March 19, 2020

Mia Donovan on documenting vulnerable subjects

Mia Donovan, an award-winning Montreal-based filmmaker who received a BFA in Photography at Concordia University, recently spoke at Milieux during an event hosted by the Post Image Cluster.

Donovan’s films have been presented worldwide at film festivals, on TV, in theaters and on digital platforms such as Netflix. Her latest film, Dope is Death, tells the story of how the Black Panther Party in the U.S. launched a radical harm reduction program to treat heroin addiction with acupuncture.

During her talk at Milieux, Donovan also spoke about documenting a different subject: sex workers. Her 2011 documentary, Inside Lara Roxx, tells the story of a young woman who contracted the most virulent form of HIV upon entering the sex entertainment industry.

Donovan began documenting sex workers during her BFA and found that still photography presented some serious limitations. In particular, Donovan believes it inhibited full expression of the importance and complexity of sex workers and their stories. This is when she turned to film.

A major question arose during the talk: how did she got access to subjects, often people with mental health and drug problems or working “underground”?

Building a network of people who trust you is essential, Donovan said. Because of the political nature of her films, she wants the context of the time period to be understood by viewers, which she addresses by the inclusion of archival footage for which she seeks permission. 

Donovan enables agency by giving her subjects voice through first-person perspective. Not only does an audience hear people telling their stories, but viewers also gain access to Donovan’s perspective, as her own voice appears in the film behind the camera.


Milieux’s PostImage Cluster  brings together artists and researchers, involved in the creation, production, reflexion around the current and future image-based practices in our contemporary world. Learn more about Post Image on their Facebook page.

Learn more about Mia Donovan’s work at www.miadonovan.com.