Marie Labrosse, a master’s student in English Literature contributed to this story.
There are countless art festivals with a powerful mission at their core, but the Social Impact Film and Art Festival (SIFA Festival), co-founded by Thi Be Nguyen and Sean St. John is unique in its desire to amplify important social causes through all artistic media. Inspired by the success of activist art decrying injustices around the world, the festival aims to highlight art from around the world that is making a difference.
Nguyen is herself a socially-engaged creator. Her first documentary, released in 2016, was a recognition of her parents’ sacrifices and courage throughout her life. As Vietnamese nationals living in Laos, they attempted to flee the region with their three young children on two separate occasions, eventually succeeding in reaching Thailand by boat. After multiple months spent in refugee camps, the family received word that they had been sponsored to immigrate to Canada. By documenting the path of resilience of over 26 other refugees, Nguyen came to understand the power of collective storytelling through art. The experience prompted her to produce her second documentary, Coming Home, which sheds light on the impact of the French colonization of Vietnam.
“We need to give voice to as many people as we can, so that they can tell and share their story,” Nguyen explained. “Film plays its part in creating awareness and influencing change. Art more broadly, photography, songs and lyrics, theatre, can all do that too.”
Nguyen’s social engagement is nothing new. She started involving herself in her local community after graduating from university, first by volunteering her time to causes she believed in, eventually moving onto fundraising and advising other activists and organizations. In 2014, she founded a charitable organization called UniAction to bring awareness to social causes and creating a center to help newcomers integrate society. Although she still sits on a few charitable boards, Nnow, her focus is on creating her own projects that can promote positive change.
“I’m always asking myself how I can help to put forward social issues on a global scale,” she said of her motivation to create the Social Impact Film and Art festival. “Through an initiative like this, I think that I can reach out to the world and encourage them to share their projects and their preoccupations.”
Her latest project is SIFA Festival, a concept which she originally developed in 2017. At the time, she was already so involved with other causes like Centraide and the Canada-ASEAN Business Council that she was unable to launch the festival in 2018 as she had hoped. The pandemic and shelter in place orders presented her with an opportunity to revisit the project, which is currently accepting its first ever submissions.
While theatres are currently closed to the public in an effort to limit the spread of Covid-19 through Montreal, Nguyen believes that the public’s behaviour during the summer offers some insight into a different future for the film and event industry. When cinemas reopened for a few months in July, the screening rooms were largely empty as a sanitary precaution and as a result of the dearth of new films. Nguyen was hoping to screen her second documentary at a local cinema in the early fall before distributing it online; however, she has had to postpone the film’s release in the face of these low attendance rates.
“The problem isn’t that the theatres haven’t put safety measures in place, it’s that our guests were still scared to go,” Nguyen said. “That’s something we need to account for going forward.”
For now, Nguyen still plans to host a physical event in August 2021 to mark SIFA Festival’s first edition with a red-carpet gala and film projections. The event and subsequent editions of the festival will also honour the social impact world influencer: a creator who promotes social engagement and positive change through their art. Nguyen and her team have a list of potential recipients which they will work on narrowing down ahead of the event.
Nguyen’s goal for these different components of her festival is for the event to do more than just provide a platform for social issues. She wants to encourage viewers to think about the topics amplified by the art on display and even think about potential solutions. She is envisaging a mechanism for collecting event-goers’ responses and share them with an even broader audience.
Nguyen’s energy and time, which she splits between SIFA Festival, UniAction, other foundations and causes, as well as her career at the National Bank of Canada, appears infinite. For her, projects like SIFA Festival act as a driving force and she feels that her support network, including her colleagues at the National Bank, her husband, and her children all support her involvement in her community.
“Social engagement is a part of me,” Nguyen said. “It makes me feel fulfilled and it’s just as important to me as my family or my job. Social engagement is to me what a hiking or a book club might be to someone else.”