Art News

Wade Gardner on the Denver Documentary Society, DocuWest's Return and Marvin Booker

Wade Gardner is bringing DocuWest Film Festival out of COVID hiatus and launching Denver Documentary Society.
Wade Gardner is bringing DocuWest Film Festival out of COVID hiatus and launching Denver Documentary Society. Sudabot
Denver documentarian Wade Gardner's filmmaking has always focused on social justice, and the DocuWest Film Festival, which he created in 2008, holds similar thematic leanings. While he has not released a new film since 2017 and DocuWest was put on hold the past two years, this year Gardner is bringing new developments to the filmmaking community and the festival, which runs from Wednesday, March 23, through Sunday, March 27.

Having decided that a single documentary film festival running for less than one week annually is not enough exposure for nonfiction filmmaking in Denver, Gardner founded the Denver Documentary Society earlier this year. The Society will now formally run the DocuWest Film Festival and will also sponsor new programming year-round. In May, it will launch Rooftop Docs, an ongoing program to broaden access to documentary films through casual, social screenings, which Gardner describes as a combination of Geeks Who Drink and Wait, Wait...Don't Tell Me.

This year will be the first DocuWest at which Gardner screens his 2017 film Marvin Booker Was Murdered, a chronicle of the death of a homeless street preacher at the hands of Denver law enforcement in 2010. Three years after the subsequent lawsuit from Booker's family against the city was settled for $4.65 million, the film had its first and only public screening in Denver, attended by members of city government. Later that year, Denver paid the same amount to the family of another victim in a similar case, Michael Marshall. Gardner believes these results are not mutually exclusive, and never screened Marvin Booker during DocuWest because he felt the film had served its purpose. But that opinion changed in the summer of 2020, when he saw that both Booker and Marshall's names were largely excluded from international cries for police reform in the United States.
click to enlarge Ranger will screen on Saturday, March 26. - RANGER
Ranger will screen on Saturday, March 26.
"One thing I learned from [Marvin Booker] is the need to have an impact and outreach campaign for one's film, because that is how it has sustainability," Gardner says. "So I'm always thinking, 'How can we have engagement with films?'"

This year, DocuWest will try out a new post-screening Q&A format. Instead of the audience asking questions, the filmmakers will ask trivia about the film using the internet platform Kahoot!, which allows people to use cell phones to compete. Gardner doesn't expect it to totally replace the traditional Q&A format, but it's a way to challenge audiences with new elements.

DocuWest ’22 will screen twenty feature films and four shorts packages across five days, with Kahoot! sprinkled throughout. Marvin Booker will screen on Friday, March 25, at 7:15 p.m. The lineup also includes regional premieres of already acclaimed films Anonymous Club, Ranger and The Reverend, which Gardner says serves as a reminder of what documentaries can accomplish.

"A lot of people think documentaries cannot be entertaining and informative and touch on social justice and, in this case, spiritualism in progressive Christianity," he says. "[The Reverend is] a wonderful film, and what the world needs right now."

The star and filmmakers of The Reverend will attend the screening, which will be followed by a presentation recognizing Denver communities that have been impacted through social justice movements of the last few years.

In the meantime, Gardner plans to grow the Denver Documentary Society into a networking tool, especially for filmmakers looking for connections outside of Colorado. He's noticed that coastal filmmaking communities are mostly unaware of the breadth of the films made by Coloradans. Amid stories about beer, skiing and marijuana are also documentaries spotlighting local and national social injustice. The struggle, he says, lies in gaining attention for the filmmakers.

As if all of these developments were not enough to keep him busy, Gardner is also working on a new film. The project covers the events surrounding the 2014 fatal shooting of Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri. The film is scheduled for release in spring 2023, which also happens to be the proposed launch season of the Denver Documentary Society's Denver Civil Rights Film Festival.

Gardner has no plans to screen his film there, though. "I don't want to be that guy," he says.

But he does seem to be the guy to propel the Denver documentary community forward for years to come.

DocuWest Film Festival, Wednesday, March 23, to Sunday, March 27, McNichols Civic Center Building, 144 West Colfax Avenue. For tickets, $10, visit the Denver Documentary Society website.
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