Local film buffs flock to documentary social club
People tend to have strong opinions about Christopher Carson, whose life’s ambition is to permanently relocate to the moon. Ardiana Mustafa certainly did after seeing the 2012 documentary Lunarcy! “It made him look like a bumbling fool,” she recalls.
Yet the 30-year-old fundraising professional found herself unexpectedly listening to him for three hours one night last February. “We were all just mesmerized by him,” Mustafa says. “He knew everything about living on the moon!”
The meeting has been a highlight of the Harvard Seal Documentary Film Club, a monthly social group founded three years ago this October that pairs documentaries with postscreening drinks and discussion, often featuring guest speakers. Their most recent screening was Unbranded, the Hot Docs Audience Awardwinning film about four men corralling cattle from Mexico to Alberta.
The club began after Rebecca French returned home to Toronto afteruniversity and found herself locked in a familiar routine: go to work, come home, watch a documentary, repeat.
“One thing that I found a little bit difficult was to find a social group where I could meet new people,” French, 25, recalls. “At university it was easy to join clubs where you could meet other people with similar interests.” The club now has 455 members on Facebook.
The post-screening discussions often attract a dozen or two intellectually curious 20-somethings. Nearly 100 came out to the club’s secondyear anniversary party to screen Citizenfour, the Oscar-winning doc about Edward Snowden. “It’s a lot less labour intensive than a book club,” notes Jessica Cupola, 28. “You can just spend two hours watching something and then discuss it.”
After the August screening of Alex Gibney’s Steve Jobs: The Man In The Machine, a critical look at the late Apple founder, slips of paper printed with discussion questions such as “How do you think Steve would have justified some of the criticisms of his character as portrayed in the film?” were scattered between the three tables, with people reading them aloud as conversational firecrackers.
Greg Van De Mark, 26, a business development consultant, found the club has given him a way to engage with the arts.
“It provided an outlet outside my work life that was intellectually stimulating,” he says. “It was something I didn’t know I craved or missed. It reminded me so much of my days in university, just discussing, learning, listening.”
The group has hosted guest speakers such as Jennifer Baichwal, the director of Watermark, a 2013 documentary about humanity’s relationship with water. When the club screened the Kurt Cobain documentary Montage of Heck, the all-female Nirvana cover band Hervana were their guests.
People often assume that the club attracts the kind of dedicated doc fans who’ve checked off every film on Rotten Tomatoes’ Top 100. “There’s this idea that we all must be documentary film nerds,” says Van De Mark. “I like the fact that I don’t need to know a lot about documentary films to have something to offer in those post-film discussions.”
As great as the films are, the conversations they provoke are even better. “Some of those people have become my closest friends primarily because, through these documentaries, you often talk about some deep and sensitive topics,” French says. “I find by having a documentary to start that conversation in a safe environment it often allows people to connect deeper than if they met in a different way.”
About That Name . . . OK, so French didn’t actually get Harvard’s seal of approval for her Documentary Film Club. The name pays dubious tribute to a doc club member who misheard “harbour seal” (the animal) as Harvard Seal. Though French admits it couldn’t have less to do with docs, the joke lives on: their two-year-anniversary flyer art was an illustrated waving seal.
Documentaries screened by a local film club have included Lunarcy!, about Christopher Carson, who wants to live on the moon.