Windsor·Q&A

WIFF chief programmer surprised by Cineplex screening of anti-abortion film

Cineplex is screening a controversial anti-abortion film in Windsor. The company says it is up to viewers to decide if they want to see it. But is it really that simple? We asked WIFF chief programmer Vincent Georgie.

'Unplanned' is being shown at 14 theatres in Canada, including SilverCity Windsor

Promotional artwork from the film "Unplanned." (Soli Deo Gloria Releasing)

The executive director and chief programmer for the Windsor International Film Festival calls Cineplex's decision to screen a controversial American anti-abortion film "surprising."

The Canadian theatre giant has defended its decision to screen Unplanned, a drama based on the true story of a Planned Parenthood clinic director in Texas who becomes an anti-abortion speaker.

The film will screen in 14 Cineplex theatres in Canada — including SilverCity Windsor Cinemas — for one week, starting Friday. It will also screen in 10 Landmark Cinemas as well as some independent theatres in Canada, after a U.S. release which stirred up intense debate on both sides of the issue.

Cineplex president and CEO Ellis Jacob said showing controversial films on the big screen is not new to him, Cineplex or the industry as a whole — and he's confident the company made the right decision.

Actor Ashley Bratcher, right, is shown in a scene from the film Unplanned. The controversial American anti-abortion film is set to hit Canadian theatres soon, with the distributor bracing for possible protests. (Soli Deo Gloria Releasing/The Canadian Press)

He added it's important to remember that Canada is a country which values freedom of expression, and that audiences can decide whether or not they want to see the film.

But is it really that simple?

For his take on the matter, Afternoon Drive host Chris dela Torre spoke with Vincent Georgie, the executive director and chief programmer of the Windsor International Film Festival (WIFF).

An edited transcript of that conversation is below.

So what do you make of Cineplex's decision to screen Unplanned?

It's a bit of a surprising decision for them to screen the film. The film has received no lack of controversy and discussion. 

It's their right to do so. I just hope that they're going to handle the film thoughtfully and carefully.

When you say you're surprised by it — is it because you're surprised that such a big mainstream company would take on a film that has such a polarizing conversation around it?

It's certainly not unheard of. The distributor of that film, Pure Flix, is a Christian-based organization and they make films accordingly. I think it's a question of just making sure Cineplex is being responsible in doing their due diligence around showing the film.

You always have to be careful to make sure that there's proper context surrounding the film and people aren't just walking in blindly not knowing what they're about to watch.

I've not seen the film, so I'm not going to judge the film. But [it's important to] make sure that \whatever you're presenting is being discussed in a fulsome way.

I should say that I haven't seen the film either and I can't speak to its contents. But it makes me wonder why they would show the film in the first place — given all the controversy surrounding it.

For me, it's a fairly obvious one from a marketing perspective. Consumers that describe themselves as being strongly Christian or having strong Christian values, don't tend for the most part to be very high consumers at movie theaters — they don't tend to go to movies a lot.

So what we've seen in the past 15 years, ever since The Passion of the Christ came out in 2004, we saw very large numbers of Christians and people of faith come out to watch those films that normally don't go to movies at all. So it's this whole new audience being attracted to that content.

So I would certainly suspect that that's part of of the appeal — is that it actually brings up a whole audience for Cineplex that normally is not probably a high user of films in their theatres.

So as a festival programmer yourself, what are the questions that are playing out in your mind and the conversations you're having in terms of what you decide to add to your festival and whether or not a film is appropriate?

Festival programming is completely different than movie theatre programming.

Movie theatre programming tends to be contractual, tends to be a bit more straightforward. Festival programming is curated, everything is hand-picked. So any film that we're dealing with — I'm the head programmer of our festival and we've got four other programmers with me — we discuss all the films thoroughly, we are thoughtful about what they're talking about — what is the context, how will this be received.

At most festivals you're going to go to around the world, films are introduced, there's some context offered before the film even comes on screen, often enough you're going to try to do a Q and A after — a discussion group — to help people, walk people through what we've seen and start thinking through some of the issues.

Especially with films that deal with sensitive subject matter or problematic subject matter, you really want to make sure you're handling that with white gloves, if you will, to really make sure it's being handled in a very sensitive way.

I think that's one of my concerns for this [film] to be shown at just your average multiplex. You just walk in, the film plays, and you leave — and that's concerning.

Have you ever screened a film that you've disagreed with on some moral level?

I mean, there's a group of us that look at the films. On a moral level I can't say that we have — we can disagree on the films, we can have personal taste and just appreciation.

But when you're dealing with a very serious subject matter here in this type of film, it's really important to make sure that the film is providing a fulsome discussion and that you're being responsible with what you're putting up on the screen.

We always make sure that at the festival level, that what we're putting up on screen is actually responsible in what it's showing and not irresponsible. And that's something that's that's important.

You can have a personal preference for something, but you have to make sure it's dealing with a complex issue in a complex way — as opposed to dealing with a complex issue in maybe too simplistic of a way.

But movies themselves aren't journalism — and this film I think is not intending to be a work of journalism. If you look at it that way, there isn't necessarily an expectation to be unbiased.

Do you think perhaps that's the bar that we should take with this film — should we just see it as a piece of entertainment?

I don't know that you can view it as a piece of entertainment, considering how gravely serious the subject matter is, how important that is.

I don't think you can just take that as a piece of entertainment that you would, you know. a superhero film or something — it's not remotely comparable.

I mean, the audience is responsible for what they're going to watch. But you do have the moral responsibility to make sure what you're presenting is treating the subject matter from a complex standpoint. It can't just be dismissed as, you know, 'it's all entertainment.'

Is this something you would consider showing at a festival that you are putting together? I know that's a difficult call to make since you haven't seen the movie.

Yeah, I haven't seen the film nor has anyone on our team.

What I would say, with any film, you watch it before you're going to ever program it.

From the multiple reviews I've read about the film and what I've understood, I can't imagine us showing it, no. There's too many causes for concern from what I'm reading.

I think there's an important line to draw between, 'is it a filmmaker's right to make a film?' Sure, absolutely — a filmmaker is entitled to make what they make.

It's a different conversation to say you're going to show it. People can make whatever they want, but there's a separate level of responsibility when you say 'yes, we're going to show this."

Certainly for anything that that we've seen to do with this film — at least at this level, just doing a review reading and trying to get some research on it — this is a film we'd have many, many concerns about.

About the Author

Jonathan Pinto is a reporter/editor at CBC Windsor, primarily assigned to Afternoon Drive, CBC Radio's regional afternoon show for southwestern Ontario. Email jonathan.pinto@cbc.ca.

With files from The Canadian Press

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