Reel Justice: a film festival that unites, inspires and keeps growing

By Rita Bailey, Chair, Development and Peace Diocesan Council for Hamilton Diocese

Reel Justice films are promoted on social media using banners like this announcing last month’s screening.

I watched in awe as viewers signed into the Zoom session for our Reel Justice film, Doctrine of Discovery: Stolen Lands, Strong Hearts. Names and locations scrolled in from all over Ontario. Then other provinces appeared: the west, the east and Quebec! The tsunami of names kept pouring in and I pictured our Zoom account exploding. But I didn’t need to worry. But I didn’t need to worry. Our local Development and Peace ― Caritas Canada animator, Emily Lukasic, had it all in her capable hands.

In the end, we had over 100 viewers. Pretty good for a film festival that started out by showing justice films from our diocesan library in church basements. At our first showing, we had an audience of ONE, outnumbered by three very anxious Reel Justice team members!

The seeds for the film festival were planted six years ago by Heidi Matthews and Kojo Damptey, then our diocesan council chair and Southwestern Ontario animator, respectively. They had been searching for ways to engage people in social justice outside of emails and church bulletins. A collaboration with Dominy Williams at the Bishop Farrell Library in the Diocese of Hamilton led to the birth of the Reel Justice Film festival. Over time, our promotion skills improved and attendance at those live events gradually improved, but never surpassed 30-40 people.

Then COVID struck. In-person films were not possible, but we regrouped and showed the films online. We increased our budget, thanks to the generosity of the Diocese of Hamilton, and expanded our repertoire, showcasing current films on topics ranging from temporary foreign workers to environmental racism. We discovered that when we had guest speakers to create a more engaged learning experience, more people signed up.

Mindful of our mission to bring the call to justice to people from all stages of life, we show a family film at least once a year, and collaborate with the youth whenever feasible. At our first Family Film night, featuring the film To The Arctic, an entire Brownie/Guide troop signed up to watch! This year, we are hoping to partner with a local Catholic high school to show the film The Letter. And as things open up and people crave more community, we are even considering a hybrid film experience, which would be a first for us.

Last spring, we were wowed by an invitation from Salt + Light TV to talk about our Reel Justice Film festival on their BEHOLD feature. The interview aired in November 2022 and is still available to Salt + Light subscribers.

For those who are considering a film festival of their own, we have some advice.

  1. Start small, showing 4-6 movies a year.
  2. Collaborate with other groups: your diocesan library or education office, environmental groups, Indigenous learning centres or other justice organizations.
  3. Promote the films widely, on diocesan websites, in bulletins, your Development and Peace ― Caritas Canada mailing list and with other faith groups and organizations. Begin at least a month before the screening, with reminders closer to the viewing.
  4. Be sure to include the youth and families.
  5. Keep to a maximum two-hour time limit. The length of the film will dictate the length of the discussion afterward.
  6. Start planning early. It takes a few months to create a list of films and possible guests, contact them, get permissions and a budget in place.

My favourite audience feedback came from a member of a Unitarian congregation who thanked us for showing There’s Something in the Water, a film on environmental racism. She said, “I didn’t know the Catholic Church did things like this.”

We are all called to spread the Gospel. That’s what we do at Development and Peace. We invite people to “come and see.” The organizers of the Reel Justice Film Festival challenge each of you to create an event and send out the invitations. You never know who may respond. Maybe just one person. Or maybe one hundred!

Click here to sign up for the next Reel Justice screening.

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