Karen Cho was born in Montreal, Canada. She is most known for her compelling and socially-engaged documentaries.
Karen graduated from Concordia University in 2001 with a BFA in Film Production. she went on to direct “In the Shadow of Gold Mountain,”(2004) a documentary about the Chinese Head Tax and Exclusion Act. The film won a Golden Sheaf Award for Best Multicultural Documentary at the 2005 Yorkton Film Festival and also won CBC a Golden Ribbon Award for Diversity in News and Information Programming. Seeking Refuge (Terre d’asile) (2009) follows asylum seekers in Canada. The film garnered Karen a 2009 Gemini Nomination for “Best Direction in a Documentary Program” and also won First Place at the 2010 Human Rights Docfest in Toronto. Karen has also worked as a documentary TV series director for “Past Lives” (2005), “Extraordinary Canadians” (2010), and “All For One with Debbie Travis” (2010).
Interested in using film as a tool for social debate, Karen’s work often recounts un-told histories and explores themes of identity, immigration and social justice. Her approach to film making is shaped by personal experience, pop-culture and her background in a richly multi-ethnic family. IMDB
Karen Cho is an Asian-Canadian documentary filmmaker in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. Her credits include the 2004 National Film Board of Canada (NFB) documentary In The Shadow Of Gold Mountain, documenting the effects of the Chinese Exclusion Act in Canada; the 2009 InformAction documentary Seeking Refuge; and the 2012 NFB documentary Status Quo? The Unfinished Business of Feminism in Canada, which was named best documentary at the Whistler Film Festival.
Montreal’s Karen Cho started out as a skeptic. Five years ago, the documentary filmmaker began researching feminism in Canada for the National Film Board, planning to make a historical film.
Her previous docs about the Chinese head tax and refugees in Canada were unabashedly political, but Cho, 34, saw the feminist movement as a thing of the past. As she dug deeper, connecting with women across the country, the present-day inequalities astounded her. By presenting contemporary issues alongside footage from the 1960s and 70s in Status Quo? The Unfinished Business of Feminism in Canada, Cho makes her message clear: Women in Canada have come a long way, but the fight isn’t over.
Why didn’t you consider yourself a feminist before taking on this project?
I grew up in an era where I had a lot of rights as a woman and I took a lot of those rights for granted. Feminism felt like something of the past, something of my mother’s generation or older generations. There’s always that stereotype of the angry, man-hating woman and it wasn’t something I wanted to identify myself with. I was one of those “I’m not a feminist but …” type of people. But that viewpoint changed as soon as I walked into the research for the film and realized that a lot of those struggles and fights continue today.
Why is the stereotype of the man-hating feminist so pervasive?
It says that the backlash against the feminist movement was very effective. There’s not been the same kind of backlash against other rights movements – the civil-rights movement, the gay-rights movement.
Your film shows how a national child care program could improve conditions for women. That’s an expensive service. What’s the economic argument?
It eases access to the labour force, making it easier for women to become earners in the household. There’s income tax that is reaped from that and women would have more spending power. There are also jobs created – for women, for early-childhood educators, for all the spaces and infrastructure that would need to be set up. For single mothers who have more than one child, it doesn’t make sense for them to work right now. Child care is so expensive it actually makes more sense for them to stay on welfare. If the government can spend billions of dollars on fighter jets and roads in Northern Quebec for mining companies, we can easily invest in child care.
There’s a clip in Status Quo? from 1982 where an MP is laughed at in the House of Commons for saying that one in 10 husbands beat their wives. It’s incredibly unsettling.
That clip is shocking for a reason – because we have come far in our attitudes. Back in the late ’60s, women’s shelters didn’t even exist. But because they exist now, and there’s infrastructure to help women escape domestic violence, we tend to put the problem under the rug. We should be asking the question: Why is there even a shelter? How is it that in our society the need for those places can still exist?
How does feminism today differ from the past?
The discussion is a lot more diverse than it was before. Women are really aware of who gets to speak and whose voice is heard. Now we’re looking at it from a race perspective, a class perspective, at sexual identity and how all those things affect your experience as a woman. Women are still taking these issues into the streets, but I would say a lot of organizing and feminist activities have moved online.
Do these women call themselves feminists, and does that matter?
I think some of them do, for sure, and I think they’re maybe hyphenating the word feminist – I’m a feminist-environmentalist, an aboriginal-feminist, a reproductive-rights-advocate-feminist. But there’s a lot of baggage connected to that word. If you are a woman from a more marginalized group, maybe you don’t want to identify as a feminist because you don’t feel like the feminist movement took up your voice, in a way. I don’t think it’s necessarily important what words you use. You don’t have to call yourself a feminist to be a feminist and promote feminist values.
This interview has been condensed and edited.