October Filmmaker Spotlight - Molly McGlynn

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There is a moment that I can remember where I sat, slumped in front of my laptop screen cursing the day I chose to become a filmmaker.  The frustration of festival rejection letters, the continuous search for funding, heck even the accelerated flurry of social events that seem to be a prerequisite, had me feeling blue and uninspired.

It was on this day that a TIFF.net article entitled ‘Rejection is How You Become a Filmmaker’ was passed on to me by another aspiring screenwriter. It was written by Molly McGlynn, a first-time feature director and recent TIFF acceptee.  Molly’s irreverent, very funny thoughts on what it takes to become a director and how truly awful rejection actually is, was exactly what I needed.  

Flagrantly open about the difficulties of making it in this industry, Molly championed hard work and perseverance. It made me feel less alone.  It made me feel brave.  But most of all, it pushed me to keep going.  Which is something every creative person needs once in a while.

An alumni of CFC’s Writer’s Lab, a 2015 Samsung TIFF Emerging Director nominee and an NSI Drama Prize Winner, Molly is known for intimate narratives that are often based on her own personal experiences.  

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Her feature directorial debut ‘Mary Goes Round’ was abuzz this past year at TIFF and for good reason; Variety called it ‘a canny mixture of rueful humor, warmth and realism’.  

She has stated that she wants her films to be ‘scorchingly true’, which seems all the more important because all of her central characters are women.  Kudos to writer/director Molly, whose films break the stereotypes and present women as the uniquely flawed and complex humans we actually are.

Below, five questions with Molly McGlynn.

1.  Your films seem to all touch upon deeply personal narratives from your own life. I'm curious about how you shed your vulnerability to put yourself out there so openly --- and why you choose to create public stories about very private issues?

I think I tend to make films requiring a degree of vulnerability because I am an emotional masochist, I guess. My films aren't autobiographies or dear diary entries, but there is a lot of deep and painful emotional truths that I'm trying to grapple with that come out in my work. I am also drawn to film as a medium for connectivity and how it's a powerful tool for visual beauty, but also a way to form connections with strangers. I am always so moved when a stranger responds to something in my film. It makes me realize how connected we are in our pain and joys and also that we aren't all unicorns in how unique our life experiences are.

2.  I read somewhere that you don't consciously write humorous stories, but that the humour just reveals itself as you craft the narrative.  What is it about emotional pain that you think creates such funny moments?

I think I have coped with the darkest moments in my life with a sense of humour. My family is a large Irish Catholic one, which means there's an appreciation for the joy and humour alongside the darkness we all experience. Have you been to an Irish wake? Great party. It will probably be the best party I throw for my loved ones. See? Here I am making uncomfortable jokes about my own death because that's how I deal with the idea that we are all heading to the same, unknown place. I guess I should clarify that I don't find people's emotional pain funny, but there's a way to make them bearable and that is through finding humour or levity. Unrelenting earnestness makes me uncomfortable and I find it boring. 

3. You've written and spoken often about perseverance and the filmmaker's journey.  Do you feel the resilience it takes to make it in the industry needs to be amplified when you are a woman? What challenges have you faced as a female filmmaker?

I had a conversation with a fellow filmmaker friend last night about this very thing. It's kind of a chicken or an egg scenario; are we filmmakers because we are determined, resilient people or are we resilient and determined because of the inherent experiences of being filmmakers? I'm not really sure, but it's probably a bit of both. I think it can be challenging as filmmaker to find your voice at the best of times, but being a woman means you're trying to find your voice while making sure you're being taken seriously, not put into some "female filmmaker" ghetto you don't want to be in, that you don't have too much makeup on, that you're shirt is baggy enough so no one needs to look at your body at work, that you have to overhear some grips talking about what actress they would sleep with, and on and on and on. I will say, though, that I have worked with some really extraordinary men in this industry who have done nothing put give me respect and space to do my best work. 

4. Mary Goes Round is your first feature. What difficulties come with transitioning from shorts to features and what advice would you give anyone undertaking their first feature?

My best advice to filmmakers, specifically writer/directors, is that just because you wrote a scene does not mean you know how to best direct it. You have to apply the same script analysis and prep to direct what you've written. Also, what you wrote on the page may be so crystal clear to you, but when it's time to get your scene on it's feet, it gets more challenging or an actor has a question about intention that changes everything. I guess what I'm saying is don't get lazy with your own scripts when it comes time to direct them. My more general advice is that you're never going to think your ready, but do it anyway. By "do it" I mean prep the shit out of it, get a lot of sleep, don't drink too much and make sure your shoes are comfortable. Shorts are really good practice, but a feature is a whole different beast. You're never gonna be ready, but say fuck it and shoot it anyway!

5. There's much discussion amongst our peers about how different directors are on set.  What kind of atmosphere do you like to create on set and how do you achieve it?

Yes, the strange thing about directing is that you never really see other people doing it, so there's always some insecurity or questioning if you are doing it right. As I get more confident, I really just try to not worry about how other people direct. Whatever they do, probably works for them but it may not for me. I try to be guided by a sense of flexible inflexibility; there are certain things I will fight and push for and will be non-negotiables, but at the same time I'm prepared to change everything at the 11th hour. Makes no sense on paper, right? But its magic I tell ya. I don't think you need to lead by terror or fear, but I do think you need to make decisions quickly (even if you doubt yourself after you say something, just keep it to yourself) and be someone who people will respect and listen to. That looks like different things to different people. I try to be personable, respectful and make jokes so people have fun. We spend so much of our lives in this industry with our co-workers, you may as well as the AD about how his son's birthday was, you know? 

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Molly McGlynn is a Canadian writer and director. She has won awards and exhibited internationally for her short films  “I Am Not a Weird Person,” “Shoes,” and “3-Way (Not Calling).” “Mary Goes Round” is her first feature film, which premiered at TIFF 2017.

Watch Molly's short film '3-Way (Not Calling)' here.

August Filmmaker Spotlight - Vivek Shraya

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I was introduced to Vivek Shraya’s work at my local library, the nerd-chic librarian gushing so hard over the trans artist’s work and style that I felt compelled to check her out.  I picked up her latest novel, She Of The Mountains, idly wondering if it would live up to the hype.  I had been going through a ‘break’ with my partner of almost three years and had been pleading with the heavens for some guidance, or a sign of what lay ahead.  My salvation came in the form of Shraya’s alt-lit hybrid narrative, which gave me more than guidance, it gave me hope and reflection on the path that love winds around our collective hearts.  After carousing her website, I found that not only is she an accomplished, four-time Lambda literary award finalist, she is also a powerful filmmaker —one that is heralded as ‘honest’ and ‘courageous’ by CBC Arts. Creating intimate short narratives on everything from suicide, identity politics and her relationship with her mother, Shraya’s films resonate a stark oneness with all that is, drawing you in with a minimalistic informality that seems unique to her work.

Needless to say, I became smitten.  When you meet Shraya, she has this humble and calm presence — perhaps of someone who has ridden the wave of personal and political identity only to come to an expansive understanding that who we are is always changing.  She radiates beauty in a way that is rarely seen.  

I’m honoured to present to you, five questions with the prolific and powerful multi-talented human being who is (as we speak) burgeoning on true greatness.

1.  How did you come to film as an art-form? I’d love to hear the process behind it, and the motivation.

My artistic exploration started with music but after seven years of not being able to advance my music career, I felt heartbroken and needed to take a break from the medium. I still had the desire to be creative and so I turned to prose. Eventually, I self-published my first book, God Loves Hair, and it was this project that made me re-imagine myself as not just a musician but potentially as an artist. I was excited to think about what else I might want to say that I couldn't say in music, and what mediums might allow me to make these statements. Shortly after the release of God Loves Hair, I turned to film and made Seeking Single White Male.

2. Your work is always intensely personal. Do you or have you ever had reservations about putting yourself out there so honestly?

My reservations are less tied to the honesty of my work and more related to my concerns about how the work might be (or not be) received, critiqued and misinterpreted. I feel committed to following an idea to completion, regardless of any reservation, not only as a form of catharsis and larger agenda of awareness or representation, but also because I believe ideas are gifts.

3. Where do you come up with the ideas for films?

With any project, I tend to focus less on the medium and more on the idea itself, trying to determine what medium will best serve the intention and realization of an idea. With my newest short film, I want to kill myself, I had thought the project would be a photo essay, because I felt that text and photo would best facilitate the dissemination of the message. But scrolling through the photos, I began saying some of the text aloud, and seeing this play out on my laptop, I thought no, this is a short film.

4. Why the short genre?  Any plans to make a feature?

Not unlike poetry (as compared to a novel), with a short there is so much more room to explore beyond convention or beyond a linear narrative. I also have a short attention span, so the short allows me to stay engaged and feel somewhat confident that the audience will be as well.

I would love to make a feature but I don't yet have a compelling enough idea. Finances are also a big consideration in regards to what I am able to produce, especially given that I have had to self fund all of my shorts.

5. Do you feel that your art and public persona has allowed you to fully explore your identity in a way that you may not have done otherwise?

Art has definitely been a vehicle not only for exploration, but for restoration and connection. As much as being an artist, especially a racialized, trans and queer artist, is challenging, I recognize it’s a privilege to be an artist and I genuinely love my job.

A four-time Lambda Literary Award finalist, Vivek Shraya is a Toronto-based artist whose body of work includes several albums, films, and books. Her first book of poetry, ‘even this page is white’, won a 2017 Publisher Triangle Award and was longlisted for CBC’s Canada Reads. Her debut novel, ‘She of the Mountain’s, was named one of The Globe and Mail’s Best Books, and her first children’s picture book, ‘The Boy & the Bindi’, was featured on the National Post Bestseller List. She is one half of the music duo Too Attached and the founder of the publishing imprint VS. Books.

You can view Vivek’s short films online at http://www.vivekshraya.com/films

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July Filmmaker Spotlight - Nadia Litz

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Canadian actress-turned-director Nadia Litz has a clear passion for films and a sly sense of humor.  Her work tends towards a dark surrealism but always with a sincere depth of being.  Inspired by filmmakers such as Jim Jarmusch, David Lynch and Eric Rohmer, Litz is becoming known for her focus on female protagonists and her innovative casting – such as hiring Pamela Anderson to play the hardboiled model ‘Signe’ in her warmly received feature film ‘The People Garden’.  Haunting and stylish, yet rooted in the reality of emotion, Litz’s films have gained her international attention and homegrown love.

Former Breakthroughs chair and award-winning co-writer/producer/star of ‘Great Great Great’, Sarah Kolasky, chatted with Litz about her dream project, who inspires her and the due process of becoming one of Canada’s top female directors.

SK: What project(s) are you currently working on?

NL: Perhaps the only sage advice I have for emerging filmmakers is to not talk about what you are working on.  So I don't. 

SK: If you had unlimited budget, access to cast etc…what would be your dream project to direct?

NL: I would make a magical biopic on Bjork.  Spike Jonze would produce it and Stephanie Sokolinski aka Soko the Cat would play Bjork and Matthew Rhys would play Matthew Barney and Louis CK would play Lars Von Trier...  Not bad right?

SK:  I find that being a creative, self-employed person comes with a lot of challenges. When working with self-imposed deadlines, how do you motivate yourself and organize your day in order to meet those goals?

NL: My discipline comes from being obsessed with what I do.  So, I don't worry the work is not going to get done.  If I wake up and don't feel like going to my computer and writing and instead I want to go to an art gallery, I go.  I spend a lot of my time igniting the inspiration and then the work part comes quite natural.  

SK:  Who are your inspirations? Cinematic or otherwise.

NL: I like really successful females, and the reason is because the visibility that comes with success is powerful and it changes our industry and that's inspiring to me.  Filmmaking is not a male birthright despite what the canon and Criterion Collection catalogue seem to want to normalize.  So I love Kathryn Bigelow, Sofia Coppola, Lena Duhnam and Jenni Konner, Ava Duvernay, Sarah Treem, Reese Witherspoon...  But yeah I get inspired by a lot of different people.  People that I know a bit from around Toronto like filmmaker Patricia Rozema or restaurateur Jen Agg, the designers of Horses Atelier or Aurora James who created Brother Vellies.  I just read a great book on choreographer Twyla Tharp. Basically I just get inspired by people who have found a way to be themselves and create things.

SK: When developing a project, there's a lot of emphasis on "knowing your audience" before the script is even written. Do you create work with an audience in mind, or trust that it will find one later?

NL: I do think it is important to know your audience, actually.  The People Garden was a niche story but I also believed it could be impactful in certain ways - including financial - if you could reach that niche audience.   Now, knowing your audience and having a distributor agree with you on what that audience is, is an entirely differently beast!  But yeah I think having an awareness of who you want to reach is an exciting part of the creative process not a restrictive one.

SK: As an actor, what is a crucial piece of advice for new directors working with actors?

NL: Cast the person who has the most interesting life outside of acting and then ask them to contribute their thoughts on all aspects of their character.  Adjust accordingly. 

Nadia Litz is an alumni of York University Cinema, Canadian Film Center, Berlinale Talents, TIFF Talent Lab, and TIFF Screenwriting Lab.  Her short film How To Rid Your Lover Of A Negative Emotion Caused By You! played over twenty festivals internationally including TIFF, Cannes Short Film Corner, MIFF, Brooklyn Film Festival and Austin’s Fantastic Fest where it won best short.  It was included on Dave Eggers' curated quarterly Wholphin alongside works of Jay Duplass and Sean Durkin.  Her script for her feature The People Garden won the audience award at TIFF’s inaugural Screenwriter Lab.  It was shot in Canada and Japan and premiered at BAFICI in Buenos Aires and was recently awarded the Grand Jury prize for cinematography at Rhode Island Film Festival.  In 2017 Litz was named part of the New Wave of Canadian Cinema by VICE, NOW Toronto and the Globe and Mail.  Her feature Hotel Congress which was made for $1000 can currently be seen on Apple TV/Roku in the U.S.

 

May Filmmaker Spotlight - Erika Lust

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Erika Lust is a Stockholm-born, Barcelona-based filmmaker who writes and directs what she calls ‘ethical porn’.  When you watch her films, you encounter people who are beautiful, simply because they are real people having real sex with one another.  It’s explicit as they come, but also has a wicked sense of humour. Cinematically, Lust knows what she is doing.  Many of her films have actors in a unique setting and bathed in gorgeous light.  There are films for every kink and taste, but always with a view to equality, natural bodies and diverse faces.  Gone are the days of fake orgasms and plastic surgery — Erika Lust is creating a porn revolution where the people you are watching look just like you. It’s sexy and subversive in a whole new way.

After watching many of her films for *ahem* research,  we asked ethical pornographer, Erika Lust five questions.

1.   After making three feature films, you seem to be excited by the short film genre. Can you talk a little bit about why you continue to produce short films and how the short genre is beneficial to porn?

XConfessions is my crowd sourced project where members of the public can submit their fantasies anonymously and I turn two of them into short films every month! It's a lot of work, but I love this format. First and foremost, it means that the subjects, themes and stories in my films are all real people's fantasies, exploring real desires. This is super important to me, moving away from the mainstream, unrealistic narratives (or complete lack of narrative) and creating something that people can really engage with. They see themselves in these films, in the stories. They see their own fantasies, or maybe something they didn't know they liked yet! It also gives me a lot of opportunity to explore creatively. Making shorter films means I can make more of them! In order to offer an alternative to the mainstream, I need to give my fans options and different perspectives, so that they can explore their sexuality, without having to encounter bad, degrading porn.

2.  There’s been a lot of debate online about what makes ethical porn.  In your own view, is your porn feminist?  And what do you think makes it ethical?

When I talk about ethical porn or ethical adult film, I'm talking about the alternatives to mainstream porn, both in what I produce and how I produce it. For me, good adult film is about showing good, real sex, real people and real desires. I want the people who see my films to engage with them; to feel a real sense of pleasure and in order to do that it has to start at the very beginning of a production. Performers and their well-being and safety is the most important thing for me. We always make sure our performers are sex-positive and one hundred percent happy and enthusiastic to be involved. We really get to know them before we start filming. 

My production crew and office team are predominantly female, which means that the whole process happens from the female point of view, allowing women's desires to be portrayed as well as men's. It's so important to offer creative women the opportunity to excel in their fields, especially when the result of doing this will always mean films that are diverse, equal and a representation of real sex. In these ways, my films are feminist. But I think a lot of people hear the word feminist and think of romantic, candle lit scenes of a heterosexual couple on the sofa or cute lesbian scenes with a lot of petting. 

It is also about the message I am sending out. I want to send out a positive message about sexuality and the culture of consent. You won't find delusions of male power that are degrading to women, for example, representation of incest or simulations of [pederasty]  on XConfessions. Sometimes in the industry people consent to partaking in films things that are meant to look non-consensual – and I definitely don't want to portray anything like that.  My films represent a huge variety of sexual desires, including gay and lesbian, BDSM, group sex, rough sex and everything in between. The difference is how I frame it and that the performers receive the same amount of pleasure. They're never degraded or asked to do anything they don't want to. In front of the camera, this creates adult films exploring sex, sexuality and fantasies, in a way that's respectful and relatable.

3. Your work has been screened at the Chicago Film Festival and Raindance in London.  What makes your films so accessible to not only programmers, but to the mainstream?

I think a lot of people, even if they’re not subscribers to my sites, appreciate my films because, firstly, they're aesthetically pleasing with high production values, and secondly, because it's kind of a novelty. A lot of people didn't know adult film like this could exist! Suddenly they find my films and see something that they can relate to, laugh at, engage with and that makes them feel something positive. I've spoken to a lot of people who said they enjoyed my films regardless of the sex.

4. Was there ever a time in your life where you were hindered by cultural taboos?  What inspires you about them now?

Well, as a woman, especially as a woman who produces adult film, there has never been a time when cultural taboos haven't caused some kind of hindrance! But I think I do what I do because I want to change this. For example, I recently directed a film called Feminist & Submissive which includes a round table discussion with me and three other women, including adult performers, about whether you can still be a "feminist" and indulge the submissive part of your sexuality. This sparked a lot of discussion, mostly positive, but there were some comments which I think still came from a negative place and put sex, sex work and BDSM in a degrading light. Unfortunately, things like this always come from a place of ignorance. They think that being submissive to a man or a lover is being weak and not in control. Actually, BDSM practice is entirely about all parties having control. It involves trust and communication, which in the end leads to a very healthy attitude towards sex! Either way, it's important to have these conversations, so I'm glad I can encourage this. 

5. How do you think adult films can affect culture and the feminist movement?

The adult film industry has been dominated by men and the male gaze, well, forever! Which means that only the male point of view and male pleasure were ever considered important. This perpetuates the idea that women aren't in control of their sexuality, that they don't have a say in the matter. When all the porn you see is of women being degraded, humiliated and used as toys for sex, it doesn't have a very positive effect on your ideas of what female sexuality is . Even now, sex positive women still feel confused about how they should behave sexually - you want to embrace your sexuality but if you're too liberated, you're a "slut" and if you're too conservative, you're a prude and to some women that goes against their "feminist" beliefs. The way I see it, women should have the opportunities to explore their sexuality in ways that are safe, representative of their desires and where shame doesn't exist.

In a wider sense, I think we desperately need to address the fact that young people have more access to porn than ever and that they will seek it out. Rather than make excuses for bad, misogynistic porn and hope they'll look the other way, advising them on where and how they can watch good, ethical porn can be useful. There's no shame in wanting to learn about sex or explore it, so giving kids the tools to do this in a way which is healthy and teaches them about respect and consent could lead us to a future where there's less gender inequality, less danger for women and less shame in sex work or sexuality in general. It's sounds crazy, but it could be that simple.

Erika Lust is the founder and creator of Erika Lust films. She has won multiple awards for her films as well as initiating the #changeporn campaign online.  She’s currently featured on Netflix’s ‘Hot Girls Wanted: Turned On’, produced by Rashida Jones. She considers pornography to be the "most important discourse on gender and sexuality."

Twitter @erikalust • FB @erikalustfilms

 

 

APRIL FILMMAKER SPOTLIGHT – Ali Weinstein

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.

 

https://www.facebook.com/mermaidsdoc/

https://www.mermaidsdocumentary.com/

https://twitter.com/mermaids_doc

https://www.instagram.com/mermaids_the_doc/

 

 

FILMMAKER SPOTLIGHT - Ruba Nadda

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.  

FILMMAKER SPOTLIGHT - Emilie Mannering

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.

FILMMAKER SPOTLIGHT - Ashley McKenzie

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.