Tuesday, March 4, 2014

My Log 412 March 4 2014: Cinema Politica Concordia and McGill: I stick my nose in too far, and make some errors: an effort to correct them

Concordia University - Loyola campus
Concordia University - Loyola campus (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Concordia University
Concordia University (Photo credit: Rodolphe Breard)
Looking out onto Downtown Montreal from the Mc...
Looking out onto Downtown Montreal from the McGill Arts Building (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Fran├žais : Peinture - Portrait de James McGill...
Portrait de James McGill (1744-1813) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It is axiomatic, I suppose, that if you leave town, and stay away for 37 years, many things will have changed by the time you return.
For example, in 1975, when I left Montreal, McGill University’s status as the number one English-language university in the city was unquestionable. It  was an impregnable, conservative bastion of the anglophone community, that had a few years  before shrugged off a student attempt to turn it into a French university in the name of equal opportunity, and seemed to be sailing into an untrammelled future behind its immense endowment funds and stellar reputation.
Concordia University on the other hand, having finally put its foundation as a YMCA college behind it, had just the year before merged with  Loyola College into its present more elevated form as a full university, and had only six years before withstood a riot of black students who threw their computers into the street as a protest against their perception of being unfairly marked. It was, definitely, the junior English-language university in the city.
My contact with both them as a journalist was rather spasmodic; and since my return eighteen months ago it has continued to be so. I now live in what is vulgarly known as the McGill ghetto, and every day I walk through the campus on my way to a morning cup of coffee on the corner of Peel and Sherbrooke streets, which gives me an opportunity to mix --- shoulder to shoulder, as it were --- with McGill’s amazingly (and, to me, newly)  diverse student body.
As for Concordia, having heard of the film series known as Cinema Politica I have taken the trouble to walk over to the familiar Henry Hall building every  Monday night, where I have discovered a long-running and really excellent institution that brings up-to-date and challenging documentary films to a large and eager audience. I discovered that this series was begun 10 years ago, and has been so successful that it has spread to a claimed 90  places in several countries.
When, more recently, I discovered that Cinema Politica was also running at McGill, my natural inclination was to assume it would be bigger and more successful even than at the junior university. So I was surprised to find that it was taking place in a smaller room, being run by an enthusiastic group of half a dozen young women students, and attracting audiences of up to 40, compared with the many  hundreds attracted most week to Concordia. In other words, my initial expectations were out-of-date, a terrible thing for even a retired journalist to admit but I do freely admit it.
As readers of this blog will know, I have recently written about both these institutions and the films they have presented: they are, to be frank, right up my street because I have always tended to interpret the film arts primarily as if they are weapons in the ceaseless battle for social change.
In the course of writing these pieces I made some fairly sharp comments on the relatively inexpert organization of the McGill group compared with the slicker and better established  outfit at Concordia. I didn’t mean these criticisms unkindly; I thought perhaps an outsider’s view might be of use to them as they struggle to improve their product.  When I sent them what I had written, they replied quickly:

“It should not be forgotten that it is, at McGill, a student-run organization and not professionals like at Concordia. Cinema Politica McGill was unknown before last semester, we have done a lot to publicize it: through internet devices, media at McGill and class announcement. It goes without saying that this was a great challenge for us, because we are deeply committed to our association. We are actually very proud to say that last semester we had an average of 20 students coming to our screening, and now around 40. Also we have worked a lot for our university to recognize us as preponderant enough to get a large room, last semester we were in a much smaller classroom.
“Finally, we would like to take your article as an opportunity to say that we have been trying to bring much variety to our program, because it is also a way for us to reach out to different student communities on campus....
 We have been putting a lot of effort into this, while trying to manage our studies and work outside campus.
We hope that one day Cinema Politica McGill will have as many good things as you mentioned Cinema Politica Concordia has. Please believe us when we say that we are working on it.”

This came as quite a surprise to me, and I responded:

“I had no idea your organization had started only one semester ago.  My mind set was that I thought they (McGill and Concordia) would be about equal, so I am happy to hear that you have put so much effort into it and that you are meeting some success.  I certainly didn't mean to put you down in any way.”

They told me they were happy with my criticisms, and before every subsequent screening they have written me with details as to time and place.
Meantime, I had sent the pieces I had written about the Concordia screenings to Ezra Winton, who seemed to be in charge of them, and he has printed a couple on the Cinema Politica blog. I occurred to me he might be prepared to do the same with the pieces I had written about the McGill screenings, and sent a couple to him. His response was negative. He said I had been “unfairly hard” on the folks at CP McGill, and added this perceptive comment --- which brings me back to the first sentences of this article:
One thing your commentary really misses here is the fact that Concordia is a much more active campus with a totally different (and diverse) demographic - something that contributes to the ongoing success of many activist and progressive initiatives, Cinema Politica included, on campus. And CP Concordia has had the benefit of a relatively constant group of organizers run it, over ten years — a kind of continuity that most of our locals don’t enjoy.”

In one of my pieces about McGill I had said that Ezra had founded CPConcordia, and had since been responsible for its expansion around the world. He said that was not so, and asked me to correct that impression. Here is what he wrote:

“I co-founded Cinema Politica with Svetla Turnin, who is the Executive Director of the organization and the one overseeing the expansion over the years. She really runs things, not me. It's a mistake many make, simply because they see me get up there each week as I introduce the films. But it really isn't fair to Svetla, who does all the heavy-lifting and whose hard work often goes overlooked and under-appreciated. I hope you can make that correction, since this is published on line.”

I am more than happy to make the correction, and simply would like to comment that the error was a function of my being a retired, rather than an active journalist.  Had I been working actively I would have interviewed Ezra before taking his name in vain.  But that would have been too much like work, and I keep this blog going for my own amusement  because writing --- writing anything, no matter what – has become like a reflex action for me, after being at it ceaselessly since 1945.
The final act in this story --- I thought for a moment of calling it a drama, but that would have been to elevate it far beyond its significance --- came this morning when I received  a charming note from the young women at McGill:

“…we would like to thank you for your strong support, and your wise input on our screenings. It is very valuable for us to get an insight of how our events are perceived, and how they could be improved."

I sent a copy of this note to Ezra, who responded that “they sound like they are being diplomatic” --- in other words, he didn’t believe they meant what they wrote me. Since they had no reason to write me at all I tend to doubt his explanation.
However, he added some important information:

“I’m….a little protective of the smaller CP locals who struggle in the shadow of CP Concordia, our flagship local that not only has the advantages I outlined in my last email to you but also has its own budget. This means Svetla can hire a part time coordinator who can keep a full team of volunteers working round the clock and we can spend the money to not only get premieres and difficult-to-attain titles, but can also pay honoraria for guest speakers, etc…”

So this really does bring me back to the beginning: it seems in my absence of 37 years Concordia University has not only caught up with McGill in many things but has far surpassed them in some areas, for which they deserve hearty congratulations.

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