It’s distressingly easy for Canadian filmmakers to get stuck in a short-film rut. With a low budget, tight schedule and minimal crew, a scrappy writer/director can eke out a short – and then rinse and repeat, again and again, in our modest Canadian way. Those lucky enough to graduate to their first feature wait, on average, eight years before they can pull together a second one. And for under-represented filmmakers, everything is even harder. So what does the next level of a career look like in this country, and how do you get there?
Those are the questions Kadon Douglas, executive director of BIPOC TV & Film, has been asking herself and her communities for the past two years. Last month she announced one promising answer: Rising Voices Canada, a “career accelerator” modelled on a three-year-old program based in Los Angeles, Rising Voices, which Rising Voices, which was created by Indeed and Hillman Grad, the media company founded in 2018 by the Emmy-winning actor/writer/producer Lena Waithe (The Chi, Queen and Slim). Rising Voices Canada, funded by the hiring site Indeed in partnership with BIPOC TV & Film, Hillman Grad and TIFF, is now accepting applications until 11:59 p.m. Nov. 5.
I had some questions of my own for Douglas, who I spoke to along with Rishi Rajani and Justin Riley (respectively, CEO of Hillman Grad, and VP of operations and business development), in phone interviews this week.
Describe the original Rising Voices.
It’s the luxury limo of career acceleration programs. Ten BIPOC filmmakers receive US$100,000 each to make a short, with producing, marketing and distribution support, and ongoing mentorship. Applications for its fourth season just closed; graduates of its first three seasons (selected from nearly 2000 applicants) have gone on to direct commercials and episodes of The Chi, Chicago Fire and American Born Chinese.
What will the Canadian version be?
More like a Prius – but hey, it still gets you places. Five BIPOC filmmakers will receive a year of development sessions, workshops and networking opportunities, plus a TIFF membership and access to TIFF facilities, culminating in pitch sessions at the Rising Voices season four premiere in LA and the Tribeca Film Festival in New York.
“Nobody here is getting $100,000 to make a short film,” Douglas says, chuckling. “When I told Rishi that we have a program where filmmakers were given $125,000 to make a feature” – Telefilm’s first Talent to Watch initiative – “he said, ‘You mean a short film?’ No! This is the reality in Canada.”
The goal is for Rising Voices Canada participants to graduate with a polished pitch package, the know-how to pitch in different markets, and the tools to woo investors, distributors and sales agents in Canada, the U.S. and internationally. Rajani himself will provide three one-on-one mentorship sessions with each filmmaker.
Why is Hillman Grad interested in Canadian filmmakers?
“Our program has been a rocket ship, and we’ve been thinking about what going international might look like,” Rajani says. “We want to shift the culture by getting new voices into the entertainment business. We’re not pretending that the Canadian experience is the same as the American for BIPOC communities. We want to provide guidance to make sure their voices are being heard. Saying yes to this was the easiest yes in the world.”
So why is Canada’s version a Prius (please note, I own two)?
It’s a “pilot program,” “a way to build inroads,” a “thoughtful engagement,” “not a one-size-fits all thing.” Translation: There’s way less money.
But all that polishing has value, Rajani insists: “The leap from making something more modest on your own, to making something that’s ready to be shopped in Hollywood – there’s a gap. It’s hard to navigate the Hollywood business landscape without help. It will be our goal to connect graduates with the right producers and financiers to push their project through to the finish line.”
So Hillman Grad will lure away Canada’s most brilliant BIPOC filmmakers?
Rajani laughs, maybe a little nervously. “That’s partly why we didn’t build out a big program right away,” he says. “We want to be listening to what the Canadian communities are looking for.” That could be co-financing arrangements between the U.S. and Canada, or financiers who work in international territories. “We want to build a community of filmmakers where they are.”
We talk a lot about the power of representation on screen. But how important is representation behind the scenes?
Very. Canada makes a tonne of filmed entertainment. We need a labour force for that, and it makes no economic sense to cut out whole groups of people who should be part of that labour force.
“The GTA is now 55 per cent Black and racialized,” Douglas points out. “The multi-billion-dollar entertainment industry is centralized here, and a high percentage of the audience. We need BIPOC people in our crews, in our creative decision makers and in executive leadership, who understand the intricacies of culture and race, who are aware of the barriers and injustices that have existed for a long time, and who operate with an equity mindset.”
“When I’m in finance meetings with my peers across companies, I don’t see a lot of individuals who look like me,” Riley agrees. “But when you have people from all walks of life – studio partners, financiers, crew – bringing their experience and humanity to a project, that contributes depth and nuance to the stories we tell.”
What will make a submission stand out?
“Even in this so-called diversity renaissance that Hollywood is having, we’re still seeing monolithic storytelling – as if there’s only one way to be Black, brown, queer, disabled,” Rajani says. “Hollywood loves a story of overcoming one’s otherness, instead of embracing it. So we’re looking for really human stories from different perspectives.”
Douglas cites “beautiful and truthful” films like Tyrone Tommy’s Learn to Swim, Stella Meghie’s The Photograph, and Sudz Sutherland’s Love, Sex and Eating the Bones as “other ways of looking at the BIPOC experience. To see a softness to us, that really shares the complexities of who we, in projects that push the boundaries of what Canadian film could be, beyond what exists for us now.”
Special to The Globe and Mail
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