Making its Australian premiere July 10th at the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival, “FIXED!” directed by Cat Mills and produced by Joella Cabalu is a 14 minute window into the activities of Repair Café Toronto, a volunteer group part of the global Repair Café movement, which hosts free “fixing” events around the city with a goal of reducing landfill waste by getting people to see their broken household goods as repairable not merely replaceable.
The film introduces viewers to a diverse group of volunteers and individuals brought together by the belief that damaged or broken things still hold value and should try to be fixed before they are simply thrown away or discarded as useless.
While the interactions captured on-screen are smile-inducing and create a warm and inviting sense of what Toronto Repair Café events are like, what the film ultimately triumphs at is showing how important these one-on-one human encounters are to creating a society where citizens have a strong sense of community and self-worth, and where just as broken objects aren’t discarded, neither are not-so-common skill sets or people.
Ahead of the film’s screening in Melbourne, Documentary Drive recently interviewed Cat Mills about her motivation behind the film, the positive social influences and environmental benefits Repair Cafés can have, and what she hopes audiences think about and do after watching her film.
Documentary Drive: How did you first discover Repair Café Toronto and was there a specific moment when you knew you wanted to make a film about it?
Mills: I first learned about the Repair Café movement when I was in Vancouver after just having returned from living in Europe for a few years. I was at a crossroad and was deciding where I should live next and was eyeing up Toronto. I was researching the city and investigating what sort of things people do there. I should also mention that I have a web-series about weird world festivals (Wicked & Weird Around the World) so I’m drawn to colourful characters and things that are off the beaten path, to say the least.
A friend had mentioned a movement called the Sharing Economy, which is focused around the idea of owning less and sharing resources, which I loved.
My mother used to be an environmental columnist when I was a kid, so conservation and sustainability have always been something I’ve gravitated towards.
As I was digging into the sharing economy I found groups like the Tool Library (where you can borrow tools) and Second Harvest (which rescues good food from disposal and donates it to people in need) and, of course, the Repair Café.
I loved the Repair Café for 3 specific reasons:
- It challenges our throwaway culture
- It teaches people how to do new things
- It builds community
I also loved the concept because it was a simple way for ordinary people to get involved in sustainability and to help keep resources out of the landfill. It is a local, solution-based initiative, and it is also free. Learning how to fix things is incredibly empowering, and it is lovely to see people bring cherished objects back to life – rather than throw them out and buy a new one.
I decided that I wanted to make a film about the Repair Café, and so I moved to Toronto and started attending events.
Documentary Drive: Was there anything you learned while making the film about your community or the Repair Café movement that surprised you?
Mills: What surprised me was how fascinating I found the actual repair of items to be. A lot of the film focuses on the repair aspect, possibly because it mesmerizes me. The volunteers are knowledgeable and friendly and have taught me a great deal about how circuits work and how certain things were built in the ’70s vs today. I’ve brought so many things into the Repair Café since I’ve been in Toronto – things that I thought were beyond repair, and they have somehow managed to patch them up. There is a lot of creativity involved and the volunteers enjoy the challenge of it.
I was also surprised by how challenging I found the concept of “fixing things” to be. We are so caught up in the idea of throwing things out and replacing them; we get excited by the idea of buying new things. When a blender dies after 3 years we just shrug and accept it, but devices used to last so much longer.
I still find myself struggling to shake off the complacency of consumerism and challenging myself to fix my own broken items.
It is changing, and I’m enjoying the process of keeping my items alive far more than I enjoy buying new things.
Documentary Drive: One thing I loved about “FIXED!” is seeing such a diverse group of people brought together by the admirable notion that broken things can be fixed. While Repair Cafés are great for the environment, they also seem to offer a pretty inspiring message for society too. How do you view such meetups’ ability to effect positive personal and social change in the lives of others?
Mills: It really is fascinating to see who walks in the door at the Repair Café and why they are there. A lot of people are drawn to it for practical reasons; the service is free and their budgets are tight. Others come in to reduce their eco-footprint – the sustainability is key for them. You’ll also see Makers come in as they love creating and figuring out all things technical.
A lot of the volunteers that I have met got involved with the Repair Café when they came in to get something fixed. They might not have the skill set to fix a toaster, but they love to sew and so come back and help others out.
I’ve also noticed that there are more young people getting involved. A lot of the folks who volunteer at Repair Cafés are older and/or retired – largely due to the fact that older generations grew up learning how to repair things. Our generation might know how to program a video game, we’re not quite so savvy with rewiring a lamp or sewing up a jacket pocket.
It’s pretty cool that this diverse group of people are brought together by the simple act of repair. It is a safe place to meet new people and start conversations – usually by asking what someone has brought in. I’ve made some good friends at the café in Toronto.
The sense of community that comes out of the Repair Café is by far my favourite thing about it.
Documentary Drive: Do you have any advice for people interested in organizing Repair Café events in their own cities?
Mills: Do it!
It would be so exciting to see every town have its own Repair Café. If you are interested in starting your own, reach out to other more established Repair Cafés and get some advice. A lot of the cafés are held at libraries or community centres that are central and accessible, having coffee and snacks on hand makes the experience more enjoyable for everyone, and being organized will make matters much simpler and prevent confusion.
Documentary Drive: What for you has been the most fun or rewarding aspect of making this film?
Mills: The most rewarding aspect of attending the Repair Cafés have been learning new things and challenging myself to fix things – which I am getting much better at! I think a lot of people in my generation are scared of failure, so they don’t try new things – including repairing items. Since I started going to the Repair Café I have become a better sewer and have fixed a few items of furniture. I’ve also taken an interest in upcycling things like rusted old hanging lanterns (painting them up and putting plants in them). It feels great to learn new things and have hobbies that don’t involve sitting in front of a computer screen.
The most rewarding aspect of making “FIXED!” has been sharing the story of the Repair Café and seeing how excited people get about the concept. It’s been great filming these stories and seeing how happy people are to get to keep their items and knowing that it is one more thing that won’t end up in a landfill.
Documentary Drive: Think fast! The quirkiest thing I’ve ever seen fixed is. . .
Mills: The two quirkiest items I’ve seen fixed actually made it into the film; the vibrating hairbrush and the singing robotic turtle!
I’ve seen some beautiful old lamps, antique photograph albums, and old Japanese radios, but the weird items will always catch my attention, and who can resist a robot turtle and vibrating hairbrush??
Documentary Drive: Lastly, is there one idea or question you hope the film inspires audiences to reflect on?
Mills: I hope the film makes people think about why they don’t try to fix broken items and I hope it makes people more connected to the objects that they have in their lives – that it inspires them to take care of them and do all they can to ensure they last as long as possible, and then to ensure that they are recycled or that parts are reused. A staggering amount of our toxic waste in this world is e-waste; it’s electronics. Textiles and fast fashion are also a huge eco-nightmare.
I’d like the film to inspire people to buy higher quality items that can be repaired and to care for those items so that they last even longer. We consume things at such an excessive rate, and I don’t think it makes us any happier.
Ultimately, we want the film to inspire people to start their own Repair Cafés and join the movement. I also want people to find ways to get involved in their communities, especially since we spend so much time in front of a screen and less time face-to-face. We are humans, and we need other humans. This is a great way to connect with your fellow man, and to finally meet your next door neighbour!
“FIXED!” screens July 10th at the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival during International Perspectives Short Documentary – Session 1. Tickets are available through Moshtix. For the latest on the film, check out “FIXED!” on Facebook.