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The rise of the (insert favourite cause here) film festival

While the Oscar race is stealing a lot of media attention this month, there are other things going on in the world - even in the world of film.

On the night when millions are watching the Academy Awards, a different audience will be at the Toronto film festival's new home, the TIFF Bell Lightbox, watching The First Grader, a film about an 84-year-old Kenyan man who decides to go back to primary school. No, they're not cinema snobs. Justin Chadwick's drama is a crowd-pleaser that won the runner-up for the People's Choice Award at last year's film fest, behind the current Oscar favourite The King's Speech.

The film is part of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival, an event that started in New York and has since expanded to London and Toronto. The films are all carefully chosen, including entries from Cannes ( Life, Above All), Toronto ( You Don't Like the Truth) and the premiere of the timely documentary The Green Wave, about social media and the 2009 Iran election.

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At a time when we hear the movie business is transforming into the stay-at-home, video-on-demand business, these advocacy film festivals are flourishing. In the city of Toronto alone, there are somewhere between 70 and 100 film festivals each year, many of which focus on specific issues including disabilities, mental health, breast cancer, multiculturalism and the environment. In Vancouver, an 800-member organization called Reel Causes holds monthly screenings, with each screening benefiting a different non-profit organization.

Why are they effective? Partly, they satisfy a hunger for knowledge and perspective. The Human Rights Watch Film Festival started 22 years ago in New York as a public face to the organization that works to protect human rights in more than 90 countries. Andrea Holley, deputy director of the New York festival, says films open up the world. "In my experience, people who reject the importance of human-rights issues have had little personal experience of them," she says. "Most of us can't see the end [results]f human trafficking or haven't been to Chechnya. A film can provide a personalized window into those experiences."

"It comes down to the power of film," says Helga Stephenson, the former TIFF director who heads up the Canadian wing of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival (Feb. 24-March 4). "We have a shrinking pool of foreign information and a film, if it's well done, can provide a perspective to make sense of all the bits of information."

As well, these festivals give filmgoers a chance to talk back. Often they can meet the filmmakers, or communicate with them via Web applications such as Skype.

"You can sit in a darkened room and absorb these issues in a film on an emotional level," says Lisa Brown, a former psychiatric nurse and founder of Toronto's annual Rendezvous with Madness Film Festival, which deals with mental-health issues. "Then we have a panel with someone who has personal experience, a mental-health care provider and perhaps the filmmaker."

Sarah Margolius, executive director of Canada's biggest environmental festival, Planet in Focus, thinks festivals are also forums for exploring values: "Our audiences can see films that are new and hard to find. They can talk with others and become further engaged. If the film touches a nerve, they can express their own story."

The movement from art to action is sometimes immediate. Last year, when Ron Mann presented his documentary In the Wake of the Flood - about Margaret Atwood's environmental consciousness-raising book tour - the cosmetics company LUSH was instantly moved to donate $10,000 to Nature Canada.

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Not all advocacy film festivals are playgrounds for liberals with cameras. There's Hollywood's Liberty Film Festival, celebrating conservative values, and the Tea Party-inspired Ohio Liberty Festival. The conservative American Film Renaissance festival has held events in Dallas, Washington and Traverse City, Mich. - as a response to Michael Moore's festival in the same town in 2005. Of course, a film festival wouldn't be worthy of being called political if it didn't inspire opposition. For filmgoers of all political stripes, there's a common thread: The experience of a film isn't truly complete until you've had a chance to share it with others.

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About the Author
Film critic

Liam Lacey is a film critic for The Globe and Mail. More

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