“The More Honest We Are, The More Useful It Is”: A Brief Oral History of the Scarborough Pictures Episodic Directing Program

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Image credit: Chetan Tilokani

Following the success of his acclaimed first feature, The Secret Trial 5 (2014), Amar Wala found himself facing a dilemma many directors know well: “My first feature checked off all the boxes for a small political Canadian doc. It got into the festivals it needed to get into. It got reviewed by all the major publications. Everything seemed to be going really well. But I was completely broke and had no idea of what my next steps were supposed to be.”

Director Chelsea McMullan, whose 2013 documentary My Prairie Home showed at Sundance, is familiar with the predicament, having fallen into debt following her sophomore feature: “I just had no idea that essentially money is power—creative power. And when you’re making your own film, if you are dependent on money, that power gets taken away from you.”

For both Wala and McMullan, episodic television returned some of that power to them, both creatively and financially. “We always, as directors, have to find other means of income,” said Wala, “and episodic work for me has been really beneficial in terms of creating sustainability for myself and earning money as a professional director, but [it’s] also just had a huge impact on my craft.” McMullan concurs: “It’s become a way for me to sustain myself while also working on my own personal work at the speed that I want, and in a way that I sort of feel like I have more creative control over it.”

While episodic television can be a source of stability for filmmakers, it’s an opportunity frequently denied to BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of colour) directors, which prompted Wala and McMullan to develop a shadowing program for BIPOC filmmakers that they piloted on the set of the award-winning CBC series In the Making. The program—which was funded by Wala’s own company, Scarborough Pictures, along with the CBC, Finch Media, CBM Lawyers and White Pine Pictures—saw Sherien Barsoum and Isa Benn shadow Wala and McMullan, respectively, for an episode on the second season of In the Making, which premiered on September 27th and documents the creative process of Canadian artists. After the success of the pilot, Wala is working with the Documentary Organization of Canada to build it into a recurring program.

Below, Wala, McMullan, Benn, and Barsoum have shared a few reflections on the program’s inaugural year—and what they see for the future.

Amar Wala: In Canada, a lot of the different streams of our industries are very fragmented. They don’t overlap with each other, which I’ve always found very strange. [The] feature film world seems to be its own thing. TV is its own insular world with very high walls. The commercial world is its own thing. And I don’t know that it’s like that everywhere. It makes it very difficult for us as filmmakers because even just creatively, we want to kind of do a little bit of everything. We want to try everything as artists, right?

So I had reached out to people and frankly, no one was really willing to open those doors for me. And I realized in part that’s because it’s a very competitive industry, but I also really kind of resented that. I felt like as filmmakers and as artists, we should have each other’s backs in a way that nobody really had my back at that time. And I just told myself that if I had those opportunities that I wouldn’t do that, that I would open those doors [and] I would keep them open for other people.

We are seen as inherently risky for some reason and so if we can make ourselves a safer bet, we’re more likely to get that work. And so saying you’ve done a training program checks off a box; saying you’ve got that first credit checks off the box. And it shouldn’t have to be like that, to be frank. So that was part of it, too, was to bring in people that a lot of the people in TV wouldn’t necessarily see as directors. Because people didn’t see [Chelsea and me] as directors. Neither of us had any TV experience up until a couple of years ago. And it’s worked out for us.

Chelsea McMullan: Amar and I thought, “how do you actually help somebody break into the industry?” Not just check a box or create a space for donors to give you money. That was a conversation we circled around. And one of the things was paying people so that they can actually focus on this, which feels like it never happens. So that was one thing that was super important to both of us, is that the people that were shadowing get paid.

Wala: And a lot of the programs that have been created, I think have been created to give us sort of a veil of change. And often programs for racialized filmmakers are relegated to super low budget categories or don’t have a sustainability component to them. Because the other thing that was really important to me was that this program not be decided upon by a bunch of white institutions. And that’s hard to do because the power and the money lies with white institutions in this country.

I think that our producers Sean O’Neill and Michelle Mama made a very conscious effort to create a crew that is representative of the artists that we’re focusing on, the communities that we’re focusing on. So it is a unique show in that way [and] it is sort of well suited for something like this. The problem is, I don’t know how many shows like this there are. I often get jobs because people are telling “diverse” stories now. But I can tell the non-diverse stories, too.

Image credit: Chetan Tilokani

Sherien Barsoum: For me, the most valuable part of this experience was being able to witness process from beginning to end. While I have production/storytelling experience, it was insightful to see how a series director serves a wider mandate alongside the producers, host, broadcasters and executive team. Witnessing these conversations and interactions will serve me well as I move into this space. In addition, working with Amar, as well as with a crew made up of several BIPOC folks, was incredibly important. There was a baseline of understanding and sensitivity to the content we were handling that was integrated from the start.

McMullan: I think the more honest we are on set, the more useful it is. For example, the one episode that date-wise made the most sense for Isa to be on set for was the most formally difficult. And I kept being like, “I don’t know if it’s going to work, Isa.” And she was like, “Great!” Because it’s more useful to her to see me make mistakes than it is to see me run this perfect set.

Filming is really arduous and it’s hard. Sometimes you make the wrong decisions, and then [have to] solve the mistake you made. It’s all about making mistakes, making decisions and then trying to steer the ship. And I think the more honest you are with who you are working with, the better. 

Isa Benn: Watching Chelsea work, getting to spend time with her, ask questions no one had ever allowed space for before, was truly life-changing. I say life-changing because I had been encountering a lot of systemic racism, in film and television, and when that becomes your dominant experience, you can start to feel deeply and profoundly discouraged, despite knowing it is not a true reflection of your capabilities.

Working with them gave me hope—which is integral when attempting to break down barriers, fight for acknowledgment and pay your rent, at the same time. I’m still struggling to be seen and heard in the industry. It does feel like I have more and more experience and feel increasingly capable, ready and able but not often will be allowed into these closed-off rooms. I really hope that changes. I know with people like Amar and Chelsea in this world, we at least have a chance.

Wala: It’s really important to me that we call it shadowing work because mentorship sounds to me sort of pejorative and people don’t see it as a thing that’s going to get you a job. These people are already filmmakers. They know how to make films, they are artists already. And they need specific experience based on how episodic works. But they can do this, they just need to be given a shot to do it. If the industry is being honest about the fact that it genuinely wants to change, the reality is that a lot of people who have power and privilege and money are going to have to give that up.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length.

Cathleen Evans is the web editor of cléo. 

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Cathleen Evans is the web editor of cléo.