Forty years ago, Ian Merkel was involved in clandestine film screenings. The films were nothing Canadians would consider illicit, but in apartheid South Africa, color barriers meant it was illegal to show films featuring blacks and whites together, and the films had to be smuggled into the country. Merkel watched these contraband films in friends’ garages. When the police raided the screenings, people sometimes landed in jail. Even with this possibility, for a young Merkel, film was worth the risk.
Years later, Merkel is still as passionate about the evocative nature of film as he ever was. He has been involved in many film related organizations in Vancouver, including as a board member and executive director of the Vancouver Jewish Film Festival. Today, Merkel in involved with the potential of working toward social change through film, and has become involved with Reel Causes and the Vancouver Foreign Film Society.
“Film, for me and a lot of people, is the most memorable art genre,” said Merkel about why he believes film can change the world.
According to their website, the mission of Reel Causes is “to educate, inspire and engage the community around social justice, environmental and health-related issues.”
Merkel described how the organization began in an interview with the Independent. “Mohamed Ehab, a pharmacist from Egypt, had just moved here and wanted to meet people. He loved movies, so he began having movie nights in his home, then began bringing films in [from out of town] for the public.”
In 2010, Reel Causes registered as a nonprofit society and has since partnered with many B.C.-based nonprofits to promote health, environmental stewardship and social justice.
“We bring films that are not political or religious and partner with what we call community causes, in order to educate people,” Merkel said. “The belief is that the media of film is one of the most powerful ways to get people involved in causes. People connect as a group while they watch a film and are able to engage with our community causes to effect positive change.”
Reel Causes has an arrangement with Vancity that enables the organization to screen films once a month at Vancity’s theatre at Simon Fraser University and once every six months at the Vancity Theatre downtown on Seymour Street. They aspire to raise awareness and funds for the causes with which they engage.
“Our most successful event was a partnership with the Lipstick Foundation, which provides esthetic services to patients in palliative care in a hospice on the North Shore,” Merkel said. “We showed a movie called Happy. The Lipstick Foundation brought a big sheet of paper and cupcakes. Whenever a person wrote on the sheet about what makes them happy, they got a cupcake. We had over 200 people there.”
Coming up next for Reel Causes is a film dealing with youth issues and a partnership with Artquake, an organization whose mission it is to empower young people and build confidence through art.
Reel Causes is at a turning point as an organization, Merkel said. Several younger people sit on their newly enlarged board of directors and Merkel said he anticipates passing the torch to a new generation soon, while still maintaining some involvement.
At the same time, he looks forward to turning his attention to his other passion: promoting foreign films.
The Vancouver Foreign Film Society was formed in May 2014 as a result of the dearth of independent movie theatres in Vancouver. While the Ridge Theatre has been demolished and Fifth Avenue and the Park are now owned by Cineplex, the demand for quality foreign and international films remains high. Eight films were screened by the society last year and 12 screenings are planned for this year at Pacific Cinémathèque.
“The criteria for our films is that they are produced outside of North America, but for some French films from Quebec we may bend the rules because they are never seen outside of Quebec,” said Merkel. “We’ve had films from France, Sweden, Norway, Britain, Australia and soon will show films from Japan, India, Spain, Turkey and Thailand.”
For Merkel, providing his insider knowledge of how to procure films and put on events is a labor of love. “The impact of a film will inspire for pure entertainment or for social justice,” he said. “Film shows us things that happen around the world and people remember powerful images from film. I see that film can stimulate the mind and somehow retain the content so those images are lodged in your mind.”
Michelle Dodek is a Vancouver freelance writer.