The founder of DocuWest wants to make Denver a hub for documentary filmmakers. He’s expanding his festival to do just that.

As the format changes in the age of streaming, Wade Gardner said his festival will evolve with the times.
5 min. read
A still from ‘Marvin Booker Was Murdered,’ a film directed by Denver Documentary Society founder Wade Gardner. Roxy “MaDear” Walton-Booker holds a framed image of Marvin Booker.

About six or seven years ago, Wade Gardner, a documentary filmmaker and the founder of DocuWest, a local documentary film festival, attended a Star Wars screening at the Oriental Theater. At the end of the screening, a moderator hosted a sort of Q&A with a twist using the digital trivia platform, Kahoot. The moderator asked questions about the film, and the audience answered on their phones, competing to answer both correctly and more quickly than other competitors.

"They really got energized, and they got engaged with what was going on," Gardner recalled. "And I just stuck that in the back of my head. And I thought, 'I would love to add that to what we do at DocuWest.'"

Instead of audiences asking the filmmaker questions at the end of festival screenings, the filmmaker would ask the audience questions, he said. And it would be done in an engaging, gamified format.

"Everybody's talking about disruption. And everybody talks about immersive and interactive," Gardner said. "But disruption is very rare. And when they do something in film with immersive interaction, they charge you a lot of money to go try and even attempt it. And when you do, you've got to wear a goggle, and you're dancing around like you're at a disco ball."

Gardner sat on the idea until the pandemic hit. DocuWest went on hiatus, and another business Gardner had teaching kids art shut down.  Gardner found himself driving for Lyft during the pandemic to make a living.

"My slogan is 'using my mind to get off my behind,'" he said.

Sitting in a car every day for work, that slogan seemed even more apt. Gardner remembered that Star Wars screening from years ago and started coming up with a plan to use that same technology to build upon DocuWest, and to create accessible, interactive programming that might sustainably engage Denverites interested in documentary.

"I've come to the realization that you get more done by sharing your vision than by sitting on it," he said.

Gardner received a $10,000 grant from the city and is now gearing up to launch Denver Documentary Society, or Denver Doc Soc, in spring 2022.

Denver Doc Soc will launch with the return of DocuWest this March. The festival will screen about 20 to 25 shorts and features from all over the world, including some by local filmmakers.  At the end of each screening, filmmakers will host what Gardner is tentatively calling Twisted Q&As on the Kahoot platform.

The Documentary Society will also expand upon DocuWest's existing programming with new events to be offered throughout the year. One of these is an outdoor film series called Rooftop Docs, which will invite audiences to watch films from Denver rooftop bars, where they can drink beer, connect with the local documentary community and participate in the Q&As. In the spring of 2023, Denver Doc Soc plans to launch the Denver Civil Rights Film Festival. The Society will also have an internal production component, through which they'll produce documentary films to help finance the Documentary Society.

Tom Kolicko is a local documentarian who also teaches film classes at CU Denver. He says Denver Doc Soc has the potential to bring Denver's documentary community together.

"If it means new programming, and something exciting, and something that brings the industry forward and helps put Colorado more on the map, because we're not really known for our film work, the better this is going to be," Kolicko said.

He said there are currently only a handful of filmmaking groups in Colorado, including Colorado Film and Video Association, as well as social media groups.

"I think because of the events that have happened over the last two years, that community has drifted a little bit further apart," Kolicko said. "We're just not meeting and talking regularly. Everyone's kind of in their own circle or working on their own projects."

He said it'll be great to have opportunities to regularly meet other members of the documentary community, to talk about what projects they're working on, to share ideas and resources to and collaborate -- things he said are becoming more important as the genre evolves in the age of streaming.

"Documentary is changing so quickly," Kolicko said. "We're seeing like a quick evolution of the genre itself in terms of running time, format, story devices, even the type of equipment being used and how we're getting access to our characters. The more that we can share our experiences, the more it helps all of us be successful when we're going out and pitching new documentaries."

Kolicko said having a robust local documentary community can help young people build their careers.

"We work with students to make sure that they are getting out in the community, they're making relationships or building networks, because that's really what this industry is all about, is relationships," Kolicko said. "The more opportunities that exist for students, the better it is for everybody, because they're the next generation of filmmakers. They're going to see the world a different way than my generation or the generation before me."

DocuWest has historically had a social justice bent. Gardner says that by regularly sharing films with audiences, Denver Doc Soc can further engagement and action around social issues reflected in the films.

That only works if they can reach people. DocuWest screening passes will likely cost around $10 to $12.

"We want to use DocuWest and documentary film to get people to use their minds, to get off their behinds and maybe take the action or stand up for a cause or start a debate," Gardner said. "Whatever the case may be, we feel that by starting the Denver Documentary Society, we can mobilize around documentary film."

DocuWest will return as an in-person festival March 23-27, 2022. Denver Doc Soc's Rooftop Docs series is scheduled to begin May 22, 2022. 

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