Downtown DocFest

Film, Belleville, Ont.

Downtown DocFest

Ten years after

By Peter Paylor

There have been months of preparation. The films have been chosen. The schedule is set. The only thing that could go wrong is for the power to go out or for one of the films not to show up or for no one to show up to see them. Everything else has been taken care of.

March 2, 2012: Day one. Friday morning. A windstorm. Flashing has blown off from the roof of The CORE, where volunteers are still putting out chairs in the main screening room because there has been a dance class in the room the night before. The lights flicker and go out. They come back on. They go out. They come back on. They go out. It’s a few hours away from the first screening. Word comes in that the DocFest banner is now flying over the Moira River, twisted and in tatters. Indecipherable. More words come in from the festival programmer. The gala film hasn’t arrived yet. She is waiting at the bus station. Fingers crossed. Meanwhile, DocFest organizers huddle downstairs at The CORE. Festival passes have not sold in great numbers. There is tension in the air. There is nothing to do now but wait. It’s less than an hour until the first screening.

The wind dies down. The lights stay on. The Gala film arrives. People start coming – in droves – lining up for Festival passes. There is a buzz in the air. It won’t go away all that weekend. The Gala goes off without a hitch. Bruce Macdonald’s brilliant documentary film, Music from the Big House, about Hamilton blues legend Rita Chiarelli and her work with musicians in prisons is screened before an enthusiastic sold-out audience at the Empire Theatre. After the film, Rita Chiarelli and her band hit the stage, and the rest, of course, is history. In one day, the fate of DocFest has been established for years to come.

Ten Years Later

March 2, 2022: The festival is two days away. There are no chairs to set up. No concern about windstorms or power failures or films showing up. The last of the films has been loaded on the festival’s streaming platform. The Gala concert with Peterborough’s Four Lanes Wide has been filmed from the Empire stage and it’s loaded, as well. So has the Gala film, Rockfield: The Studio on the Farm by British filmmaker Hannah Berryman. The Q&A’s have all been recorded. They’re loaded too. Cody Bennett is in his first year as DocFest’s Program Coordinator. He’s in Kingston this morning with his partner, waiting for their twins to be born. They think today might be the day. (Update: The twins were born on the evening of March 2 – ten years to the day from the first day of DocFest. Cody says that they are home and doing fine).

Welcome to the world of virtual DocFest. “You try to anticipate as much as you can – what might go wrong – but I think we’re in good shape,” says committee chair, Holly Dewar. She’s been with DocFest since year two. “You work all year towards this and it’s really exciting to have it happen.”

This is the second year that DocFest was completely virtual: “We were all really looking forward to the tenth year [last year] being a real milestone for us, but I was so proud that we were able to shift to going digital and move forward with the festival. It took real courage from the team, and it was so appreciated. The comments from the community were wonderful and the community support was amazing, so I’m really so glad that we didn’t decide to just wait.” 

She adds: “I think next year we’ll definitely be able to do a live festival and go back to having the community together. To watch films together. To go out to dinner. To support the downtown. That would be wonderful.”

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