A feature documentary about the powerful allure of a universal myth, Ali Weinstein’s ‘Mermaids’ is set to premiere at Hot Docs on April 28.  The film follows five women who actively participate in the growing ‘mermaiding’ subculture, finding empowerment through donning tails and letting their imaginations run free.

Breakthroughs’ Wendy Markson had a chance to chat with first-time feature director Ali, just days before the premiere of her thought-provoking and beautifully choreographed film.


Your first documentary feature, Mermaids will introduce viewers to 'real-life' Mermaids! What exactly are real-life mermaids, and what inspired you to explore that world for your first feature? 

The real-life mermaids in my film are people who deeply identify with the icon of the mermaid, and who even wear tails! Some are professional mermaids – one works at a theme park, one at a bar – and others are mermaid hobbyists who “mermaid” (it’s a verb) with like-minded people. I didn’t know anything about this community before I started researching this film. It all began for me when I learned about Weeki Wachee, this mermaid theme park in Florida that’s been around since 1947, and became fascinated with the women who’ve worked there over the years. I read interviews where the mermaids talked about their jobs as if it was the most important and transformative part of their lives, and it had me wondering what it did psychologically to escape into an alter ego like that, one that has so much associated with it – beauty and power and mystery – and that has fascinated people all over the world and throughout time. That was the catalyst, and from there I started researching mermaids and found this whole world of people who were obsessed with mermaids – mermaid schools, mermaid bars, mermaid performers, mermaid hobbyists – and everything just flowed from there.

You graduated from Ryerson's Documentary Media MA program in 2014, and pretty quickly got to work on developing your first feature. What motivated you to go in that direction rather than starting out with a short film? 

I was lucky enough to pitch this idea to Ron Mann very soon after I graduated, who was excited by the idea and amazed that a similar documentary on mermaids hadn’t already been made. He came on as my executive producer, and was instrumental in getting the ball rolling by helping me go on my first research trip and helping me apply to development funds. The word “mermaid” is so evocative to so many people, and I think that helped the film get support from the beginning. Everyone has their own associations with mermaids, and it gets imaginations going. I wanted to make a large film that explored a universal myth and this niche modern-day interpretation of it, and it seemed like a feature-length piece, so I just went for it from the beginning. It was a long and arduous process, and I learned a lot along the way. Sometimes I look back and think it would have been wiser to start with a short. But then I remember how lucky I am that I had this opportunity to get a feature made right out of film school, and really I don’t think I had a choice. I had to seize it.

Before entering the program at Ryerson, your formal post-secondary education was in English and contemporary critical theory. How do you think your educational background informs your experience as a filmmaker, and what challenges have you faced moving into filmmaking? 

The program I did at Ryerson (MFA in Documentary Media Studies) actually welcomed people with all kinds of backgrounds, so there were students who had geography and political science and philosophy backgrounds rather than film. For me, having done a degree in the humanities is something that’s helped me see the world with a more open mind, and I think that’s definitely informed my approach to filmmaking. 

It was a challenge learning the ropes as a director. Between my undergrad and my MFA (which was more theoretical than practical in nature) I didn’t have a lot of hands-on experience making films, so I often felt I was flying by the seat of my pants on set. But I was lucky to have people working around me (my producer Caitlin Durlak, our DOP Catherine Lutes, our editor Robert Swartz) who were stellar at their jobs and incredibly professional, and to be able to learn from them was amazing. I think much like any job, this is one where you just have to go for it and learn from your mistakes as you go, and be amazed when things miraculously come together against all odds. 

Congratulations on having your first feature selected for HotDocs! Do you have any tips for emerging filmmakers on the submission process for a large festival? 

To learn to have a thick skin! It can mess with your mind, applying to festivals. We spent about six months applying to festivals and being rejected by them, which was disheartening. You start to believe that the film you made is crap. That is, until you get a break at a great festival, and all of a sudden you’re treated like royalty. I’ve heard from other filmmakers that it can be a rollercoaster even once you’ve found that success at a big festival. It’s hard to understand why some films are programmed and some aren’t, and I think you just have to remind yourself not to take it personally. We got a couple of notes from festivals that rejected our film telling us how much they loved it, and how dismayed they were that it wasn’t in their final program. It sort of goes to show that it’s not always about the quality of the film or even how much the programmers connect with it – there’s a lot more at play. 

As a new filmmaker and a female running the show on set, how have you observed or felt the gender bias in the industry? Do you think being part of a female director/producer team on Mermaids has had an impact on your experience as well?

My producer Caitlin Durlak and I met at Ryerson while doing our MFAs, and it was a dream come true getting to make our first feature together straight out of that program. In the case of Mermaids, I think in some ways it was actually an advantage being two young women, simply because of the subject matter of the film. We were also lucky to have a mostly-female dream team who made the film with us – Catherine Lutes and Maya Bankovic are both brilliant cinematographers based here in Toronto; and we worked with a wonderful female sound recordist as well, Trisha Harris. There is definitely a big gender bias in the industry. I’m aware of it when I talk to other filmmakers, and when I listen to how people in the industry discuss female directors and cinematographers and editors. I’m aware of my own internal struggles to find confidence in my voice, and to talk about my ideas as if they are worthwhile, and I think a lot of that has to do with my gender. I see so many men talk about themselves and their films with inherent confidence, which I wish more women could naturally possess. Not to say that it doesn’t exist, but I do think it’s rare. In addition to the more overt boys’ club issues in the industry, I think that deeper, internalized sexism also plays a big role in why there aren’t as many female directors out there. 

Ali Weinstein is a documentary filmmaker from Toronto, Canada. Her first feature film, Mermaids, about a group of women who strongly identify with the powerful female icon of the mermaid, is making its world premiere at Hot Docs 2017. Ali holds an MFA in Documentary Media Studies from Ryerson University, and is an Associate Producer at Primitive Entertainment.









Of Syrian and Palestinian descent, Montreal born Ruba Nadda is known for her strong female lead characters who often find themselves involved in subtle and complicated narratives. She's never shied away from issues of race and diversity, starting with her first feature  ‘Sabah’, in which a Muslim woman falls in love with a Canadian – against her family’s wishes. 

After a stint of award-winning short films, Ruba went on to make several features, including the critically lauded Cairo Time starring Patricia Clarkson, which won Best Canadian Feature Film at Toronto International Film Festival and was Rotten Tomatoes best-reviewed film of 2010. 

1. You come from an interesting background, two countries that weigh very heavily in the world’s political sphere right now.  How does this affect the stories you wish to tell?

It's funny, I've been telling stories about my background (the Middle East) since I was 14, but really only until I made Cairo Time did it get easier. Audiences have a much better understanding now about this culture so there is almost a short hand whereas before, I was always trying to convince people of certain things. My culture is also so ingrained in me, I'm always drawn to Arab characters and Arab settings. But also, because I've lived in the Middle East from when I was really young, I have a great understanding oh how people live in other parts of the world, and that empathy really helps me as a director.

2. Let’s talk about female sexuality.   There is a running theme of control/loss of control in your films. You have been quoted as saying ‘I don’t do sex, I do restraint’.  What drives you to lean towards restrained sexuality?   

 I think for me the restraint is a lot more challenging to show then just straightforward sex. Restraint in the world we live in does no exist so much anymore. Romance and love - it's harder to find. People are busier and we live in a world of intense, immediate gratification. I have always been drawn to love stories - and the classic ones had natural restraint - for 2 lovers to get together in the olden days, there was class, cultural divide, religion -- very difficult for 2 people to actually fall in love whereas now, what keeps 2 people apart is not very much. And so for me as a storyteller, I like the restraint because it's much more challenging to tell this kind of story. Also, give the audience what they want but not at all costs. In my movies, female sexuality is there but again, it's shown and told with a female hand and a female perspective.

3. What has your experience been like as a woman in a position of power on set?  Are there any obstacles that you have consistently come up against in your career?

This is interesting. I've had fantastic experiences (my experience in Cairo with the crew was magical) and sometimes, I have had great, great obstacles. I try really hard not to let it bother me because the reality is I can't change my sex and I am very protective of my voice. My voice as a writer and director can't lie and it can't get jaded, and so I can't - I refuse to let it bug me. I'm really good at what I do and I know what I want, and I get what I want and at the end of the day if you have a problem with me because I am a woman, that's your goddamn problem not mine. Of course I've had some difficulty with this - and encountered a ton of sexism, but I try to not take it personally. The truth of the matter is, my job as a director is not a popularity contest. You really just have to keep pushing through. I think of it like boxing. You go down, you get back up again. I try not to take it personally. 

4. You had quite a prolific early career with your short films.  Is there anywhere to view them?

My short films are still my little babies. I loved them. And I loved making them. You can find most of them on the extras feature in my movies (Cairo time, Sabah, October Gale). 

5. Your films traverse the spectrum of what it’s like to be a woman.  Do you feel you have an obligation to portray women in a certain light? 

It's funny, I always see my hero as a woman - I guess because I am a woman and that's my voice and how I see the stories and how I tell them is also very female (in my opinion). I have a degree in English Literature so I try not to be too critical of what or how I approach telling a story. For me, it always starts with a woman, an ordinary woman caught up in an extraordinary predicament, always - and I go from there. There is something very universal about that. 

Ruba Nadda is currently developing a drama at HBO starring Patricia Clarkson.  


February is upon us and our submission portal is officially OPEN.  This year we are excited to open our festival up to any emerging female director (no feature films on your resume yet!), with a special ‘New Generation’ category for women 18-30.  The programming team is looking forward to seeing what you are all up to!

You can submit via our website or directly through our Film Freeway page.

We are also stoked to announce our new partnership with Red Square Motion, who are coming aboard to offer even more post-production goodies for our 2017 grant winner!   Submissions for our post-production grant close March 15th.  Submithere and you may be eligible to win $2500 in cash and services!

Breakthroughs is about supporting you and everything that you do.  Keep working hard, sisters, and we promise to show up for you.

And now… our February filmmaker spotlight with recent Canadian Screen Award nominee and Breakthroughs alum, Emilie Mannering!

An audience favourite, Emilie Mannering’s ‘Star’ is an innovative and deeply disturbing portrait of male aggression set in Montreal. The film’s intricate depiction of emotionally-charged youth has had the chance to wow audiences around the world.  ‘Star’ is Mannering’s cinematic debut – which makes this powerful film all the more stunning.

Check out the trailer!

Below, Breakthroughs’ newest board member Shonna Foster chats with Emilie about her debut film and where she sees herself fitting in the Canadian film industry.

1. What was the inspiration behind creating "Star" and why did you choose to tell this story now?

I wanted to write something about a young teenager who was going from boyhood to manhood and how he tries to live with his male identity and so I created the main character Tito. It was me really thinking about the model we propose to those young boys, with their cell phones and this kind of super masculine identity. They often believe that being powerful means being masculine and being tough and how that all factors into how they want people to see them with their cell phone. Sometimes it can be super creative, like at the beginning of the film where they are photo bombing strangers and they use their cell phone as a very creative tool. But sometimes as in the case of Tito – it plays against him because he wants to be in control and be seen as in control.

2. Star seems consciously aimed at a specific generation, can you speak on the feedback you've received from youth and adolescents who have seen the film?

I worked with the boys for four months rehearsing. I put a lot of energy into trying to create something that felt authentic within the limit of cinema. It’s not a documentary and so I was really nervous about this feedback and the feedback of other teenagers. I remember when I was younger, I hated when I would see “teenage movies” that think they are showing me. I would think “I don’t talk like that”, “I don’t act like that”.

Most of the feedback and the kids in the movie, they really love it. They think it is hilarious and they loved to watch themselves. They are very proud of the work they have accomplished. This crowd, they live with the movie. They react. Some kids come to see me after and it’s the first time that they feel the way the characters do. It seems real. They see themselves.

3. Star depicts a strong diverse cast. In the Canadian film and television industry, how do you believe writers, producers and directors can work to ensure our screens are inclusive and representative of all people?

I feel like what is most important, especially in this time after Trump, after the [Quebec City mosque] shooting we just had a couple days ago, the alt-right rising and everything – diversity is so important in front of the camera but more importantly behind the camera.

We kind of started creating more initiatives to have more women as directors and we should create those same initiatives to have more diversity in key roles. That also means more diversity on judging panels.  The people that make the decisions have to have an open mind and also be diverse and come from different backgrounds.

In terms of color, in terms of sexual orientation – because if it’s always the same kinds of people who make the decisions – if it’s always white men making the decisions on what is important or interesting to see or to watch or to read – the stories will continue to be the same.

4. Why do you think there are few Canadian female filmmakers and what advice do you have for those that are emerging?

 I know that in university in Quebec, fifty percent of the students are girls in cinema and I know that in accessible movements like Kino, there are also fifty percent female filmmakers. When it’s accessible the girls are there. So I don’t understand why they are not there when it is higher up the ladder. It is not a lack of interest because they are there in school, they are there when it’s accessible.  [If I were to] give advice to female filmmakers, I guess my answer would be:

1- Don't wait for recognition. 

2- Do your things, stay focused, trust your vision.

3- Don't be afraid to speak your mind, even if your voice shakes (I know it's a quote from Maggie Khun, but it is so true)

This whole industry is a bit more conservative than they like to believe. It's good to shake them sometimes.

Having said all that, it's still an uphill battle with a lot of men up there at the top. One a positive side, I feel a real and honest solidarity between women in the industry. We must keep fighting forward and making really the best films possible. And stay strong together

5. There has been an ongoing rhetoric that audiences lack an appetite for Canadian film which is why it has struggled to succeed compared to our neighbours to the south. How do you see this rhetoric changing in the next 5 years?

 In the next 5 years? I really hope so. I feel like the structure that is there right now is very rigid and maybe if we put more initiative like having more diversity maybe this will help.

Cinema is a very expensive medium. Like, Telefilm and [Quebec government agency] SODEC – they put so much money into film but nothing is there to promote this to the public. Not in our culture, our education – we don’t put value on Canadian films. I feel like distribution also has its responsibilities. I’m not sure that Canadian films are accessible everywhere in Canada. I feel like the problem is big. Which is why I’m like “five years?” (laughs). I just feel like we should change the whole structure and really try to put value on our culture and to make it accessible to people and teach it in schools, especially with how much money we put into it in the end. We have to change the structure and diversify the medium.

Produced by Colonelle Films, Emilie Mannering’s “Star” is nominated for Best Live Action Short Drama at the 2017 Canadian Screen Awards (Canada’s version of the Oscars), taking place in Toronto in March. Emilie is currently directing the feminist web-serie Les Brutes,  in addition to developing her next cinematographic projects.


Hi BFFers,

We’re gearing up for our annual fundraiser on December 8th so we thought, what better time to start a monthly newsletter?  You’ll get this baby delivered to your inbox every month and it will be packed full of filmmaker interviews, interesting film festivals to check out, and of course Breakthroughs submission info and upcoming deadlines.

Each month we are going to do a Filmmaker Spotlight on a woman who is challenging the world of cinema.  For our inaugural spotlight, we are chatting with award-winning writer/director Ashley McKenzie, whose feature-length directorial debut, Werewolf, premiered at TIFF 2016 to critical acclaim.

Hailing from Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, McKenzie is a three-time recipient of The National Screen Institute’s Fearless Female Award.  She has had great success with her short films that showcase a ‘slice of life’ look at her local communities in a way that blends formalist filmmaking with dense, gritty realism.

An alumni of the TIFF Talent Lab and co-owner of production company Grassfire Films, Ashley is quickly becoming known for her intimate narratives, restrained visual style, and coaxing fantastic performances out of her actors.

In short, she’s an inspiration to filmmakers everywhere.

5 Questions for Ashley McKenzie

1. How does gender play into your creative process? 

My creative process is an intuitive one where I allow my instincts and inspirations to guide me as freely and openly as possible, without judgment. It’s important for that to be an unmitigated process, so I’m not consciously considering gender influences or implications. At some point, I do check in to make sure I’m not reproducing negative gender or hetero-normative stereotypes in my work.

2. Can you name three female creative people who inspire you?

Miranda July, Chantal Akerman, Kelly Reichardt, Isabelle Huppert, Lucrecia Martel, Lydia Davis, Grace Paley, and Rebecca Solnit are all bold and uncompromising creative voices that inspire me.

3. Will you continue to tell stories set in Eastern Canada? What draws you to these narratives?

I have two longer format projects I’m working on at the moment that are rooted in the place that I live. I feel lucky to have a sense of place in my work…to have that specificity to drawn on. I tap into those textures because I’ve been surrounded by them my entire life. It’s what’s around me and what’s inside me– so that comes out in my work very naturally.

4. Can you comment on the current challenges female filmmakers face in Canada?

There is no shortage of great female filmmakers in Canada right now: Jacquelyn Mills, Sophie Goyette, Danis Goulet, Sofia Bohdanowicz, Emily Kai Bock, Chelsea McMullan, Nadia Litz, to name a few. But there are also systemic problems permeating the filmmaking ecosystem in this country that [don’t] afford female filmmakers the same freedom, trust, recognition, and opportunities for growth as male filmmakers. 

5. What advice would you give to young, female filmmakers who are just starting out?

Take risks. There are so many ways in which to make a film. Find the way that’s right for you. Cultivate your unique voice and inner compass. Let that imbue your filmmaking and also be your guide whenever people cast doubt on your decisions. 

Ashley McKenzie is an emerging writer-director from Cape Breton Island, Canada. Her debut feature film Werewolf premiered at TIFF this fall, won the Grand Prix Focus QC/Canada at Festival du nouveau cinema, and the Best Director, Actor, and Actress awards at the Atlantic Film Festival. Ashley’s short film work includes 4 Quarters (’15), Stray (‘13), When You Sleep (‘12), and Rhonda’s Party (10). She is an alumnus of the TIFF Talent Lab and co-owner of grassfire films with Nelson MacDonald.