema, technology is opening up a world of opportunity. While there is no denying the skill, research, and time required to put together a good documentary, the barriers to getting alternative work out there are dissolving. The cost of cameras and other filmmaking equipment is less and less prohibitive, and the means of distributing and marketing alternative films for screenings, particularly through DVD and the Internet, is now more affordable than ever before.

The perception once held about these kinds of gatherings is also changing. If, in the past, watching a film outside the cinema was considered second best, that is no longer the case. While DVD projection can't compete with the rich aesthetic of traditional 35mm film on a large screen, the projection quality is perfectly acceptable for documentary audiences, for whom the priority is content.

The cost of large, flat-panel television screens and surround-sound, home entertainment systems continues to drop into an affordable range for aspiring house party hosts. Throw in some organic popcorn, affordable beverages, and the company of like-minded individuals for discussions afterward, and those cineplex outings don't look so enticing.

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