Roundtable: Reflections on the Canadian Film Industry with Shasha Nakhai, Molly McGlynn and Ella Cooper

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Canadian filmmakers Shasha Nakhai, Ella Cooper and Molly McGlynn reflect on their career paths and discuss what it would take for the Canadian film industry to become a truly equitable and inclusive space.

Shasha: I started working in the industry after I graduated from journalism school nine years ago; I interned as a researcher at a documentary production company while moonlighting in gaming and marketing to pay the bills. After a year, I got a full-time job at Storyline Entertainment and balanced passion projects with learning from my mentors Ed Barreveld and Lisa Valencia-Svensson. My first independent film was made with a $4,000 Toronto Arts Council grant and a credit card.

Molly: I’m not sure I would even recognize the me of 10 years ago, working at TIFF, except that I had an intense desire to be surrounded by people making stuff, although I really hadn’t figured out the courage to do so myself at that point. I worked at TIFF on and off for a while and waitressed and travelled—a turning point was getting a job as an assistant to Deepa Mehta.

Shasha: Wow, cool!

Molly: I figured that if I had an interest in being a writer/director in Canada, I needed to see what that was like. I made a few short films while working for Deepa, and then I knew it was time to get going on my own stuff. I am very grateful that, in the most loving way possible, she said “get out of here.” It felt like I had her support to be brave. In the past eight or so years, I’ve made a bunch of short films and directed a web series, a feature film and, recently, a whole bunch of television. In my heart, though, I know I have to finish writing my second feature, which is a looming and horrifying stack of index cards sitting on my coffee table here in Los Angeles, because my apartment is too small to have a wall big enough for them. Ah, Hollywood.

Ella: My intro to film started as a teenager making short experimental films in CEGEP in Montreal, which led me to Ryerson and then a brief stint doing a range of internships for TV shows and music videos. I left initially uninspired by the content and the environments I was in, so I turned to working in the arts and running film programs that put the camera back into the hands of marginalized communities in Toronto. Eventually, it hit me that it was my turn to direct and film my own work; I also wanted to take my facilitation and programming to the next level. That led to many independent photo video projects funded by the Ontario Arts Council and the Canada Council for te Arts (and recently shown at the Art Gallery of Ontario), one award-winning documentary, Black Men Loving, and a short documentary dance film series, Dance for Life, which was broadcast on television and received positive recognition at a range of international dance film festivals. Simultaneously, I founded Black Women Film (BWF), now going into its third year: a new collective and leadership initiative that supports the development of Black women filmmakers in Canada.

Molly: So cool. I feel like in Canada there are those who start from arts councils and those who do not.

I feel like in Canada there are those who start from arts councils and those who do not.

I never received arts council funding or BravoFACT or anything of that—I think it largely depends on the type of work you do. Secretly, there’s part of me that thinks of it like tables in the lunchroom in high school. For a while, I was always wishing I was part of the art class kids’ table. But I feel like I’ve found my place a bit more now.

Shasha: I did want to start by saying how grateful I am to finally be Canadian (just last year), and to be able to be making films in this country, as opposed to any of the three of my background. Before I start complaining about anything. Haha.

Molly: Congratulations on your citizenship! What are your other three backgrounds? It’s so interesting to think about how your identity as a filmmaker would shift (or not) based on the system and country in which you work.

Shasha: I’m Filipino and Iranian and grew up Nigeria. My Nollywood friends want to cry when I tell them about our tax credit system here.

My Nollywood friends want to cry when I tell them about our tax credit system here.

In terms of my own funding journey, I’m working with much bigger budgets now, but to be honest not too much has changed. I certainly have a stronger network at the moment, and it is a bit easier, but fundraising is always hard. Right now I’m struggling with sustainability questions.

Molly: The crushing rejection and/or bureaucracy of the arts never ends. (Side note: I have an idea for a photo essay of filmmakers wearing t-shirts with the worst rejection or review they’ve ever received, as a way of promoting ownership of all the rejection and criticism we face, which is inevitable.)

Ella: Ha, nice! Supposedly, failure is our best teacher and it seems like a kind of initiation you have to go through as a filmmaker or artist, as a way of testing your conviction in the work and the industry.

Shasha: I saw a great tweet by Ava DuVernay acknowledging all the times she’s been rejected by Sundance (since it’s Sundance rejection season again)! With social media, we need reminders about this more than ever.

Molly: I wrote an article on Medium a while back on rejection (that TIFF later put on their website), and it’s amazing how many people responded to it. I think this topic is the ultimate source of shame for filmmakers, so why aren’t we talking about it? I guess the nature of shame is that it is a private business, and if you admit defeat along the way it can dampen the potential for success in the future. I say, bullshit!

Ella: I would add that it isn’t always safe for new or marginalized filmmakers to admit rejection or failure in their professional sphere—not when so many production companies are afraid to hire us for fear of losing money by taking any risks. They want to know they’re getting a winner. One (award-winning, highly skilled) Black woman filmmaker in our network told me of a recent gig on a big budget crew where the seasoned producer proudly told her that he had never hired a Black person before, essentially making her the token rep for the whole community and making her the ‘tester’ to see if he would hire any others. Ugh.

Shasha: Ontario Creates released this report last week at a forum attended by many industry folks. The conversation tackled various issues surrounding the future of feature filmmaking and we began and ended it by talking about diversity. I find that the way we talk about diversity here is still [at a] very surface level and needs to evolve towards being more intersectional and looking at root causes in more robust ways. For example, programs intended to expand the array of voices need to also have input from, and be designed by, those diverse voices. And we need to be talking about sustainability, discoverability, branding.

…we need to be talking about sustainability, discoverability, branding.

Molly: I also think there needs to be a conversation about how we deal with failure while pushing all these initiatives.

Shasha: Yes. Mentorship is so key, and also ties into sustainability.

Ella: Providing mentorship to Black filmmakers in the industry has been huge. It goes both ways: I see how it gives filmmakers greater confidence, but the mentors and partners we work with—TIFF, CBC, CFC and the NFB—are also so excited to discover the array of talented people who have fallen below their radar. I’ve seen new projects develop because of these connections—more folks from BWF are getting hired, plus filmmakers from our alumni now feel welcome in more industry spaces and have each other as a broadened support network. In the end, as we all know, it’s still all about who you know and feeling comfortable to make your voice and ideas be known in any given room. One thing I have found very interesting about the 50/50 gender parity efforts in the film industry is that it is very much like witnessing the different waves of feminism. This first effort feels like the first waves of feminism, where white women are the first to gain access with a few diverse faces making it into the mix.

…white women are the first to gain access with a few diverse faces making it into the mix.

Intersectionality is yet another topic which needs to make it to the table for discussion.

Molly: Absolutely. I am a white woman, so I am very aware of the privileges that has afforded me along the way. 50/50 parity is great, but it’s not everything.

Shasha: It’s easy to parade stats, but eroding the root causes takes many years and much harder work. 50/50 parity is a wonderful step in the right direction, but to be honest, I have heard some hurtful comments about me getting things just because I was a woman of colour in today’s climate.

Molly: I cannot imagine how that feels. What a way to undercut someone’s entire artistic and creative identity.

Ella: Yikes, yeah that’s real (and such an ignorant) thing for someone to say. Sigh.

Shasha: We get things because we work our butts off and deserve them, not just because there’s a mandate for gender parity!

Molly: I’ve definitely had men who are not currently working allude to the fact that it’s not a good time to be hiring new male directors. Which, on some level, I understand where they’re coming from. But, what I will scream from the rooftops until I die is that some of these initiatives have opened the door for me to walk through, but I will not stay here and continue to get hired if I am not good at what I do. Being on TV sets a lot this year has also been kind of interesting, because you really see how people react to a big change (e.g., the director is not a 65-year-old white man, pointing). On bad days, I’ve thought to myself, everyone loves the idea of a female director until they have one. I don’t believe replacing a male director with a female one is just a bait and switch. It depends on your directing style, of course, but I do not direct the way I think a lot of men do. Because of that, the crew, actors, everyone, is like, “What is this? Do I hate it? Do I love it? What’s happening?”

Shasha: In documentary, we have slightly more women and I’ve been fortunate to surround myself with smaller crews of great people. I can’t imagine the dynamics on big fiction sets.

Molly: I had a female actor recently tell me that she appreciated the fact that I don’t direct in a way that seems like I’m performing a masculine interpretation of the job, which was maybe the nicest thing anyone has ever said to me. It basically affirmed that it is okay to be me.

Ella: I’m always curious about how many women find documentary filmmaking more accessible. Smaller crews seem to equal greater creative freedom and yet we are constantly moving in spaces that give us less money and more work. On the fiction side, I’m amazed at how often female directors are questioned and tested for what they are bringing to the table.

Molly: There is an inherent suspicion of women in leadership positions. It’s not just our industry.

Shasha: Amen to the bit about less money and more work. The industry is moving in some key directions that don’t necessarily jive with diversity. You want more diverse voices, and yet you also want to “brand” “Canadian film” under one umbrella? More voices from the margins? If so, the programs for these voices have to include payment or a workable artist fee. But on the positive side of things, in Toronto, where we have “the world within a city,” we are really well positioned to make films that are both specific and universal and wildly successful internationally.

Ella: The desire for diverse voices is so needed but there is an assumption that those diverse voices will have the answer. It goes beyond just hiring the diverse director/actor/etc. How do we change the culture of whiteness and white privilege so inherent in the industry?

How do we change the culture of whiteness and white privilege so inherent in the industry?

In the same way that people are afraid of a woman in power, there are a lot of men holding on to the purse strings afraid of truly making space beyond doing ‘diversity’ programming.

Molly: So true. Do you think, also, that can be seen as predatory, some of these approaches to including women and/or increasing diversity (especially coming from men seeking women or women of colour specifically?) Producers, thankfully, are maybe paying more attention [to women], but I worry sometimes about the intention. I also think diversity needs to be addressed at the level of producers, networks, etc. These roles are integral to how the creative side is handled.

Ella: I’m contemplating the notion of Canada’s brand/national identity—makes me think of the Mountain Equipment Coop’s recent apology for not including diverse faces in their advertising all these years. To your question, Molly: I think truly creating inclusivity in the industry—beyond a publicity stunt or HR policy—requires the producers/leadership to look at the brand they’re so tightly clinging to in the name of profits, but also to look inward at their own discomfort around actually addressing anti-oppression in choices made around programming, financing, etc. Shows that are diverse actually make good money and have great audience reach, and yet there is still a fear around truly creating equitable hiring structures. Also, just as a female director can direct beyond the chick flick, it’s equally limiting for a “diverse” director to be forced into a silo.

Also, just as a female director can direct beyond the chick flick, it’s equally limiting for a “diverse” director to be forced into a silo.

Molly: That is a great point. I’ve been thinking how valuable it is for women to tell stories about men, as well.

Ella: Yes!

Shasha: Diversity is something we will have to continue to talk about in more complex ways, and we’ll need to try different things over the years. But, to be honest, the biggest threat I see to the Canadian film industry right now is lack of agility. Technology is evolving at breakneck speeds and we are lagging behind. All of our funding, production and distribution chains need to become more agile and encourage innovation and risk-taking (that also applies to tackling the diversity issues). At the Documentary Organization of Canada Producer’s Retreat we cited this as a key issue. Along with discoverability and needing more money for self-distribution and marketing, as these line items have been squeezed out of budgets during a time of increasingly saturated online space.

Ella: I agree, innovation and risk-taking are intrinsically linked to opening the floodgates to change on so many levels. It’s exciting, and sometimes I think that it’s the independent content creators who are most poised to take this on, but we need money from the larger funders to make it possible. Agility is also much easier for those on the margins to embrace, because they are well versed in this way of working already—yet we need support.

Shasha: Agreed, and I think that’s why we lose some innovative creators to the US. The rigidity of the system and the snail’s pace turnaround aren’t for people who like to be on the cutting edge and create content that comments on the now. One producer stood up at the Ontario Creates forum and talked about this.

Ella: I do a lot of work with emerging filmmakers—I ran a retreat for two years for young Black women making their first films. I’m also interested in how we welcome new voices into the sector and get them thinking along these lines from the get-go. Two girls (teenagers) from the program went on to win awards for what they created (UNESCO Youth awards and multiple film fests) and one is now at the Vancouver Film School, while the other is part of THE TIFF Next WAVE Program and did opening remarks for the MeToo thang at TIFF this year. I keep wondering how long they will stick with it before they start to hit some of the major barriers that are prevalent in the industry.

Shasha: We need more decision-makers like you and support for programs like this!

Molly: I think I know what they are, but can you talk about those barriers more?

Ella: I guess I’m feeling like a broken record, not because I say it all the time but because women in the industry speak to these barriers every time we come together and I’d like to see more men in film coming together and addressing these issues with same rampant concern. When four white men are invited onto a film festival panel, inequity and barriers never come up (for obvious reasons), but if you invite four women cinematographers to speak to their craft, the conversation always goes back to gender parity, even when everyone came out just to vibe on their films.

Shasha: It’s very easy for us to fall into the trap of always complaining and negativity feeding off negativity. I am guilty. I see it a lot with the older generation of producers always lamenting about the good old days. It’s up to us to go beyond the NO and create a YES that we can all get behind.

It’s up to us to go beyond the NO and create a YES that we can all get behind.

Ella: I absolutely agree, because it’s inspiring when we can come together and celebrate one another while also making space to listen to each other’s challenges, so as not to give up on what we are passionate about. To answer your question, Molly, that young woman made her first film at a camp I created that was supportive and healing, a safe space for Black women to make work. She was 15 years old at the time. Now, as she’s about to head to the film school #boysclub, she will no doubt rock it [but] she will also likely often be the only Black woman in the room. Her stories will frequently be challenged unless she finds a great crew that supports her, and she will see her white male counterparts ‘mansplain’ every piece of equipment she tries to work with and get jobs first, even if she is equally qualified. Not to mention internships that are often unsafe and demeaning for young women. In a nutshell, dudes get welcomed with open arms into the sector, Black women do not.

Molly: It’s incredibly nerve-wracking and exciting to see a young woman like that because all the shit you are talking about can seriously affect one’s work and identity.

Ella: Yes, people drop out a lot.

Shasha: This article on income inequality and generational wealth is also pertinent. We need to work on the tough task of keeping people in the industry and making liveable wages.

Molly: Oh yes! Not everyone can intern for free for months on end; it’s not sustainable and excludes so many people. I had financial help from a family friend when I was getting my feature together, and I think it’s important to say because that is a huge advantage.

Ella: I’d like to see more new and diverse voices find the support and community they need to really see their visions to long term fruition. BWF has shown me what a difference this makes and, honestly, film and TV is defining and validating us as culture. It’s disturbing, but so much of the population looks to this medium to define and validate their stories and human experience. We can’t let all our epic stories be told by one dominant male voice anymore. I’m not saying get rid of the talented male allies who exist in the industry, I’m saying make space and let’s start working together inclusively, respectfully and creatively.

Shasha Nakhai is a filmmaker from Toronto who is currently releasing her first feature documentary, Take Light. Her last film with partner Rich Williamson, Frame 394, was shortlisted for an Oscar in 2017 and was named one of TIFF’s Canada Top 10 Shorts.

Molly McGlynn is an award-winning writer and director of film and television currently based in Los Angeles. Her feature film, Mary Goes Round, premiered at TIFF in 2017 and her television credits include Workin’ Moms (CBC), Little Dog (CBC), Bad Blood(CityTV) and Speechless(ABC).

Ella Cooper is an award-winning multidisciplinary artist and filmmaker, impact producer, educator and consultant who has worked in Canada’s arts and culture sector for over 18 years. She is also the founder of Black Women Film! Canada.

A journal of film and feminism.

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A journal of film and feminism.

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