The International Vegan Film Festival, now in its fourth year, is bringing art and activism together on a global stage.
If you ask Shawn Stratton why he started the International Vegan Film Festival, he’ll tell you the answer is simple: vegan films changed his life.
Health concerns led Stratton, his wife, and their three daughters, to give plant-based eating a go in 2015. They never looked back.
“Vegan-themed films were instrumental in my wife and me choosing to go vegan (her Vegacated, me Forks Over Knives) and [it was the same for] so many other vegans I spoke with at the time. I knew there was tremendous power in vegan-themed films in helping people to choose a vegan lifestyle,” Stratton tells Ethos.
Fast-forward to 2017 and Stratton had hit the circuit of vegan festivals around Ottawa, where he’s based. He loved the sense of community and felt he had something to offer. Stratton is no stranger to event organizing; he’s put together months-long wilderness expeditions and managed a triathalon event for five years. He’s also an author. His first book, Teams on the Edge: Stories & Lessons from Wilderness Expeditions, was an instant bestseller.
“When I learned there were no vegan film festivals, I thought the world needed a home for these films,” he says. He launched the International Vegan Film Festival in 2018.
“Not coming from a film festival background, I was very naive on the amount of work required and how even the economics of a film festival work, so I set out to learn everything I could.”
Stratton says he funded it out of his own savings in that first year, hoping it would be able to stand on its own soon. He vets each and every film for inclusion in the festival. Three judges determine the winners based on a points rating system.
The demand is certainly there with films like 2019’s Game Changers and 2021’s Seaspiracy going viral, touching on both the health and environmental reasons for going vegan. But there are mainstream films with strong animal rights messages, too, like the 2020 Oscar-winner for best documentary feature, My Octopus Teacher, that help to build out a category rich enough to make the film festival a destination—even if it’s only virtual at the moment.
A film festival in the time of Covid
Last year, amid the Covid pandemic, the festival, like most things, went all virtual. This year, Stratton says it’ll likely be a mix of in-person and online events. Part of that is because the festival is global, with screenings around the world. And in places where Covid restrictions are less stringent, local chapters will be able to screen in theaters.
But for Stratton, the important thing is that the festival will go on, no matter how modified. It’s still a victory for the filmmakers, even if a bit bittersweet, he says.
“I believe [Covid] has drastically affected our filmmaker’s ability to capture content to make their films without travelling the world freely. In some films, the quality has suffered because on-screen in-person interviews have now moved to poor-quality zoom interviews,” he says.
From the beginning, Stratton says he wanted IVFF to be a year-round international event, attracting filmmakers from across the globe and hosting screenings in every corner of the world. For vegans, this brings the community together. For flexitarians or the vegan-curious, this made the films and community more accessible, too.
“Each film affects everyone differently, and I thought the more vegan-themed films we have out in the world, the more people will come across them and be impacted by them,” he says.
Stratton says he also wanted to create a place to “reward these amazing filmmakers with publicity and cash.” For small filmmakers, that’s a big deal that can help them keep going with their art. “With festival awards increasing in value each year, I hope it will help attract more filmmakers to create vegan-themed films and enter the Festival and encourage current filmmakers to produce even better films.
“I also wanted to create a fun live in-person event for the vegan community in Ottawa and around the world with world tour screenings. Like-minded people usually like hanging out with each other and don’t do it enough.”
But despite the Covid bubble, 2021 will be the IVFF’s biggest year yet, showing 31 films in total. Some of Stratton’s favorites include Save Ralph, a stop motion mockumentary animated short written and directed by Spencer Susser. It stars Taika Waititi, Ricky Gervais, Zac Efron, Olivia Munn, Pom Klementieff, Tricia Helfer, and Rodrigo Santoro. He also loves Moving Animals, directed by Miguel Endara. It follows photojournalist Jo-Anne McArthur’s experience documenting the long-distance transport of animals destined for slaughter. There’s also The Save Movement, which shows a confrontation outside a New Jersey slaughterhouse; The Dark Hobby—an expose on the aquarium trade’s impact on reefs and aquatic life; and There Was A Killing, which documents the tragic death of animal rights activist Regal Russell, who was killed by a slaughterhouse transport truck at a protest.
A global festival
Now a non-profit corporation, IVFF is fundraising to help continue its offerings, one of which is something else Stratton is excited about: the world’s first Vegan Cookbook Contest. It helps to promote plant-based eating and make it more accessible. (We’ll be featuring recipes from many of these cookbooks on Ethos in the coming months.) There’s also a photo essay contest.
But what makes Stratton most excited is the international screening component of the film festival.
After the main festival, IVFF curates a two-hour reel comprised of the best shorts and sections of features and helps the local hosts through the process of setting up their offshoot events.
“I like to this of it as providing a ‘festival in a box.’ The local host is in charge of booking an appropriate venue, setting up and selling tickets, and marketing the event,” he says. “They pay the IVFF a licensing fee, and the host retains the profit from ticket sales and local sponsors. The licensing fee operates on a scale based on the capacity seating of the venue. The price starts at $310 for under 50 people and goes to $1100 for more than 400 people.”
Hosts can add Q&A sessions, food on-site, or other activities around the event. Stratton’s hope is that the global component expands to hundreds of cities, a “massive” event to help bring the films to more people.
If the goal is to help more people eat better for their own health and the health of the planet, Stratton is convinced films are the answer. “[They] play an essential role in educating people on why that’s important.”
Ethos is the official media sponsor for the International Vegan Film Festival. You can learn more about the event by visiting the IVFF website.