Mia Donovan

The accidental filmmaker
Mia Donovan wants to tell the stories of the marginalized. One of them has changed how she makes art

Mia Donovan l Photo: ARHphoto Mia Donovan l Photo: ARHphoto

In 2004, freelance photographer Mia Donovan had just finished a documentary portrait series about sex workers in Montreal when the story broke about Lara Roxx. News outlets across North America reported how the 21-year-old Montrealer had gone to L.A. to make a quick fortune in the porn film industry but instead contracted HIV from an infected male actor. Roxx's story soon slipped from the headlines and was forgotten.

Except by Donovan, at the time a recent Concordia BFA graduate.

"I'm really interested in demystifying people who are victims of prejudice, or have been stereotyped or stigmatized in some way based on their past or the way they look or whatever," she says. "With Lara being a porn star, she fell victim to a 'Well, you kinda asked for it' attitude from people."

Donovan followed Roxx for five years. Her portrayal of the shattered young woman's struggle to regroup and chart a positive new course also revealed the cruel reality behind the fantasy of the adult entertainment industry. Inside Lara Roxx premiered in May 2011 and continues to tour international festivals.

In telling Roxx's story, Donovan changed her own.

Donovan had proposed making a documentary in photographs, but something got lost in the translation and Roxx agreed to be profiled -- in a documentary film. Donovan realized that was actually the better medium and thus had a seat-of-the-pants introduction to filmmaking.  Luckily she was working part-time at the Montreal-based film production company EyeSteelFilm. Company co-owner Daniel Cross, who's a professor at Concordia's Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema, gave her a crash course. 

As well as travelling to Europe and the U.S. to various film festivals to network with industry professionals, another fruit of Donovan's labour was entry into the film production concentration of Concordia's MFA in Studio Arts program.

Demystifying and deprogramming

Starting studies again in 2011 after almost a decade away from school was a real challenge, especially as Donovan was trying to attend screenings of her film and holding down part-time work.  But she's seeing the MFA program as the time to explore, to push boundaries and do things she wouldn't ordinarily get a chance to do.

She's also found that having a small group of classmates with whom to hash out ideas has been especially helpful. "My group really gelled. We were able to give and receive constructive feedback to each other about our projects, and it was gratifying to see everyone develop their skills and sharpen their direction over the course of the year," she says.

Still from Inside Lara Roxx courtesy Mia Donovan/EyeSteelFilms. Click to enlarge. Still from Inside Lara Roxx courtesy Mia Donovan/EyeSteelFilms. Click to enlarge.

Donovan's looking forward to seeing her classmates again but she's piled her plate high again: she began shooting a new documentary this summer. It speaks to her long-standing interest in showing that people who aren't seen to fit neatly into so-called acceptable societal norms are human beings deserving of respect. It is also a deeply personal project.
The documentary is about the trials and tribulations of her stepbrother, Matthew. When he and Donovan were teenagers, he joined a satanic cult. His father hired a controversial American "deprogrammer" to reverse the brainwashing the cult was presumed to have done. The deprogramming was a raw experience for the entire family, with Donovan also being stripped of her books and music to prevent her being tempted to follow the same path. Matthew's path afterwards was not much easier.

"We had a bond after the deprogramming," Donovan says. "I'd always wanted to do something about what happened."

She might be inspired by things she learns this academic year to experiment with this documentary. Although, it's clear she already found a winning formula with Inside Lara Roxx: it earned critical acclaim, including a nomination for a Jutra Award for best documentary and the Don Haig Award for outstanding achievement by an emerging documentary filmmaker at Hot Docs, both in 2012.

No pressure. Then again, Mia Donovan seems to thrive under pressure.


As part of the 20th annual Concordia HIV/AIDS Lecture Series, Inside Lara Roxx will be screened on Jan. 31, 2013, at 7 p.m. Mia Donovan and Lara Roxx will also be speaking. 

Story by Liz Crompton. Posted on September 24, 2012

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