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On 23th of March meet Ezra Winton and Svetla Turnin at their workshop on Docudays UA.
While attending various film festivals I realized that the most interesting part starts when the last credits roll and the lights are turned on in the theater. It is a time when you can either start a discussion with a filmmaker during a Q&A session, or start an inner monologue in your head. It is a time when you, the viewer, decide whether what you’ve seen will be applied to your life or not, depending on the extent to which you were, or were not, moved by it. Ezra Winton and Svetla Turnin, are those who give this after-credits part of the screening the same level of importance as the film itself. Their brainchild, the critical art space and network Cinema Politica, is a place where independent political documentaries by international film-makers have been screened for the past twelve years. To mark a decade of their documentary activity, last year Cinema Politica published a book Screening Truth to Power: A Reader on Documentary Activism. I met a member of 2015 DOCU/RIGHT Jury Ezra (Director of Programming) and his partner Svetla (Executive Director) at their office in Montreal to talk about how this explosive mixture of films, politics and activism can impact our life.
Oksana: To begin with, I was a bit nervous after I did research on Cinema Politica and you. I read your blog and realized that we have invited you to the festival where you are going to watch the type of films you don’t like – observational documentaries, or as you have also called them in your POV Magazine article ”liberal consensus documentaries”.
Ezra: Well, it’s not that I don’t like them, it’s just that I feel that there are too many of them being programmed at festivals. I think such documentaries have limitations. On the one hand, it’s very good for a documentary to be an art form, to be cinematic and not just an explanatory educational show-and-tell type of media vehicle. I do appreciate when documentaries are very artful; when meaning-making can be left up to the audience it can be a very interpretive experience. So it’s not that I don’t like observational films… However, some observational documentaries I really don’t like, because I feel that the filmmakers had an opportunity to tell a better story than the one they told.
O: For instance, the film by Ukrainian director Juri Rechinsky Sickfuckpeople [2013; shown at Docudays UA in 2014]. I guess from what I’ve read, you didn’t like this one…
E: I think it’s a very well-made film, but after the film ended I was like…
E: Yeah. Everybody I know who saw it told me that’s how they felt. They don’t feel empowered by watching it. I don’t think you need to tell happy stories about kids taking drugs on the street. I know it’s a very serious topic and the filmmakers chose to take an observational approach. But we [Cinema Politica] want to inspire the audience to be more active and to participate in culture and politics. We use films as a platform to do that. And when a film is observational, if we want to use Sickfuckpeople for an example, the film on its own doesn’t leave a lot for people to grab onto anything when it’s over. They end with the feeling that they had a very intimate window into the life of these people. Don’t get me wrong, when I wrote that POV article, I was, as I always am with my writing, trying to be very provocative. I’m not putting forward the idea that liberal consensus documentaries don’t have value. I think they do have value. For instance, liberal consensus films are going to reach a liberal-minded audience, or they are going to reach the audience that maybe isn’t very politicized in the way that [we would expect from] more radical progressive documentaries.
The limitation of the whole binary that I’m creating with that article is that I’m mainly evaluating the radical political documentaries based on ideological impulses. In a perfect world, they would be radical in form as well as in content. And I think that’s where there might be some kind of mix between more observational and more interventional filmmaking. In a lot of the films we show, for instance, the politics are very radical, progressive, or underrepresented in mainstream media, but their form can be fairly standard. It’s like following the predetermined formula. I think I’m most excited by films that can have those radical progressive politics in front of the camera and behind the camera where they challenge the conventions of standard documentary, and where it’s still very cinematic and very artful.
O: I think your article in POV raises very important questions. One of the things you mention there is that radical political docs destroy people’s personal comfort. I think that’s exactly what I felt after watching some of Cinema Politica’s films. I felt that it’s not that easy to watch political documentaries. Sometimes they open your eyes to such things you have never wanted to see and hear about… Still, back to the question of observational docs, I wonder if you ever program them?
E: Yes, we do. For instance…What’s the abortion doc by Rachel Grady? [Ezra is asking Cinema Politica employee, Tina Gelsomini] Yeah, 12th and Delaware (2010), we showed this film, and in fact, people criticized it for its fly-on-the-wall form. It’s interesting - I think there is a tension between leaving the interpretation more up to the audience and the idea that the filmmaker is a guide in meaning-making for the audience. The audience is led to a certain conclusion by the end of the film, the conclusion the filmmaker wants them to be led to. People argue that observational has less of this effective enclosure, that it is more of an open form. So in 12th and Delaware people argue that the film can be seen as an anti-choice film. But for us, it is totally a pro-choice documentary. Regardless of what kind of documentary it is, an observational or interventional kind that constructs a frame for us, the most important thing is the context in which it is screened. So for instance, Sickfuckpeople could be a very powerful film that can be used as a tool for social change in the right context.
O: You mean if it isn’t shown at film festivals, but rather within the frameworks of conferences or discussions about drug use and addiction?
E: Exactly, if organizers are going to have a panel and they will use the film almost as a testimonial and then say: OK, let’s now discuss how this can be changed. But on its own, I don’t think the film does this so completely. I’m sure some people will argue and say: “I saw Sickfuckpeople and got involved working with street kids”, because everybody is different. We try to showcase films that don’t leave the audience sitting and thinking: “Well, that’s really terrible, but what can I do?” Instead we show films that try to provoke people to actually be involved, where there is some hope left in that.
O: Is that what you call documentary activism? When you try to build a relation between the audience and filmmaker, the audience and the subject being screened?
O: Who did actually invent this term?
E: We don’t know if anyone used this term before us, we hoped to introduce it with our book. When Svetla and I thought about what kind of book we’d like to publish to mark ten years of CP’s activity, we were discussing with our Board members what it is that we actually do, what CP is beyond the obvious on-the-ground practical description - that we show political docs, have discussions, that we are an alternative exhibition network, and so forth. We basically decided that what we really do is documentary activism: we bring the documentary world together with an activist world. A lot of filmmakers are already doing this because they are activists and filmmakers. Hence, documentary activism is an idea that is merging art media, activism and politics. For us it is a practice and an approach that denies or is against the notion of spectatorship, of passive consumption. I mean, I don’t really believe that any consumption is passive, so we are at least against the idea of consumption.
O: So do you want the films not just to be consumed (because anyway film watching is a kind of consumption), but you also want your audience to develop the film ideas into further actions, right?
E: Exactly. I like using the term “encounter” - that we encounter media, that we encounter art. “Encounter” in a sense that we are actors in a social world coming up against objects of art and forces of media and communication, and we encounter them, we came up against them. Sometimes, we are repelled by them. Other times, we are brought in closer to them because they touch us in a certain way, or we react in a way that is so meaningful to us that it changes us. We try to create social spaces that are in the material world, that are virtual for the documentary to be encountered by audiences, and that are appearing in a space that isn’t structured by commercial or marketing imperatives. It’s not about money and selling popcorn, it’s not about efficiency in getting one audience out and the next one in, like at some of the big festivals. This is the pattern that’s been developed in a festival world where you have 10 to 15-minute Q&As.
For us, documentary activism is about giving a space for an audience. And you know what? People sometimes complain at our screenings because it’s a messy space: sometimes audiences react in the way that annoys other audience members, because they give speeches or say disagreeable things. But for us that’s all part of creating that inclusive space and that politicized platform. It is so important for us that documentary doesn’t get subsumed into the commercial media matrix. The constellation that folds in the media and art at the edges has more potential to actually undermine structures of power and oppression. In the commercial world that is what happens, so we are trying to resist and fight against that, and put documentary in a context where it is always about politically engagement and meaningful participation in culture and society.
O: What kind of engagement is possible after the screening, what kind of action?
E (in serious tone): Destroying capitalism.
O: But more practical and realistic? What kind of action do you expect and what examples can you provide? Did anything interesting happen during twelve years of screening political docs at Concordia?
E: This is the thing that everybody who’s funding documentaries tries to get their hands on – this information, the indexes of how we can measure impact. And it’s really difficult because media, art and documentary impact people in particular in such divergent ways. Some people might be compelled to radically change their lifestyle after attending a screening. For instance, we know many people who have stopped eating meat, or stopped eating seafood, because of films that we showed.
O: And you, do you eat meat?
E: I do, yeah, I have probably become desensitized to the films we show from previewing hundreds each year. I don’t eat a lot of meat, I’m a flexitarian. I take the Dutch approach, which is moderation. …And another thing, we know lots of people who over the years have got involved in civil society groups, or non-profit groups, because of screenings they went to of ours. I can say on one issue, that in ten years of screenings documentaries about Palestine and Israel, I have perceived a very critical and important shift in public perception of the illegal occupation of Palestine and Israel’s role in that occupation. Let’s say ten years ago, fewer people were aware of the imbalance of power, and fewer people were willing to be critical of Israel. I think documentaries play a huge part in that, because the mainstream media has done nothing to help the cause of Palestine, right? However, there are many films produced every year on this issue, and we show a lot of them. Regarding your question on the impact, that’s like subtler, or softer changes, that are hard to measure, but you can see it if you stick around long enough.
O: Still, apart from “soft changes” were there any cases when screenings gave birth to any demonstrations or protests? Do you think it is theoretically possible?
E: Well, our films have been in use as part of larger campaigns, but I don’t know if any of our films screenings caused protests directly, but… for instance Vessel [a film by Diana Whitten, 2014], which is a pro-abortion or pro-choice film, was shown in New Brunswick. I was at the screening in Fredericton [the capital of the Canadian province of New Brunswick]. Their abortion clinic had just closed down for lack of funding, and activists there had been engaged in a battle with right-wingers and conservatives and anti-choice activists for decades. So I came, we showed the film, and afterwards everybody put their chairs into a big circle and there was a one-hour workshop-discussion. It’s a really important example for me because I don’t get to go to our screenings outside of Montreal very often. The Fredericton CP screening room is an intimate space that can hold 30 or 40 people, and maybe 20 people stayed for the discussion afterwards. There were people in their 80s, and also high-school students, a big range of generations. They talked about how we can use some of the tactics that the activists in Vessel used. They talked about the film, and how they were inspired by some of the actions that the women were taking in the film, and how they can deploy those in their local setting. It was really constructive and inspiring.
O: Was this discussion organized by the organizers of the screening?
E: Yes, and I think by now it has become fairly organic, since they’re one of our oldest locals. It just happened after the titles ran, and it seems that happens at other screenings, they go into a circle and they talk. I also have another example, Huicholes: The Last Peyote Guardians (2014), the film we just showed in Concordia last semester that has been on a huge tour. It’s a Mexican film about a Canadian mining company infringing on lands of an indigenous Mexican group, and it’s been on a big screening tour, getting lots of attention in press and media, but then also all the audiences start talking about the issue of the film online, creating buzz and generating attention. Halfway through their tour they were called by and met with the CEO of the company, and he told them the company was cancelling the plans for the mine, they were reversing the project. I think that’s the direct result of documentary screenings, because they were worried, because it had a momentum, had a buzz, because people were talking.
O: What about the Maple Spring student movement [the protests against the rise in school fees in Quebec in 2012]? Did Concordia and Cinema Politica participate? You are based on a university campus, so apparently you should have been involved in the movement.
E: No, the thing is that there are so many different issues going on all the time. Usually filmmakers respond to issues but it takes them a while to make the films. There wasn’t a film to show right away. And then, it all happened during summer when we are not active on campus. Yet whenever these things are going on campus during our screening schedule, we invite people to come in to make announcements and help get people invovled.
O: Yes, I know that, each time before a screening you have this time for announcements.
E: Yes, and sometimes there are a hundred...
O: There were a couple of interesting situations in Ukraine last summer. Several films were produced about the revolution and the protesters. In one such film by Sergei Loznitsa, Maidan, at the beginning there is a scene, a wide shot with people on the square singing the national anthem. During the screening at the Odessa National Film Festival in Ukraine, people stood up and they started to sing the anthem. There was a discussion on Facebook and in the media about this situation, because, on the one hand, it is a reaction to what people have just seen on the screen, on the other hand, it is quite a primitive reaction, people associate themselves with what is happening on the screen, they don’t see the difference between reality and the screen. What do you think about this?
E: I think if during a very heated moment where there is a lot of political action and discourse, then people are much more susceptible to be emotionally reactive and that becomes very powerful and sometimes precarious or dangerous. It is a moment when media makers and artists can actually manipulate public opinion, because there is a heightened sensitivity and people are feeling insecure, or they’ve been reactionary for various reasons. For example, we’ve shown films on animal rights and had people storming out of the theatre and yelling at us.
E: Because they were offended by what they saw and heard. And they were not willing to be confronted by the images, because the images are super violent. There was a short film Meet Your Meat (2002) we showed which is really brutal. I just thought it is so very interesting: we show films where there is a lot of human suffering, and nobody has complained about it. Then suddenly, animals were a problem. I think, again, context is everything. A couple years ago we showed the Peter Watkins film Punishment Park (1971), and I purposely asked a curator friend to introduce the film, and asked her not to tell people that the film was fake, a mockumentary. However, the film is done in a convincing documentary style, and it’s very political. It’s set in the 60s in America, and the right-wingers set up a Kangaroo court in the desert, and they sentence activists, convict them and punish them by having guards hunt them down and kill them. After I watched 10 minutes of the film I realized that it wasn’t real, there are some moments that signal it’s not real. The film is from the 70s, so I assumed that today’s media-savvy audience will know right away that it’s not real. The film ended, and people were leaving crying, upset; telling us “if you’re going to show us people getting murdered on the screen you should have a psychiatrist ready to talk to us at the end!” We were perplexed, wondering what the hell is going on? Many people didn’t conclude that the film wasn’t depicting reality. First of all I underestimated how powerful that film still is, 40 years later, but second of all I didn’t consider context, which is – they saw this at a CP event, right?
O: Usually they believe what they see...
E: Exactly, they are not going to sit there and think this is a fake film. That’s why I think the screening context is so important in terms of your question. People react to what is on the screen depending on the content and the context, and that’s why it’s really good to have speakers.
O: In your book there is a description of a case which also happened in the 60s at State University, when an audience of five hundred spontaneously smashed windows in the military recruitment University building right after the screening of some newsreels. If such a thing happens, who is responsible for the outcome: the event organisers, the filmmaker, the people, all of them?
E: The people themselves who do it. I think we can only be responsible for our own actions, and I don’t believe in this direct ‘cause and effect’ line where somebody sees violence on the screen and then commits violence. I think there is an internalisation process that happens, there is the psychological element of the person who encounters the images, and there is a wider social, cultural, political, historical context. On the one hand, I don’t believe media directly cause these things, but, on the other hand, I feel that media has a potential to influence the way we think about the world, the way we act in the world. Hopefully in a good way, but it’s not always the case.
O: In one of your texts in the book you talk about documentary empathy. I think that’s what I felt while watching Inside Lara Roxx (2011). It was the first time in my life that I looked at the porn industry in a more human way, when I saw, behind all these actors, real people with real lives and problems like any other people. Do you think that all documentaries are able to show people in this human perspective?
E: I think one of the powerful and potentially transformative aspects of documentary is the notion of empathy and proximity. There is a way in which virtual proximity works through the screen that brings us into contact with subjects we are unlikely to get so close to or with. It’s very unlikely in my lifetime that I will hang out with drug–addicted children on the streets in… was that Kyiv in the film?
O: That was Odessa.
E: …In Odessa. But I feel like I have intimately encountered that world because of Sickfuckpeople, for instance. It’s also very unlikely in my lifetime that I will sit in an office and talk with the CEO of an oil company. Documentary shrinks those spaces between us and other actors in the social world and collapses that space, and brings proximity into play. I think this is really important because that’s where empathy is created. Not all documentaries do it, but I think they have the potential to do it. Someone is making a film about poverty, for instance, in some urban center, and about homeless people, and all they have is interviews with social workers and police. That’s not going to create much empathy. If, for part of the film we are spending time with some of those people that are being discussed, and especially if it’s done in a way that’s not judgemental, I think then suddenly you translate those sounds and images into feelings of empathy. I think what is important is that it’s a social empathy, not sympathy, because sympathy is kind of useless (you can spend your whole life feeling sorry for people, but that doesn’t translate into action), but social empathy is where you feel general concern for others whom you don’t know and who aren’t immediately part of your own social reality. I don’t know another media that does that with such impact. I guess long-form journalism can do it, when you are reading an article where the writer has spent time with the subject and really got into the nitty-gritty of their life.
O: I think I read this in Jill Godmilow; in documentary filmmaking there is always a risk to show people, your subject, as the other/others. This often appears when Western filmmakers make films about India or Africa. What is your thought on this?
E: Well, I hate voice of god narration for this reason. First of all, there are a few issues associated with the condition you’re mentioning: one is parachuting. It’s called parachute filmmaking when someone—often a privileged Western individual—wants to make a film about a tribe in Kenya that is losing its land because of a mining company, but has never been there nor plans to stay there very long. The filmmaker gets some funding, flies to Kenya and spends a month or three with the people they make the film about. Then, they return to New York, Toronto or London and they edit it, they finish and that’s the film. That is not engaged filmmaking. I think when you’re engaged with your subjects you have robust, long-term relationships with them, and their interests become your interests, so their interests around social justice become yours. This relates to people who spend a lot of time with communities that they ended up documenting, or they spend time with them long after the film has been produced and distributed. These are filmmakers who are really champions of engaged, community filmmaking. Magnus Isacsson was that kind of filmmaker [Canadian documentary maker, 1948-2012], he was known for sustained and committed engagement after his films were long finished. So the parachuting in and out happens a lot, and I think it translates on to the film, you can sense it when you watch. Audiences can distinguish the deeper committed film from the quick-fix form, where the filmmaker landed, grabbed sounds and images, and left.
The other problem is a narration where, instead of letting the protagonists or the subjects speak for themselves, there is a ‘voice of god narration’ or there is a filmmaker explaining – walking us through the scenes. We just recently saw a terrible documentary involving this young Western woman who goes to Africa and documents some terrible thing that’s happening there, I can’t remember if she’s Canadian or American. At one point in the film she’s filming herself with her camera talking about the African who’s in a car with her, she describes his life while filming herself! That’s absurd! That camera should be taken away from her and returned only after she takes a Representation 101 documentary class. But I think there is also a paternalistic impulse too where filmmakers say: “I’m giving voice to the voiceless”. I think no one’s got the right to give voice, and you don’t actually give voice, people do have voices, they are just not heard, so a filmmaker’s role can be to amplify them. In my role as a programmer and curator, I prefer the idea of creating a platform for those voices instead of the idea of giving voice, because otherwise it’s very paternalistic and problematic.
O: At the same time when filmmakers are deeply engaged in the life of the community or a particular person, they often keep in touch after the shoot. Where is the distinction between life and cinema? Life and filmmaking? For you if it’s documentary activism, does it mean that it should be without any borders?
E: No, because I think life isn’t as controllable as when it’s captured on the film.
O: This question doesn’t exist in fiction cinema, but only arises in non-fiction practices. I’ve heard from documentary filmmakers that it’s difficult to find a point when you have to stop.
E: Yeah, but I think there is one concept that all this circles around, and it is narrative. For instance I often hear at conferences I attend Americans referring to fiction as “narrative cinema,” meanwhile insinuating the strange implication that documentary doesn’t have a narrative component. I think documentary filmmaking is a kind of storytelling, it’s not just documenting, it’s not just capturing supposed reality, or as John Grierson [1898-1972, one of the pioneers of documentary making] said “the creative treatment of actuality”. It’s also the construction of a story, a narrative, because through stories we make meaning, and through stories we build empathy and learn about the world and then have stories to tell. When films have narratives then they have a beginning and ending, and that’s where documentary can have those borders between the life and the cinema world. But, you’re right, the lines are much more blurry than they are in fiction.
O: In your blog you complain about documentaries you’ve recently watched. You mention that generally speaking many of them deal with two problems: one problem is that there is no filmmaker’s point of view in films, and another that they ignore ‘Representation 101’. I found this important. Can you comment on this a bit?
E: I think these are two important documentary issues. Representation 101 signals a progressive representation that I expect to more pronounced in documentary than I expect from fiction, because documentary has a social justice history, and documentary filmmakers are engaged in anti-oppression tactics and in telling unheard stories, etc.. I think there is an expectation and responsibility to do justice to representation. I’m asked to preview films often, and this isn’t always the case. I’ve just recently previewed a film about the art world. I told the filmmaker that I couldn’t support the film in its current state because there are no women or people of color in the film. The filmmaker responded: “Oh, I hadn’t thought of that, and no one else had raised that issue. I’ll do something about it.” This was a good reaction but it’s very surprising to me in 2015 that people aren’t thinking about it more vigorously and as a current integrated into their process. What often happens with white men is that they re-create their own image through their art form and through storytelling. It is an endemic phenomenon: white filmmakers construct representation that cuts through or pretends to dissolve race, ethnicity and gender, but also class. Why are we only hearing from authority figures or people that have good jobs on this issue? Can we hear from someone who is not a typical authority figure? I think it is really important because it actually reflects the diverse social and cultural reality that we are living in, at least regarding most places on the planet. When we’re watching a film that is comprised of a bunch of white people talking about an issue or topic, it doesn’t reflect reality like it should. And it continues to make people of color and women invisible, while positioning them in contradistinction to other authority figures. In this way, representational hierarchy reflects the status quo championed by the cultural and political elite: the white man is at the top – even in an “activist” documentary.
In terms of point of view, I clearly have preference for POV documentaries. I have frustrations with observational films, because they can only go so far. There are exceptions when some observational documentaries are just so beautiful and so mesmerising that I cannot not like them. There is also this idea of subjectivity vs. objectivity. The notion that documentary can or should be objective is bullshit. There is no objectivity, that doesn’t exist, never has and never will, so be subjective!
O: It’s always better to be more subjective, than try to be objective. You’ll be subjective in any case.
E: Sure, some audiences may get annoyed because the filmmaker doesn’t show all sides. They are championing one side, that’s their perspective, and they’re very good at it, very manipulative.
O: I’m wondering how this POV can be shown in the film.
E: By privileging the voices and the actions of social actors who usually don’t get that kind of representation, or that kind of screen time. For instance, Diana Whitten, the director of Vessel, was saying that in the US people were complaining to her – you only show the one side, the pro-choice side. She was struggling with a solid response and didn’t know what to say to this criticism. I think it’s very simple: others have proposed and showcased the “other side” everywhere else in your country, in all the mainstream media and popular culture, now you are providing some much-needed balance.
O: It’s more evident for most people why they should be against abortion than for.
O: I know that in your recent workshop in India you talked about your approach in programming CP, particularly that you actually try to balance countries and genders, am I right?
(Svetla Turnin, running late from too many meetings, joins our conversation)
E: I’ve been talking a lot, how about you?
S: Of course we do. Our series at Concordia University is a kind of launching pad for many of the films that circulate through the network. When we do the programming we always sit down and go over the films we selected as the best ones for the series. We then look at gender and queer representation, and whether we have filmmakers from the majority world to balance Western perspectives: whether it is not Western filmmakers making a film about the “third world” in quotation marks, but filmmakers from those places directly, filmmakers that try to bring the voices of the people of their community and places they know best.
E: We succeed mostly in terms of gender.
S: We need to expand our references more in seeking out films in regions underrepresented in the world, like…
O.: Ukraine, for example?
S: Definitely! Also the Middle East, South-Eastern Asia. The majority of docs circulating in our network are North American, European and some Latin American works. We definitely need to do our job better and seek out those other films that we don’t see often at the mainstream festivals.
O: Last year at Hot Docs in Toronto I was happy to attend the premiere of the film Children 404 (2014) by the Russian filmmakers Askold Kurov and Pavel Loparev which, as far as I know, was produced with your collaboration. How did you meet these guys?
S: The year when we programmed Winter, go away! (2012) Marina Razbezhkina’s students’ film, one of the directors, Askold Kurov, came to Montreal with the film. We met him and we introduced him to our friends and members of the documentary community here as well. So basically we became friends, and the guys contacted us later telling us that they were working on the Children 404 project and couldn’t finish it, for lack of funds. With other members of Cinema Politica we ran the Indiegogo campaign and raised the amount of money they needed to finish. At the end of the day, this money was 90% of the funding they needed to produce the film! What seemed to be a small amount to make a film here in Canada turned out to be a significant amount for them and made it possible to finish the film. By the way, thank you for bringing us to Kyiv, we’re so excited, it’s incredible!
O: I think it is very important to have you in Kyiv after we experienced the Maidan, and now when we have a war. Many segments of the civilian population have been politically activated because of or thanks to these events, and many filmmakers among them. I think by bringing the Cinema Politica film selection and giving a workshop you may bring some optimistic news to our film activists, perhaps tell them about your experience of documentary activism as one of the possible ways of social resistance and political engagement.
S: Oh yes, I hope that at least we can inspire some documentary activism…
Oksana Karpovych, Montreal. January 2015
On picture: Ezra Winton, Thomas Waugh, Svetla Turnin (Cinema Politica board)