October 18, 2023
Community Spotlight: Denver Documentary Society: DocuWest Film Festival w/ Wade Gardner
Denver Documentary Society is an organization about being the underdog, fighting for change, and being resilient while providing affordable programs and accessibility to the community. Wade Gardner began Denver Documentary Society in 2021, establishing it as a non-profit organization in Colorado. The roots of DDS began back in 2008 when he first established the DocuWest Documentary Film Festival. Wade has been a profound voice and advocate for presenting works that may confirm or disrupt viewpoints with stories about civil rights, music, the environment, democracy, and myriad other issues affecting Coloradans locally and society at large.
This weekend, now in its 14th year, the DocuWest Documentary Film Festival will take place with feature films showing at MCA Denver at the Holiday Theater on October 20–21. I had the wonderful opportunity to connect with Wade via email to learn more about Denver Documentary Society and the upcoming presentation of selected films.
Hey Wade! How are you doing?
Thanks for asking. I am doing fantastic. 2023 has been all about alignment and getting things done. Which I’ve been able to accomplish. So I am doing great, knowing I am on track.
Tell us about the Denver Documentary Society as an organization here in Denver?
DDS was born from my starting the DocuWest Documentary Film Festival in 2008 as one of the four exhibits presented annually by the Foothills Art Center in Golden, CO. The Executive Director at the time loved film and for the five years she remained at Foothills, we built a doc fest. Upon her departure, I moved the festival to Denver. That was a bit of a yo-yo. We moved twice, landing at the Alamo Drafthouse. Then, of course, the world changed in 2020. I put the festival on hiatus for two years. In 2021, Denver Arts & Venues managed the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), which I was awarded and then able to launch Denver Documentary Society.
I love typing that our origin story is like something out of a Denver-based sitcom. Because of my love of Robin Williams, we are More Mork & Mindy than SouthPark in that a nonprofit “start-up” coming straight outta Covid was seen as crazy. But there’s been much method to the madness. As an organization, it was important that we didn't “sell” sizzle about who we are or what we wanted to do. We wanted to offer steak (be it vegan, vegetarian, doesn’t matter), and moved methodically to accomplish that because we want to be known as an organization that works hard to bring independent documentary film to the city and differentiate ourselves from all the other wonderful arts organizations in the region.
I am proud to share that DDS is dedicated to furthering the impact of documentary film via three programs: screenings, education, and filmmaking.
To meet those objectives our nascent organization offers the DocuWest Documentary Film Festival in the fall, and the Civil and a Human & Civil Rights Screening Weekend in the spring.
My prior business teaching young students, combined with my education and work making documentary films allowed DDS to recently be named an educational partner with Denver Public Schools grades K-12. Making us the only film-based nonprofit in Denver with this designation.
We’re excited to host for the 2nd year, the DocuWest Documentary, can you share how this festival came about?
DDS is excited, too! This year’s festival came about by organizing around our strengths of having vast knowledge and connections in the world of documentary film. Curators watched over 300 films to select 26. We were able to engage the next generation of critical thinkers thanks to our budding educational partnership w/ DPS and will be debuting five short films for high school students. And, a zaniness to bring non-narrative work to Denver in a way that reflects the fun and engagement that only documentary film can provide.
Even though it is our 14th, each time is like a new beginning for us. We sit down and ask, “What can we do to differentiate ourselves?” So to answer your Q, this year’s festival came about due to another round of dedicated film curation from our team and myself. We have disrupted the traditional Q&A by turning it into an interactive mobile trivia game (using Kahoot!). Think of it as our trivia host asking the filmmakers questions, to the audience.
What are some of the films featured this year?
On Friday, October 20th, we will screen two ethnographical, Fred Wiseman type films. Piblokto, written and directed by Timofey Glinin and Anastasia Shubina, brings us to the coast of the Arctic Ocean of Siberia where, cut off from the world, we watch a village whose life revolves around hunting walruses and whales and protecting villages from bears. The film is a meditative reflection on death.
While in No Elephant In The Room, written and directed by Clara Klieninger, tells the story of animal trainers Adi and Mioara who must adapt to a changing world when wildlife shows are banned at the Globus State Circus of Bucharest.
We have built a solid rep for our shorts packages. For the MCA Denver audience, I must share our Big Dose of Reality Screening on Saturday,October 21th presents: Married to Comics, directed by John Kinhart, gives audiences a glimpse into the art and married life of two giants of autobiographical comics, Justin Green and Carol Tyler.
How can filmmakers in Denver, and Colorado at large, become involved with Denver Documentary Society and share their films?
I know it sounds cliche, but DDS is committed to building a community in Colorado around documentary film and non-narrative storytelling. We have quickly evolved to where we want to connect and provide space and engage with other filmmakers. We have a seasonal screening space. For parents of high schoolers and college students, DDS is also available to provide frank feedback about the field of documentary film.
Anything coming up in the future that you want us to know about?
Yes - I am a civil rights documentary filmmaker. My first feature documentary from 2017, Marvin Booker Was Murdered will be re-released in 2024. I am hosting at least one screening in Denver next year, marking a decade since Marvin’s family won a groundbreaking civil rights lawsuit in October of 2014. It is an important moment in Denver civil rights history.
The second thing I am most thrilled about will be the release of my second civil rights film made under the DocuWest Films banner. We Turned Up. Don’t Turn Down. This is for Mike Brown, covers the death of Michael Brown Jr by former Ferguson, Missouri police officer Darren Wilson. It is told from the viewpoint of those with direct knowledge from both sides of the incident. His tragic death is an important moment in our country’s civil rights history.
Both stories are a reminder of the negative impact state sanctioned violence has on a community.
Lastly, I built a brick patio in the front yard of my home near the BlueBird Theatre to launch another Denver first: DenverDocSoc Social Cinema, a thirty seat outdoor space to watch movies. Our opening night will screen Man on The Run. It’s a story about the notorious fraudster Jho-Low, who spent lavishly on parties and projects with Hollywood A-listers. It is a submitted film from Cassius Kim, a festival alum. He submitted the film to coincide with its limited worldwide theatrical release.