Makers Profile

Napanee Film Maker Meshes Art with Activism

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Judith Popiel – Film Maker

Judith Popiel has lived in Napanee for 15 years after spending a number of years in Kingston. Her artistic tendrils are intertwined with the arts scene in both Kingston and Prince Edward County, as she has been both a professional artist and also a teacher, primarily of theatre and dance.

Her desire to help inspire people to explore their creativity, especially young people, as well as using her talents to help highlight causes such as feminisim and environmentalism, have spurred a lengthy and prestigious career as a fibre artist. But more recent interplay between art and activism really sparked Popiel to add documentary filmmaker to her already impressive repertoire of artistic endeavours.

“I have always been interested in documentaries and I am an activist as well. It started with an idea I had to chronicle what was going on with the windmills on Amherst Island. I started to interviews for it but quickly realized I didn’t know how to make a film, especially a modern film with all the digital technology. I did take a few film courses as part of my degree programs at Queen’s [she has a B.Ed and M.Ed from Queen’s and a Fine Arts Degree from York University]. So I took a special 12-week documentary film course and as part of that, made my first film, Ellen Merrin’s Kitchen,” she said, adding that for many years she had also volunteered at the Kingston Canadian Film Festival.

“It was part of the course, and the co-ordinator Dorit Naaman, wanted us to do something around the 175th Anniversary of Queen’s, and I owe her so much for being such a good teacher and mentor and assisting me in making this film. She wanted us to make a film about something we were passionate about. And I loved the Ban Righ Centre – I was a mature student and hung out there a lot. And Ellen Merrin was my mentor when I was doing my Master’s Degree and we used to get involved in a lot of activism. We were feminists and did a lot together, even though she was 20 years older than me.

“We hung out at the Ban Righ Centre and she put forth the money to renovate the kitchen there and as a result they have a soup program there every day for people. You can go and have a soup and sandwich and sit in the lounge and talk to or whatever. She wanted something nice for the women. So I chose that to be the subject of my film.”

Like an entrepreneur starting any sort of business, taking risks and putting yourself and your product out there is a necessary – if stressful – part of the game. It’s the same with budding filmmakers. Having some contacts with the Kingston Canadian Film Festival, she decided to send her three-minute short film on Ellen Merrin in to be juried.

“They said they really liked it and so it got in. And then the artistic director called me and said my film is going to be shown on opening night at the Isabel Bader Centre, and I am still humbled by the whole thing. Everybody seemed to like it and I just realized that I love putting stories together that inspire and bring people another view of something, and how powerful that can be If it’s done well.”

Bitten fully by the filmmaking bug, Popiel is now working on two more films, one on young people using slam poetry or spoken word art as an outlet for their frustrations and conflicting emotions. A second film will see Popiel document the lives and stories of people over 80 years of age.

“My interest is in people speaking in a positive and constructive way about things that concern them, instead of turning to drugs or alcohol as an outlet. I saw a lot of young people at Queen’s who were going to these poetry nights and expressing a whole range of emotions and thoughts. And I thought it was very good as an avenue for expression and more young people should learn how to do it. So that’s the focus of the film: to show the benefits of this art form as an outlet,” she explained.

“The other film is a case of me wanting to document living history before it’s gone forever. This interest came because I went to my great uncle’s funeral in Michigan and my great aunt said to me that I had to come and listen to their stories – the people of her generation – and tape them. But I never went and now they’re all dead. But this is our history and once these people are gone, that history is basically gone. And I don’t want that to happen.”

As an artist at heart, as something who has something to say and a unique way of saying it, documentary films are now a focal point of Popiel’s life. She did do a series of TV programs a number of years ago around dance and theatre for kids as part of a special grant programs while also teaching performing arts in Toronto.

“I want to make films that uplift and inspire people and also inform them about people and issues that they otherwise would have never thought about. I also want to bring to the forefront ways and means for people and teenagers in particular, to better themselves and to use the talents that they have inside themselves,” she said.

“Filmmaking is obligatory for me. Although I had a different and sometimes difficult time when I was younger, I had people who inspired me and gave me the courage to use my creative potential. So if I can, in some way, give young people and others a way to tap into their own dormant talents, then I have done something useful with my life. I also love telling stories spinning them together when editing film.”

The biggest challenge is the logistics of creating a film and understanding that, for the most part, it can’t be done in isolation; experts in other areas of filmmaking are needed as collaborators. Which is one of the reasons she is excited about the burgeoning film sector within the Bay of Quinte Region, and why she is enthusiastic about people knowing her work and her learning about the work of other film professionals within the area?

“There is a pretty big learning curve for sure. I am learning all the time, and the process of making a documentary fascinates me. It’s a lot more than just sticking a camera in somebody’s face. I am learning more about editing and the importance of the B-roll and how important it is to do your research. That part I love because I love doing research and I realize how much I had gotten away from it after doing my Masters and now I am back doing it and loving every second of it,” she Popiel said.

“And I am learning I have to sometimes rely on other people, and so the challenge is to find the right people to help you and having to compensate them fairly. And even though I learned about sound and lighting in the film course, there are always new things to learn – new technology and new ways of doing things. So I hope I can meet more filmmakers and learn from them, and maybe they can learn some things from me, because I think with my background I have a pretty unique approach to making documentaries.”

Popiel can be reached at Atisha Fashion and Fibre Art Kreashuns on Facebook or by email at sogopo@kos.net.