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Netflix is funding the imagineNative Institute, which runs year-round professional development programs, plus the industry component of its annual imagineNative film festival.Mike Tjioe/imagineNATIVE

The issue of whether international streaming services should abide by Canadian content regulations is far from settled. In the meantime, Netflix is amassing some goodwill by funding the development of Canadian creators.

Last week, the streamer announced its new Netflix Fund for Creative Equity: US$20-million a year for the next five years to build more inclusive pipelines around the globe for filmmakers behind the camera. On Thursday, in honour of International Women’s Day, Bela Bajaria, Netflix’s vice-president of global series, announced that the first US$5-million will go to programs that identify, train and provide work for female creators – and two of those programs are here in Canada.

“This is personal for me,” Bajaria wrote in an e-mail. She was born in London, and moved to the United States with her parents, who were raised in East Africa, when she was 8. “As a woman of colour, growing up there weren’t many people who looked like me on screen. The fund is a way to give the next generation of women storytellers the tools they need to claim their seat at the table.”

Netflix had already partnered with the Academy of Canadian Cinema & Television on its Directors Program for Women. These new funds will provide mentorship and training for six women specifically in post-production – the all-important but often invisible technical realms of colour correcting, sound mixing, visual effects and the like. (Company 3, a post-production company, has already signed on as a collaborator.)

“Post-production is a key area where essential creative decisions are made,” Nafisa Murji, the director of talent development programs at the Academy, said in an interview. “They have a major impact on what stories are being told. But because it’s the realm of science and technology, women have faced barriers to entry when applying to programs, and implicit bias when seeking employment. This program will help women gain visibility, hone their skills, and get access to those moments where the creative decisions are made.

“Many people don’t know how massive and essential this part of filmmaking is,” Murji continued. “Also, it’s a sustainable career, with lots of opportunities for advancement. So it’s a much-needed place for us to focus on.” She hopes to open applications for the six spots in May.

As well, Netflix is already funding the imagineNative Institute, which runs year-round professional development programs, plus the industry component of its annual imagineNative film festival (2021′s will run Oct. 19 to 24). With this latest cash infusion, the institute will create the Calling Card program: Two female writers from their Screenwriting Lab will receive production money and mentorship to make their short films.

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Director Kristina Wagenbauer, with mentor Myriam Verreault, on the set of the Montreal production 5e Rang.Courtesy of Academy of Canadian Cinema & Television

“Shorts are so important for creators, especially within the Canadian public funding system,” Adriana Chartrand, manager of the imagineNative Institute, said in a separate interview. “When you’re applying for grants, having proof of concept, in the form of a polished short film, is invaluable.”

Indigenous filmmakers in Canada, historically, have faced a double-edged sword, Chartrand continued: They have less access to industry resources, while being negatively portrayed in film and television. “Those stereotypical images result in real-world consequences. They create biases that shape our futures. We need storytellers who can convey who we really are, authentic voices rather than these inauthentic images.” The focus on women is crucial: “Indigenous women have been dehumanized and objectified for 100 years. We have no cultural visibility or cachet. This program will help change that.”

Bajaria knows all about fighting for a seat at the table – she’s been doing it for her entire career. She used her win at the 1991 Miss India Worldwide contest to connect with her Indian heritage, and to network with “interesting, inspiring Indian women from all over the world.” Before coming to Netflix four years ago, she was a network executive at CBS, then president of Universal Television; she’s proud of shepherding to success series including The Mindy Project, Indian Matchmaking and Never Have I Ever, with its Canadian star, Maitreyi Ramakrishnan.

“I’ve certainly been in a lot of rooms where I’ve been the only woman of colour or the only Indian executive, and I’ve felt the pressure in those moments to speak for an entire community,” Bajaria wrote. “That could be uncomfortable, but I viewed my background as an asset and knew it was important to say my piece. I’ve been questioning and fighting against cultural norms and gender expectations my whole life.”

Representation in entertainment, Bajaria knows, has an exponential effect: “One story can affect millions who watch it, and seeing yourself reflected on screen gives power to your experience. That’s why we’re investing in pipeline programs – to purposefully close capacity and skill gaps, to hold the door open for the next generation of storytellers to truly represent the world we live in.”

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