Opinions & Features Workshop (Oct 26th)

Photo courtesy Calgary Justice Film Festival

Calgary Justice Film Festival showcases films on social justice and environmentalism

By Rachneet Randhawa, November 21 2021—

The Calgary Justice Film Festival (CJFF), formerly the Marda Loop Justice Film Festival, is a Canadian film festival that takes place each November showcasing social justice and environmental awareness. Originally launched in 2006 over 30,000 individuals have attended the Marda Loop Justice Film Festival over the years. They also run a subsidiary event titled Just Reel, which are individual screenings events that are held four times a year in February, April, June and September. The Gauntlet sat down for a virtual interview with CJFF director, Jennfier Ewen, to learn more. 

Ewen defines social justice as catering to the United Nations 17 Sustainable Development Goals which cover most aspects of the problems faced by the world and of which each film heavily relies on for the core theme. 

“And I think that as climate change and food security and water security and mass migration and displacement become more and more prevalent around the world, that it’s really important to focus on some of these films that show how interrelated it all is that if we don’t have a healthy sustainable planet it’s hard to achieve any kind of social justice with more than human rights issues,” said Ewen. 

For example, the idea of the closed-loop biosphere and regenerative systems was screened a few years ago as one of her favorites, which examined how to produce electricity to homes based on recycled food waste.

Ewen overlooks all operational aspects of the festival, from programming to final film submission, from filmmakers all over the world. Final selections are sampled by the committee which consists of up to 15 people and who watch and rate several hours of film each week. Each selection is assigned the most relevant Sustainable Development Goal as the initial step. 

The next step is community engagement, in which topic experts dissect the theme of the film, conducting interviews with the filmmakers.

Currently, all their planning has been done virtually for almost two years now. Although they had planned to be in person this year, the fourth wave, alongside unstable government restrictions, meant that reverting to going digital was the best method. They chose to specifically restrict the festival to seven films due to the pricier streaming platform making it more expensive to operate than in previous years. 

Previous to COVID-19 and the current virtual format, festivals in the past had up to 24 in-person screenings, including short films at multiple venues around the city — from the Plaza Theatre to Globe Cinema, to Mount Royal University, the downtown public library and their main venue at the River Park Church. 

They also had guest speakers that would field questions to the audience with an interactive question and answer discussion. Their last regular festival has the highest attendance record and has international filmmakers from the US and Brazil fly in to attend. They have had to adjust due to government lockdown restrictions and have, for example, pre-recorded interviews instead that stream before the online films alongside a Zoom chat. They did this for one of the films shown, Black Jesus, which is being moderated  by the University of Calgary’s International Development Department and are hosting a panel with the filmmaker. 

Another big change, the festival has also rebranded and renamed itself. Originally, the “Marda Loop Film Festival” which was associated with the particular neighborhood and the location of the church including most of their sponsors. Because the festival has grown in size and scope, it’s now ripe to be considered a Calgary-wide festival with attendees not just locally but all over Alberta. 

“We decided that we needed a new look and a new name and not just for recognition but also to be part of the Calgary sort of vibrant art scene but also in terms it would help with fundraising and fund procurement being a bigger entity than just one little neighborhood,” says Ewen. 

The original idea for the film festival came in 2006 when one of the founders, Jenny Krabbe, found that there was a real void with mostly corporate interests dominating Calgary rather than something being oriented towards the community, like examining social and environmental justice issues around the world with a humanitarian and activist approach. 

“And they thought that starting a little free community film festival would be a great way to give back to the community and invite people to learn more,” says Ewen. 

As for how the festival shapes the culture of the city Ewen mentioned that it gives Calgarians more choice when it comes to engaging with social justice. 

”It gives people another choice to become informed about decisions through the medium of documentary film, in not so much entertainment format, but in an educational format,” she says. 

One of the best parts of CJFF, Ewen mentions, is that admission is completely free of charge as they aim to remove all barriers to access so that anybody interested in justice themes can attend.

One way Ewen suggests attendees get the most out of the festival is to find something that sparks their interest and to take the opportunity to learn more about a certain topic, as that’s the best way to extend your impact from being a passive viewer to someone who is actively engaged in trying to make the world a better place. 

“It’s going to take all of us to make the change that the world needs to see to become a better place. And we encourage our viewers to use our films as just the first step,” says Ewen.

Some of Ewen’s top picks for the CJFF 2021 include Black Jesus, saying that it was also popular with the programming committee. 

“It’s a fascinating and fresh look at the source of fear and prejudice against ‘the others,’” she says, “It takes place in a tiny village in Sicily, where the community worships a carved wooden statue of a Black Jesus. The village becomes divided when a young man from Ghana, a resident of the local refugee center, asks to help carry the statue in the annual procession. It is so well done, and an inspiring story.” 

Next, The Line is another local film which takes place in a waste management facility in Edmonton. 

“Justice issues intersect between the environmental problem of waste and the human rights of those viewed as being on the fringe of society,” says Ewen. “It is one of those films that offer solutions and hope while illuminating the dark corners of the marginalized in our communities.” 

And lastly, Kimmapii Yipit Sini – The Meaning of Empathy, is a locally shot film in the Kainai Nation of southern Alberta. 

“It addresses the problem of substance abuse (— particularly the opioid crisis — and is an approach that tries to effect community change through harm reduction strategies,” says Ewen. “This film is a must-watch not only for awareness around the destruction of lives and families dealing with substance use, but as an insight into the working lives of health care workers, medical staff and first responders.” 

As for ways for youth to get more involved in social justice, Ewen recommends volunteering. She mentions that sitting on] the programming committee gives volunteers the opportunity to have a say in the types of films they screen for the upcoming year. 


The Calgary Justice Film Festival 2021 screens virtually from Nov. 18–21 and is free for admission. Be sure to check out a flick or two and ignite your inner activist.


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