By: Siân Melton
Transcription By: Ali Chappell
This has been… a year. There are almost no words to describe the heartbreak and hope and anger that has taken over our lives, yet when I gathered with a group of local filmmakers last weekend the words didn’t stop.
We vented and laughed. We swapped stories about the industry–the good and the bad. Through all of it was a sense of solidarity and togetherness. It can be so easy, particularly as a woman in the film industry (or, let’s be honest, any industry), to feel isolated. Just getting together to chat reminded us that we aren’t alone in any of this; that our opinions our valid and valuable; that we have something worthy to contribute. If there was one thing I took away from this experience it would have to be: get yourself a tribe and connect with them regularly, even if it’s just to grab a quick coffee. (And the second thing it would be: we’re all over white men in the industry. Seriously.)
These were filmmakers I had met through my film community The MUFF Society. We had screened their films at one of our monthly events and highlighted them on our blog because in my humble opinion, the entire world should know about them. What inspires me about the Canadian film scene is what these filmmakers bring to it. MUFF has had the honour of sharing 43 short films and filmmakers with our community over three years. Unfortunately, a roundtable discussion with all of them wasn’t going to happen (imagine the size of that table, eh) but I caught up with seven badass talents for this discussion: Leila Almawy (director: The Constant Refugee), Adri Almeida and Carolyn Wu (writers/directors: In My Mother’s Closet), Alicia K Harris (writer/director: Pick), Solange Desrochers and Rita Ferrando (writers/directors: Midnights) and Sarah Quan (producer: Away Home, Margoland).
(Interview has been edited for length and clarity. Filmmaker contact info can be found at the end.)
Thinking of the industry at large, in your opinion what was the best thing that happened in 2017 and what was the worst thing that happened in 2017?
Alicia K Harris: The first thing that comes to mind is both the best and worst thing: Harvey Weinstein. Obviously the good thing that happened was that he will hopefully not work in the industry anymore because, God knows, people just seem to forget about these things after a couple of years and they forgive white men for the horrible atrocities that they do. It was also the worst because everyday in my news feed there was a new accusation and it just kind of became emotionally tiring to have to hear about it. Although, I am very, very happy that it’s a conversation that is being had.
Carolyn Wu: It literally is the best and worst thing. You cannot think of anything that would be better—like so good and so bad at the same time. Last night I was looking and there are so many Wikipedia articles now about this, like “the Weinstein effect” and the sexual assault allegations. It’s just a really crazy time to be a woman in film.
Alicia K Harris: I’m sorry, just to add: the best thing was Natalie Portman at the Golden Globes. When she announced the directing nominees and said, “Here are the ALL MALE directing nominees!” I literally was dead. I was on the floor.
Solange Desrochers: We can’t NOT talk about Harvey Weinstein and #MeToo. I mean, it’s definitely a good thing that people are going to feel more empowered to speak up in the future, especially from places in Hollywood. It really helps people who feel like they don’t have a voice to see someone else speaking out. I think that’s a great thing and I hope that it continues, which it seems like it will be.
Rita Ferrando: I feel like every couple of days there’s a new celebrity and it’s kind of crazy.
Solange Desrochers: It’s not surprising at all, though.
Leila Almawy: I would echo that as well and just add in the fact that Tarana Burke, the black woman who started the #MeToo movement helped launch what is happening right now. The worst thing in 2017 unfortunately was the Quebec mosque shooting. That had a huge impact on my community and it’s been really hard to recover from that. We’re actually coming up to the one year memorial, which is on the 29th of January. It feels like just yesterday because that’s all we’ve really been trying to process. I’m an organizer in my community so organizing for this memorial is really quite emotionally triggering, for sure. But it’s necessary. The reality is this isn’t just a Muslim issue–it’s a Canadian issue. We’re all Canadians and this happened to six Canadians on Canadian ground.
Adri Almeida: I agree about Harvey Weinstein and #MeToo being both the best and the worst thing. For me, I think what’s really important is to call out the fact that it was like a chain of white man dominos falling–it was a majority of, if not all, white men. Except for commentators of color, no one was really speaking to that. I definitely agree that it was the best but also the worst in that you just feel like you’re surrounded by it constantly. You feel really discouraged by the fact that this is something that is still happening in the entertainment industry, and across all industries, and you feel that overwhelming sense of “wow this is everywhere.” But then it’s encouraging also realizing that now these conversations are surfacing and we can, as women and femmes, come together and “stick it to the man.”
Alicia K Harris: I think the reason that it is mostly white men is because the industry is dominated by white men. Just statistically speaking, of course it’s going to be all these powerful white men.
Carolyn Wu: And I think what is interesting is that this is not really new information about these men. You know what I mean? It’s just voicing what we have known.
Sarah Quan: I agree with all of this. The best thing about the #MeToo movement is that all of these women are being heard for the first time. Because for so many years they were silenced and now they can finally know that someone believes them and someone is going to listen to them. We also have to remember that this didn’t just happen this year. It’s been happening for years but this year they were believed and they were vindicated and people supported them for the first time. They were given a voice in one of the biggest industries in the world and I think that’s pretty important. The worst thing with the Golden Globes and the #MeToo movement is the fact that there are still men and women that are cloaked in the #TimesUp pins and wearing black who are our assaulters or are still not holding their aggressors or other people accountable. This can’t be “Time’s up” for everybody until everybody is held accountable.
Carolyn Wu: It takes so much work. And for us, as women in color in film, it is just absolutely brutal to have these conversations with men who victimize themselves constantly and that is all they ever do. “Poor me.” “You guys are getting into ACTRA more easily than us.” “Your stories are getting put out there but I don’t have any way to diversify my stories like that…” Eff off.
Alicia K Harris: I was in film school and I remember we were watching Do The Right Thing and we were outside talking about it and this white guy comes up to me and was legitimately upset because he would never be able to make a film that was that powerful like that. I’m thinking, ”Are you seriously complaining to me that you’re sad that you will never be able to make a movie like Do The Right Thing?” You expect me to feel sorry for you? That I should feel bad because you can’t write a good story because you didn’t have struggle? No.
Sarah Quan: If I had a dollar for everytime a white guy told me that he was disadvantaged… One time a guy told me, “You know I think it’s really hard to get a job as a white guy now because they want diverse people, they want people of color. It’s harder for white guys.” And I’m like, “Yeah, that’s not true.”
What do you think of the Canadian film industry? Do you feel like you are supported as an artist?
Adri Almeida: I didn’t go to film school. I just made my first short with Carolyn earlier this year. We did all of this through a program at Inside Out Festival for emerging filmmakers. When I found out about that program I thought it was really cool. I was always interested in filmmaking but my parents had always pressured me to go into business or something. I always saw the industry as being a hard place to achieve success in. Who is making movies, who am I watching on the screen… I just never saw myself there. I think the program sparked something in me but I’m at a loss at this point. How do I make my next film? What do I do? I feel like a lot of this is because of there aren’t those means of support out there for diverse filmmakers in Canada. A lot of programs require THIS many years of experience or they require THAT or you have to have made films and been in festivals. It feels like walls and barriers. For me, it’s discouraging and I don’t feel like there is a lot of support.
Solange Desrochers: I definitely don’t really feel supported. I think one of the biggest parts of being in this industry is that you have to claw your way through to get wherever you want to get, which can be very tiring sometimes. Also, a lot of your success sometimes depends on who you know and how good your connections are. Sometimes it means not being yourself in your place of work, which is something that I struggle with. I prefer to let my work speak for itself—that’s just the type of person I am. But that’s not necessarily how our industry works.
Rita Ferrando: I graduated a year ago, so for me it’s been definitely a challenging year. I’m just starting to freelance now. I’m networking, working within the industry and I’m learning so much every day. A frustration I face is regarding the content that I am seeing programmed and the kinds of films that a lot of funding supports, which I feel are more “Canadiana” oriented films. I feel like the film industry is stuck in that mould of what a Canadian film is? What are the themes that make something Canadian?It needs to be shaken up, and there are so many voices to do so, in so far as young Canadian filmmakers…I just haven’t seen those voices being championed. And those voices are so incredibly diverse. Having to dismantle a system that’s stacked against women of colour, femmes, and trans people, is destabilizing in the fact that to apply for funding the merit of your art isn’t always in question, you feel like you are a statistic to check off. And I think that, in a way, that can be exhausting. And, obviously, it’s a paradox because we need to push for those statistics to change and we have to do that with the means we have available.
Leila Almawy: I see that more as an equal opportunity thing so I’ll always check them out, always take the opportunity to apply or to be heard or to submit to film applications. Unfortunately for me, in my experience, the industry hasn’t been the best. I graduated in 2012 and I’ve just been working and making films and it’s just been an interesting sort of journey and experience but what I did notice is one thing: that women need to work three to four times harder, compared to their male counterparts – and women of color have to work much harder than that. Almost like you’ve got to claw your way up to get that recognition and still we are being overlooked and overshadowed.
Rita Ferrando: I guess I want to clarify because I do think it’s absolutely vital and there need to be more opportunities. But I think having to frame yourself consistently and in that narrative is exhausting in itself, because you’re not really just applying for the merit of your art or what you are creating and offering. You always have to reframe it politically, which I think it’s super necessary, but still tiring.
Alicia K Harris: I do really like a lot of aspects of the industry. I like that I can go to a Canadian film, albeit in a small indie theatre and I can meet the filmmaker after and make a connection with them. I like that it is really small. I like that I have been able to meet people who know other people just by going to screenings. It’s not that hard to actually meet your heroes. I don’t feel like there is that much support for the people that are emerging. I find it annoying when you’re making a Canadian film, it just kind of disappears into the universe after it plays at a festival or if it even gets into theatres. We need some sort of mandates where they have to play a certain amount of Canadian films in theatres. And then when it comes to the funding bodies, I would like to know that there is support specifically for diverse stories and diverse identities. For example, Telefilm just announced that they’re changing their system and specifically said that there are going to be no mandates but “we’re gonna make sure make sure that it’s going to be diverse” or something. I hate the word diversity. It’s becoming a bad word.
Sarah Quan: It feels like a dirty word because I have been in rooms with producers and directors saying, “We need diversity, we need to fill the cast, we need the ethic numbers.” You almost resent it to a point. And then you’re sitting in a room with people of color and you’re thinking, “Did you really earn your place here?” or I feel like I’m being questioned if I earned my place. People think that you got it because of the minority card. That makes it even worse. That further worsens the problem.
Carolyn Wu: At my first job at a big Canadian broadcaster, within the first six months my white male co-worker said, “Oh you know they only hired you because they needed ‘diverse’ employees, right?” Nope, not a joke.
Carolyn Wu: They had zero idea how discouraging that one tiny comment could be, but I was so new to the city and to the industry. It really affected how I saw myself, and I thought, “This is how people are going to see me whenever I achieve anything from now on.”
Sarah Quan: Once you make your first feature it’s like, where is my next step and how do you get to A, B, and C? Then there is also what is Canadian identity and how do we shape that into a culture of movies?
Leila Almawy: I have to touch on the Canadian cinema perspective. I took a few Canadian Cinema courses at Western, which were so boring and I just I didn’t understand why Canadian cinema was directly proportional to icy wintery cabins and hiking because that’s not what Canada is. Canada is a little bit about that but it’s also multicultural and it’s diverse and Canada is filled with all of our stories.
Carolyn Wu: There is obviously a strong need for a long-term plan to diversify this industry. It’s up to the big players – that includes the broadcasters, telecoms, government bodies (you know who you are) – to break up those big film grants into smaller bits of money, and lower the bar of entry just a little bit. Young people, new grads can do a lot with even just $1000. It’s unbelievable the level of storytelling these BIPOC youth are capable of. They just need to be given the confidence and the opportunities.
What do you want to accomplish in 2018? What are your #GoalsAndDreams for the year?
Solange Desrochers: I don’t really know because I just graduated. Day to day, I’m just working and also trying to build a career in some way. I would say some overall goals are making connections and making sure that I am a part of amplifying people’s voices and contributing to the community, my landscape, and representing Canada in the way that I want it to be seen.
Rita Ferrando: I’ll echo that, I’m also trying to find balance between day work and film work and figuring out what that looks like. I hope to continue to work with the incredible women I have had the opportunity to encounter over the last year, I have hands down had the most positive and collaborative experience with up and coming women in the industry, it’s been such a joy to work alongside them. And I would really like to be shooting something this summer, I’m writing an experimental film and a short narrative.
Alicia K Harris: I already know what mine is: I want to finish my short film. It’s call Pick and it’s about a girl who wears her afro to school and all of the microaggressions that she has to deal with. I have been working on it for over a year so it has been very emotional and I needed to take a lot of breaks but in 2018 it’s finally happening. I’m really excited about it. It’s something that I am so proud of and I don’t regret any of the time it’s taken to get it where it is. For this film specifically, I have all these dreams about festivals, but my main dream is to make a film that will specifically relate to black girls and the stigma surrounding our natural hair. The otherness we are made to feel is something many people don’t understand.
Sarah Quan – For Pick, I think when it comes out it’s gonna blow everyone away. When I read the script, I thought about it for three days after. I was texting people who were also reading it and I was saying, “Do you understand how amazing this is?”
Leila Almawy: 2018 is the year of me. I have played the supportive role for far too long up until this point in my personal life and my career. I think I’m off to a great start. I have a film in mind that I got approval from the person to tell their story so that hopefully will be made. I don’t think it will be completed in 2018 but we’re off to a great start. There’s an incredible book list by authors of colour that I would really like to get on as well. It primarily focuses on decolonization and Indigenous history as well as Black history and struggle. I’m very political; my experience is political. You can’t really divorce yourself from that as a racialized person living in Canada. I think it’s really important for me to educate myself on these topics because how can I be actively fighting for the rights of my community if I’m not incorporating decolonization into that, right?
Sarah Quan: I want to be working the whole year but also hold myself accountable in the projects that I work on. I mostly production coordinate and production manage on indie films/tv so generally it doesn’t give me a lot of freedom to hire inclusively. I also jump on much later when the script has already been written, and generally the keys have been hired. But I want to make the effort so that when I’m producing and when I am hiring people of color, it’s not as a quota but as a dedication. I want to write characters that are not blind casting; I want them to be shaped and informed by their culture. I’m hoping to do that with my web series.
Adri Almeida: I work full-time outside of film so I am trying to think about how I can fit all of that into my life because I want to continue to make things. I have one project that I am really dedicated to and it is going to be stretched out probably over the next two years. I’m working on a web series called Lover Girl. I’m still in the early concept development stage of it. It’s a musical, which can be a little bit challenging. It focuses on young woman who has this very over-active imagination and a lot of anxiety but also a very inactive love life and she hasn’t had her first romantic experience yet. Ironically, she works for a dating app company, which puts her through really interesting scenarios. The story takes her through her first romantic milestones as this trans women of color. I want it to be a story about a person with experiences and obviously some of their history will come out at some point but it doesn’t have to be the focus.
Lastly, what is a movie that you think people who are reading this should watch? It can be from last year, from forever ago…
Carolyn Wu: Poetry (dir. Lee Chang-dong). I have never seen something that made me appreciate life like it did.
Sarah Quan: Mudbound (dir. Dee Rees). I think it was totally overlooked this season.
Adri Almedia – I don’t actually watch a lot of film but I do watch a lot of TV. If you haven’t seen Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, definitely watch it.
Alicia Harris: Love True (dir. Alma Har’el). It’s a documentary and she has a very distinct style and incorporates a lot of choreography and artistic reenactments but it is still very personal.
Rita Ferrando: Bright Star (dir. Jane Campion) is certainly one my favourites. I also just Phantom Thread this week and it is incredible. It’s still reeling in my head.
Solange Desrochers: I was thinking about was more what I found significant recently in general. From a producer’s perspective, certain voices being heard in films that are on a really large scale—that hasn’t happened so much before and that is something I want to see happen more.
Leila Almawy: Divines (dir. Uda Benyamina). It’s so beautiful, it just grabs you.
Find the filmmakers online:
- Twitter: @leilaalmawy
Alicia K Harris
Don’t miss Queer + Trans BIPOC Short Night Round 2 on February 16th
About Siân Melton:
Siân’s work is focused in social media, writing, and project management/event logistics—which she fondly refer to as “cat herding.” She is the founder of The MUFF Society (a feminist film community and former screening series). You can find her on Twitter and Instagram. This one time she handed Daniel Radcliffe a Diet Coke and he said “thanks.”