Elisa BirnbaumSEE Change was at Toronto’s Hot Docs film festival, showcasing acclaimed documentaries from around the world. Two films, in particular, caught our eye. Depicting very different stories of social change, they share a common narrative—entrepreneurs dedicated to empowering those marginalized in society. That each asks us to step into the shoes of others, questioning our deeply entrenched presumptions, makes them even more compelling still.

The World’s Most Fashionable Prison

The New Bilibid Prison is the largest maximum security facility in the Philippines and home to 12,000 of the most vicious inmates in the country. A prison like no other, friends and family come and go, pets are commonplace and due to limited resources, including lack of electricity and running water, inmates are allowed to roam free outside. They also share a number of open dormitories.

One, in particular, is reserved for 44 gay prisoners, most of whom were participants of the prison’s recent entrepreneurial venture: a fashion workshop run by famed Filipino designer, Puey Quinones.

For 30 weeks, Quinones teaches four groups of men to sew, style and hone their sartorial skills. The class culminates in a professional fashion show, with the country’s top models sashaying down an ad hoc runway, wearing collections sure to give established designers a run for their money. Of course, the workshop is simply the backdrop to this engaging film. The documentary’s most compelling moments emerge while director CK Mak follows the classmates, each sharing their personal experiences coming out as gay or bisexual, and the struggles they faced with families, children and other inmates.

In a shocking twist of sorts, toward the end of the film we learn Quinones himself is facing his own struggles (though he often alludes to having had a tough year). It seems the year before the designer was caught passing off store-bought items as one of his own, resulting in a national scandal. Quinones is still trying to shake it off. In this way, the workshop is as vital to his personal redemption as it is to the inmates.

Interestingly, the film seldom explores the criminal history of any convicts, or what brought them to Biliban. As such, it tends to sugarcoat the personal narratives, focusing instead on their current challenges and achievements. Viewers also have little chance to explore some important questions, such as, what is the long-term impact of this type of venture? Is there a way of measuring it? Is there any moral conflict with providing a convict serving a 40-year life sentence for homicide the opportunity to work with a top fashion designer?

Still, the film takes a vivid look at social entrepreneurship in a place often overlooked as a place of inspiration. As the student designers demonstrate, creativity and passion are alive and well in Bilibid. Most poignantly, each workshop devotee credits Quinones with not only teaching them valuable skills but for instilling hope, a pretty rare commodity in these parts. “He showed us we were not to be pitied,” shares one. While another thanks the designer for helping him stand tall as a gay man. “My interest not only grows for fashion but for life,” he says.

Smoke Traders

This film follows the so-called contraband cigarette business in Canada from the unique perspective of the Mohawk Nation. Profiling those involved in the trade in the communities of Kahnawake and Awkasasne, it’s an eye-opening documentary that, in only 51 minutes, managed to make me feel at once frustrated, uncertain and inspired.

The Mohawk Nation sells cigarettes to non-natives without taxes and currently controls 50 per cent of the trade in Eastern Canada. The Canadian government is trying to put an end to the practice, saying it’s not legal. But those working in the industry dispute what they see as the trampling of their rights as a sovereign nation. “Canada calls it illegal, we call it good business,” one of the cigarette traders explains. Currently a multi-million industry, that would be an understatement.

The issues are complex and neither this review, nor the movie, explores them fully. But the film does offer a viewpoint seldom heard and enough material to stir up some debate. One of the more polarizing and interesting characters is cigarette manufacturing entrepreneur, Rob Dickson, CEO of Rainbow Tobacco. A civil engineer by training, Dickson started in the cigarette business to pay off a student debt years ago. He eventually saved enough to open his own company in Kahnawake and hasn’t looked back. The tobacco plant was considered sacred medicine in the Mohawk culture, he explains, and was introduced to Europeans by natives over 500 years ago, assuring them formative and legitimate rights to it.

As the film continues, we learn that tobacco is a major employer – paying the wages of 2,000 of the 8,000 residents – in Kahawake Mohawk Territory, playing a significant role in fighting poverty. The industry also funds sports and recreational activities, filling the gap of government, whose grants are lacking or slow in coming. “My intention is to supplement the federal budget,” explains Dickinson (who unlike most other tobacco employers, pays his federal excise tax).

No matter how you slice it, it’s a hard argument to dismiss. As a vehement non-smoker who views the industry as hazardous, my instinct is to dislike what this man brings to the table (while respecting his professional acumen). Yet, as someone strongly empathetic to the ongoing struggles of the native communities in Canada—many of whom face major economic and social hardships—and acutely aware of their historical origins, I am caught in a conundrum. As one legal commentator explains, the lack of social justice efforts by the government over the years has inspired a reliance on things like gambling, bingo, casinos and, yes, tobacco.

At one point in the film, Dickson tries to help kickstart the industry on two reserves in Manitoba and Alberta, regions where native communities are struggling as well. “It’s time to create an actual economy,” explains the chief of the reserve in Alberta. Problems greet both initiatives, as governments crack down once more. Dickson is adamant, not only of his right to sell tobacco but his refusal to recognize provincial jurisdiction of any kind.  The film follows his continuing battle, clips of him boxing with a trainer added for metaphoric effect. “We don’t hesitate to defend our rights,” he explains. “It’s not about us anymore, it’s about the sovereign rights of our people.”

For those who question whether the communities could find better ways to solve their economic issues, the film follows another central character to demonstrate the complexity of that argument. Brian White, a 43-year-old former “cigarette runner” (those who deliver the product across the St. Lawrence River) is fed up with the business—claiming it’s become too risky— and is trying to set up a solar panel assembly plant. Brilliant and timely idea. Yet, his search for funding and support sees him facing reams of red tape at every turn, making clear the uphill battle White’s in for. Nonetheless, the man seems as determined as Dickson. And I, for one, am rooting for him.

Elisa Birnbaum is the co-founder of SEE Change Magazine, and works as a freelance journalist, producer and communications consultant. She is also the president of Elle Communications.

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