Students discover powerful films through Docs For Schools

Sponsored feature: presented by Hot Docs 2018


HOT DOCS 2018. The Canadian International Documentary Festival showcases the best filmmakers working in the medium today. Festival includes over 200 films, industry events and more. April 26 to May 6, 2018. Ticket info at hotdocs.ca.


Teacher-librarian Gemsy Joseph first heard of the Docs For Schools program from mentors whose recommendations she trusted. But she still didn’t expect the documentary film program designed for Ontario students to be as impactful as it was.

“I mean, it sounds overstated, but it was a life-changing experience for me as an educator,” the Harbord Collegiate teacher says. “I saw students who typically were not engaged with the curriculum really excited about learning about a topic that they may not have been presented with in a normal situation.”

At the time, Joseph was employed at Downsview Secondary, located near Keele and Wilson. Students there hadn’t necessarily travelled downtown on the subway to experience the city’s arts scene first-hand, let alone seen much of Toronto outside of the school grounds. Then, to be exposed to a film that shows another side of life through real-life characters and to have the opportunity to directly ask the director or subjects of the film questions – students who didn’t normally thrive in the conventional classroom setting were suddenly animated and engaged.

Docs For Schools has grown since its inception in 2006. Now in partnership with Scotiabank, Hot Docs screens free documentary films to 100,000 Ontario students in grades seven through 12 year-round.

In addition to its classroom screenings, from April 26 to May 6, the festival will show Mercury 13, the little known story of a top-secret training program for women at NASA Don’t Be Nice, about the diverse Bowery Slam Poetry Team Amal, about a young Egyptian revolutionary and Anote’s Ark, the story of a tiny island impacted by climate – to name a few. Some films are selected with themes in mind, such as anti-bullying for Anti-Bullying Week. Others are selected because they broach complex, sometimes difficult and important topics such as racism, sexual assault. All films come with program packages teachers can choose to use or not, filled with thought-provoking conversation starters, explainers and relevant activities for before and after the screenings, which occur at school or at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema on Bloor West.

“It’s special on three levels,” says Lesley Sparks, education and youth programs manager at Hot Docs. “One, they are ‘hot off the press’ so to speak. They’re new films. We always have the director there for the Q & A with the kids, so it gives them a nice insight into the film. And more and more, we’re able to have film subjects at hand. So this year, of the 10 films, five of them will actually have the film subjects with the kids. And they are special moments.”

Coming face-to-face with the subjects of a documentary film can be magical, Sparks says, remembering one screening of Triage: Dr. James Orbinski’s Humanitarian Dilemma. The film follows the former president of Médecins Sans Frontières who was stationed in Somalia and Rwanda with limited resources, and who made some extremely tough decisions about who would receive healthcare during humanitarian crises.

Neither the programmers nor the teachers knew, but Orbinski was in attendance. After the director Q & A, he emerged from backstage. And as each student in the audience recognized him, they stood up and applauded.

“You don’t forget those memories,” Sparks says.

Now, Gemsy Joseph’s new post at Harbord Collegiate means she’s just around the corner from Hot Docs in the Annex. And she’s now a member of the teacher advisory team at Docs For Schools, working directly with programmers to help select films.

But she says it’s her students that have really plugged into the excitement of Docs For Schools. A few weeks in advance of a screening, Joseph will leak the title and subject of the film to her students to drum up enthusiasm. She says students will frequently research the topic themselves in advance – this year, they already can’t wait to see Matangi/Maya/M.I.A., about the polarizing pop star M.I.A. And they also can’t wait to meet her.

“They are dying to go,” she says.


Visit the Hot Docs Digital Residency to learn more about this year’s festival.

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