Karen Cho is a Canadian filmmaker born and raised in Montreal. Her production company, Imagination Works, specializes in documentary, fiction, and social media creations. Karen believes that media can be used as a forum for social debate, and uses film to discuss issues of immigration, activism, personal relationships, self identity, and social justice. Her latest film, Status Quo? The Unfinished Business of Feminism In Canada, explores the evolution and present state of gender equality in Canada. We emailed Karen to see if she’d be interested in doing an interview for SDTC and despite currently being on her honeymoon in Australia, she agreed!

How has growing up in Canada, and more specifically Montreal, influenced you as a storyteller?

Growing up in a richly multi-ethnic family has certainly influenced the sorts of stories I am interested in telling. I’m interested in the intersections of identities and versions of “history” that are not told from a mainstream point of view. I guess in some ways being an Anglophone from a multi-ethnic background—and living in Montreal—has influenced my approach to filmmaking. Somehow, in my own life, I identify with outsiders and those whose experiences do not always reflect the common narrative of the mainstream.  I’m interested in stories that push our assumptions of history, identity, and belonging.

How has creating this film altered your definition and understanding feminism?

To be honest, when I began researching Status Quo? I knew little to nothing about feminism. I just thought of it as a social movement of the past and—because I had all my rights—not something that affected my daily life. I also grew up in the sort of backlash era against feminism, so to me the word “feminist” had a lot of negative connotations. But as I researched the film, I was really surprised to learn how much feminism changed our society; everything from equal pay, to maternity leave, to the right to control your body, were rights that didn’t exist just a generation ago. When I met women from across the country and spoke with them about the conditions of their lives, I also realized that there was a lot of work still left to do. Feminism wasn’t at all a movement of the past; it is still a vibrant movement where women are constantly challenging the power structures and working towards a better more egalitarian society. I was also shocked to learn that many of the rights I had assumed have been “won” by feminism’s second wave are in the midst of being rolled back, and some of the same issues women have been fighting for decades continue to be unattained goals. Just as there is much to celebrate about feminism’s past achievements, there is much work still being done and left to do. I knew that this documentary needed to be more than just a historical documentary—the present-day, on-the-ground stories happening now also had to be explored if audiences were going to identify with the issues being brought up in the film.

Tell me something interesting that you learned about Canadian feminism while making this film.

One of the most interesting things I learnt about Canadian feminism while researching the film is how much further it went, and in some ways how much more it achieved, than its American sister—but it is only the Gloria Steinem version of the story that gets told. The Abortion Caravan story is a great example of how Canadian feminists really pushed the envelope. The first and only time the Canadian Parliament was shut down was when a group of feminists chained themselves to the gallery and shouted pro-choice slogans while Parliament was in session. A Group of women traveled across the country gathering support for “Free abortions on demand”—they stormed 24 Sussex Drive and staged a sit-in at Trudeau’s home. This is one of Canada’s greatest rebellions; it kick-stated the abortion struggle and marked one of the first national efforts by women across the country.

What questions should Canadians be asking themselves about the state of feminism in their country?

I think Canadians shouldn’t be so quick to declare themselves number one in terms of women’s status. When we talk about women’s rights, we tend to always think of the poor women from foreign countries who have no rights—but we also have to look in our own backyard. The alarming rates of missing and murdered Aboriginal women in this country is reason enough to be concerned for the state of women’s rights in Canada. The fact that women in New Brunswick are being blocked access to abortions, and that Canada still has no national childcare program despite women making up over 50 per cent of the labour force, are also causes for concern. The challenge today for feminism is complacency and the belief that all is fine; for many women who remain at the margins of society, this is certainly not the case. The women’s movement captured the hearts and the minds of an entire generation, so we have to take the best of this rich history and build on it today—but this time round we need to make sure that all women’s voices and realities are reflected in the rights we fight for and the changes we make. Canadians and the Canadian women’s movement could also learn a lot from the women of the third world who are out in the streets leading inspiring movements against the powers that hold them down. Everywhere from India to Afghanistan to South America has women doing marvellous work to bring about change.

In what ways can Canadians continue to advocate for women’s rights? Are there any groups/organizations/movements in Canada that you think we should know about right now?

In this day and age, with so many government cuts to women’s organizations, much of the women’s movement has moved online—and there are many interesting things happening online. There are so many groups doing very interesting work, it’s hard to name them all. Some of the most inspiring organizations or groups I’ve come across include the RebELLEs movement that came out of Quebec, Families of Sisters in Spirit is also a great grass-roots group, The Philippine Women’s Centre is also doing amazing work surrounding the Live-in caregiver Program, and Canadians for Choice is a terrific reproductive justice organization.

You’ve made quite a few socially conscious documentaries over the last few years, ranging from Chinese Head Taxes, to refuge asylum seekers, to your latest film on Canadian feminism. Do you have your eye on any other specific topics, movements, or events for future projects?

I’ve always got a couple of projects on the go at various stages in development or production. I’m finishing up an experimental docu-fiction that uses found footage and real family secrets to explore the notion of what stays hidden and what is revealed in social settings. I’m also hoping to continue developing a documentary on the over-representation of Aboriginal people in Canada’s penile system.

Status Quo? is screening in Toronto on Tuesday, February 5 at Cinema Politica at the Bloor Cinema. You can join the Facebook event for more details. Thank you to Karen for taking the time correspond with SDTC. We look forward to seeing her and other subjects from the film at the screening!