A ReFrame poster at the entrance to Market Hall, Peterborough

Lighting up the Darkest Time of the Year: at the 15th Annual ReFrame Film Festival

ReFrame Film Festival couldn’t be better timed. At the darkest, coldest time of year, three city blocks of downtown Peterborough come alive with moviegoers hurrying from from theatre to theatre. When the films let out they stumble blinking onto the sidewalk, processing what they’ve seen. Restaurants and bars fill with tables of attendees locked in spirited discussion. Then it happens all over again for the next four days. A mid-sized Ontario town in January suddenly feels like the epicentre of arts and culture.

2019 marked ReFrame’s fifteenth year in operation. I’ve been going for at least five of those, and though the quality has stayed consistent the scope has only expanded. From the original focus on social justice and environmental documentary films, the festival now encompasses live performance and immersive VR experiences as well. As I do every year, I left feeling shaken by the power of what I’ve seen, but empowered and inspired to advocate for what matters most to me.

One of this year’s marquee offerings was Anthropocene: The Human Epoch. Directed by Jennifer Baichwal, Nicolas de Pencier, and Edward Burtynsky, the film arrived hot off its September premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival with a laundry list of awards and glowing reviews behind it. I knew I was in for something special, but it still evoked in me the kind of awe I rarely experience in a movie theatre. The immaculately composed images of human environmental impact dwarfed anything I’d seen in science fiction — a tower of ivory set ablaze by elephant conservationists to discourage poaching, the world’s largest land excavator looming out of the dust of an open pit mine. It’s a weirdly meditative experience to see the planetary scope of our influence presented as simple fact.

There were plenty of films with Oscar nominations and critical plaudits, but what makes ReFrame special is that they sit side by side with local offerings. The 2019 fest was bookended by Slater Jewell-Kemker’s Youth Unstoppable, a doc on the Global Youth Climate Movement, and Last Beer at the Pig’s Ear, an affectionate tribute to the now-closed Peterborough tavern. Apart from the chance to see great art made in town that might be hard to catch anywhere else, it’s an opportunity to frame global issues on a manageable scale. Amy Siegel, ReFrame’s Creative Director, told me that’s very much by design. “I’ve been to a lot of different festivals, and this one was really special for the focus on community,” she said. “One of my favourite things is the community sponsorship program. Different community groups sponsor particular films, and they get up ahead of films and speak to them and why they thought this issue was important and how it connects to local issues.”

This year’s theme was Resistance, organized around the categories Environment, Gender, and Music. I asked how the fest settles on the theme, and Siegel said the programming committee tries to pick up on currents that are already in the air. “The films come first and then out of the selections we make, themes naturally rise to the surface,” she said. “This year there was a lot of protest, there was a lot of resistance, there was a lot of fighting back against the status quo. That’s where the overarching theme of Resistance came from, then the other ones naturally occurred.” My personal pick of the fest was Letters from Masanjia, about a Chinese political prisoner who smuggled an SOS letter into a box of Halloween decorations he made in a labour camp. His quiet dignity stayed with me, as did the steady determination of Anote Tong, subject of Anote’s Ark and former president of the Republic of Kiribati, which is predicted to be underwater due to climate change by the end of the 21st century. Brexitannia gave me a primer on the complexities of Brexit; Minding the Gap showed me a snapshot of life in a rust belt town. Suffice to say the festival’s themes were reflected through an amazing cross-section of perspectives.

It’s nice to see the festival reflect its values behind the curtain as well. Over half this year’s films were made by women, trans and queer folk. Panel discussions on representation in storytelling covered the opportunities and responsibilities of documentary filmmakers. The VR installation Biidaaban: First Light explored the theme of Indigenous futurism with scenes of an alternate Toronto reclaimed by nature. Pioneering biologist and feminist activist Dr. Anne Innis Dagg celebrated her 86th birthday at a screening of the film she is the subject of, The Woman Who Loves Giraffes. Right down to the reusable dishes and cutlery used in the food market run by local vendors, ReFrame puts its message into action.

That’s important, because it puts an inspiring spin on sometimes difficult subject matter. I asked Siegel how she managed to cultivate that feeling across a diverse program. “I tried to create pathways throughout the program where people could navigate it in different ways,” she said. “There was a lot of really inspiring work, there was a lot of heavy work also, and I think that finding that balance is a really delicate and important part of the job.” The schedule typically offered three choices at each juncture spread between Peterborough theatres Market Hall, Showplace, and The Venue. Food options were plentiful in the basement of Showplace, but a 15% discount at nearby restaurants for ReFrame pass holders offered more places for a post-analysis pint in what Siegel referred to as the “festival village.”

Even preparing for ReFrame feels active. I pored over the schedule, planning my route from film to film. I strategized when to stop for a break and quizzed fellow attendees for hot tips. The compressed timeframe creates a headspace where your only job over the weekend is follow your curiosity and listen as closely as possible. When I asked Festival Director Jay Adam what he wanted people to take away from ReFrame, he answered quickly: “That there are real, positive tangible things that you can do in your own community, in your own life to make a difference to fix some of these problems.” Mission accomplished — by the time the inspiration runs out, I’ll be in the theatre again next year.

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