Mandy Leith’s documentary forum, Open Cinema, is hosted in the Victoria Events Centre approximately once a month. The Events Centre has casual café lighting, and on Open Cinema screening nights, the audience is invited to sit around tables or on couches to encourage discussion. After the film is shown, guest experts on the focal issue are available for questions from the audience and Twitter followers (via #opencinema). On Jan 23, Open Cinema will be showing In Organic We Trust with special guest Carolyn Herriot, farmer and author of The Zero Mile Diet.
With its focus on social and environmental issues, Open Cinema’s events usually fill the entire events room, but Leith knows that popularity doesn’t guarantee the safety of her art form. At 49, Leith has been in the documentary business for 30 years and has seen massive government cuts to the independent film industry, despite the genre’s popularity. As part of the national board of the Documentary Organization of Canada, Leith is constantly looking for ways to save the documentary. “It was born and raised in Canada,” she says, “so we’ve started a petition to declare the documentary as Canada’s National art form.”
Now in its tenth season, Leith’s café-style documentary forum began after a media conference in 2003. “I had been helping to make social justice documentaries about ordinary people doing extraordinary things, but the films weren’t finding their audience,” says Leith. With documentary strands quickly disappearing, she decided to start a non-profit dedicated to exposing documentaries to the community.
It wasn’t easy for Leith to run a non-profit alone, and around year five she was almost ready to quit. Overwhelmed, Leith invited stakeholders to a meeting to help determine the future of Open Cinema.
“She was having difficulty with Open Cinema surviving as a separate organization,” says Peter Sandmark, executive director of local non-profit MediaNet. According to their mission statement, MediaNet strives to “support and facilitate the creative use of video/film as a form of communication and personal expression.” Sandmark told the stakeholders that “Open Cinema was an important program, and if they weren’t able to continue, then MediaNet would have to do it.” Rather than throw away Leith’s years of hard work, MediaNet hired her and made Open Cinema a program within the organization.
According to Dvora Levin, one of the consultants who helped navigate Open Cinema’s transition, it is Leith’s passion that has made Open Cinema a success. “She has pulled together, at a meaningful level, elements that help people learn and change,” says Levin. “Some of the programs really had me change my behaviour.” Levin hasn’t used plastic water bottles since Open Cinema screened Tapped, a 2009 documentary about water usage.
This summer, Leith plans to travel across Canada, connecting with organizations that have a similar focus. Leith, whose for-profit business Media Rising provides consultation on social media and digital storytelling, knows how powerful the Internet is. “I want to help seed some kind of shared learning network of community initiatives across the country: a way to connect organizers, provide resources for filmmakers to find venues and for sponsors and community members to find partners.”
For more information on upcoming events, visit opencinema.ca.