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In Another Word for Learning, Aisha, an Indigenous girl living in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, learns to connect to her culture.

Wide Open Exposure Productions

For film festivals, 2020 has presented two choices: cancel – and hope that any costs saved by furloughing staff and securing possible venue refunds will help offset inevitable 2021 losses – or take a big chance and go online only. Neither are ideal. But Vancouver’s DOXA Documentary Film Festival, the country’s second-largest doc fest after Toronto’s Hot Docs, found an opportunity in the dilemma.

DOXA was set to hold its 19th edition May 7 to 17, but will now run online-only June 18-26. And it will use this virtual edition to drill down on its core mandate – “presenting independent and innovative documentaries to Vancouver audiences” – and experiment, with 66 shorts and films geo-blocked to B.C. residents.

“When this all first started happening, I was reading every article coming out on IndieWire and Variety about what other festivals were thinking. But ultimately it was about serving our local audience and helping boost the profile of the independent filmmakers we originally booked,” says Selina Crammond, director of programming for DOXA.

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Aisha navigates the pressures of conforming to a colonial education system by exploring alternative forms of learning that connect to her culture.

Wide Open Exposure Productions

Each screening will be capped to 500 viewers, in order to mimic a festival’s traditional exposure. (If views were unlimited, then filmmakers would be cannibalizing their chances at securing larger distribution deals outside the festival environment.) DOXA will also host pre-recorded Q&A sessions with select indie filmmakers, who make up the bulk of its revamped programming, given that larger distributors have opted to sit out the 2020 festival circuit.

“Our strategy was to offer as many spots to independent filmmakers as possible, and looking at the lineup, there are definitely more films that came from our call for submissions than distributor-backed films, which is exciting,” Crammond says. “Also, to be honest, I just didn’t have the time to go back and start renegotiating with distributors. It became clear pretty early on that the big global players weren’t going to pivot to online festival environments, because someone like Netflix is an online platform themselves.”

That means that this year’s lineup is smaller – the original plan was to screen around 90 to 100 shorts and features – and opens without any kind of high-profile, celebrity-friendly production that might lure in curious audiences. Still, the world premieres are as intriguing as any other year’s, and include The End From Here, director Tony Massil’s look at the reclusive residents of Hyder, Alaska, and Jadis M. Dumas’s Another Word for Learning, which focuses on Indigenous education in British Columbia.

Set against the backdrop of the 2016 American election, Tony Massil's The End From Here is a character study of three reclusive men from the isolated town of Hyder, Alaska, who share a sense of pending doom.

Courtesy of DOXA

“It is a bit of a shame that we don’t have some kind of big splashy biopic, but I’m happy with how different our program is compared to years past,” Crammond says. “We’ve never been a festival too concerned with premiere status or any of that.”

When the plan to go online was announced in May, audience reaction was encouraging. “We did a quick cross-comparison to last year’s sales and surprisingly the number is on par,” says Crammond, who notes that part of this is due to online tickets being cheaper than in-theatre admissions. But it is still too early to tell whether a virtual fest is enough to adequately compensate for the lack of a physical event. Hot Docs’ virtual edition, for instance, has yet to report its 2020 numbers, since many of its screenings are available to stream until June 24.

“I’m anticipating attendance will be much lower, because the statistics I’m seeing from other venue managers who program year-round spaces is that they get one-fifth of the audience for virtual events,” Crammond says. “But we’re going to keep our eye on it.”

The isolated town of Hyder provides a stunning landscape in The End From Here, playing in Vancouver's DOXA Documentary Film Festival running June 18-16.

Courtesy of DOXA

And, for now, Crammond is too in the thick of DOXA 2020 to think much about what 2021 – which will mark the organization’s 20th anniversary – might look like. Although she still has concerns.

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“I won’t lie, I’m worried,” she says. “I’m worried about friends and colleagues who run cinema spaces and performing arts spaces in Vancouver, who are hurting quite bad. I’m worried about the fallout of long-term sponsors. I’m worried about when folks will be comfortable going back to cinema spaces. But the one shining light for all of this is folks within our own community have been incredibly supportive. As soon as we made the call to postpone, I heard from other institutions offering whatever they could do to help. It made me feel hopeful.”

Vancouver’s DOXA Documentary Film Festival runs June 18-26 (doxafestival.ca/)

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