Of being an open living book at Hart House
Dec 2012 13

The last time I at University of Toronto’s Hart House  was during the ‘Hot Docs 2012 Forum. While I was just an observer, I was still overwhelmed by the sheer enormity of the occasion. The Forum features two days of public pitches from filmmakers looking to raise money from a table of assorted international commissioning editors, and between this event in the spring and its autumn counterpart – the IDFA Forum in Holland – some of the year’s biggest documentaries get funded.

My recent trip on Nov. 20th was on a different vein altogether. I was part of the ‘Hart House Living Library 2012’ project, where I was borrowed by people from across GTA curious about my story. While I was booked throughout the day, there were several drop-ins and  some very interesting conversations. Some new comers looking for advice, exchange students from US, Egypt and Australia curious about balancing filmmaking and contemporary society. Discourse started from women’s rights in conservative U.S states to Canadian Iranian policy. Lots of talk about my work with  Toronto Community Foundation and War Against Rape.  As a book, my title was Introspection: ‘A Struggle for Evolution’

Azfar Rizvi / Introspection: A Struggle for Evolution
Azfar Rizvi has been praised both as a filmmaker and a social activist and hopes to share a story of survival, perseverance and of chance. His experience of growing up in an impoverished Karachi neighborhood that would lose a dozen teenagers to gang violence and ethnic cleansing a week and subsequently taking charge of his own destiny to become one of the pioneers of media activism in the region.

You are probably prejudiced. But hey, so is everyone — and we might not even know how or why. The only way to find out, according to the Living Library Project, is to “meet our prejudice” face-to-face in the form of borrowing “books” — human books.

Facilitated by the worldwide Living Library Librarians (founded in 2000 by the Stop the Violence movement in Denmark), this project aims to provide an opportunity for students to have a more intimate educational experience. Certainly, University of Toronto is one of the most diverse academic institutions in the country. However, many students face challenges beyond the demands of the academic world. Often, individuals struggle to feel safe and comfortable within an institution and society that may not be as accepting, accessible or accommodating as it may appear or claim to be. It can be difficult to have one’s voice heard–whether in a class of a thousand students, or on a crowded Toronto streetcar.

Sam Saad, Hart House’s Programme Coordinator of Education & Engagement, sees the Living Library as directed at promoting community cohesiveness, and reducing prejudice. “It’s a fantastic initiative; and its really unique in creating a learning experience where both participants and the books can delve deeper into themselves and explore their prejudices,” said Saad. “And its fun!” he added.

With more than twenty “books” to choose from, including former mayor of Toronto and current Chief Commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights Commission Barbara Hall, and adult film producer and pansexual nightclub co-owner Todd Klink, it’s almost impossible to not find someone with an interesting story. And it goes without saying that a person is a better conversational companion than a book. As Saad put it, “People can talk back…a conversation can go anywhere; whereas with a book, you’re stuck on the rails so to speak. Unless it’s a Choose Your Own Adventure.”

While there won’t be any tangible archival component to the project (aside from a short exit survey), the hope is that the effect of the experience on both “book” and “borrower” will be lasting, and will lead to the critical exploration of pre-conceived notions on gender, class, race, and more. Continuing in the Hart House tradition of providing a co-curricular education of sorts, Saad says the event will enable a “horizontal and vertical learning experience,” allowing participants to both broaden their horizons and deepen their understanding.

Whether or not the Living Library amounts to anything more than the sum of its participants seems to be largely up to those who attend. Saad is very positive about the potential: “It can and it will effect change,” he said. “I sincerely hope it will be vibrant learning opportunity that will foster positive change in people’s actions, behaviors, attitudes and perspectives.”

[By Vanessa Purdy for the newspaper . Image and article edited for context and space.]

Came across some interesting international ‘Living Library’ event posters.

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