Welcome to our new ongoing series of blog posts featuring interviews with our membership. The Film and Video Arts Society of Alberta is an artist-run co-operative that exists to facilitate and support the creation, exhibition, distribution, and preservation of independent film, video and new media art in Northern Alberta. What makes that all possible is the artists, filmmakers, and creators that are members of our society. Watch this space on #MembershipMonday as we highlight a different member weekly.
How did you start working in film and why?
My background is in comparative literature. I did my BA and master’s at the University of Alberta. I was teaching at the University of Alberta as a sessional lecturer and my interest has always been in diversity and inclusion. I was teaching comparative religion and trying to present the different world religions, particularly as they’re practiced here in Canada, and help people understand the complex world that we live in. In the early 2000s I met a FAVA member, Carlo Ghioni, who was a new Canadian from Italy and was looking to build his portfolio as a filmmaker in North America. Part of my own personal journey with my family has been to research our family’s Indigenous heritage. As part of that, I had met an old cowboy, Roy Scott, and his wife March Scott on their acreage farm near Elk Point. I knew Carlo was interested in developing Canadian stories so I suggested that he may want to follow the story of Roy Scott, as he builds Red River carts. I ended up getting into the project, up to my neck and over, helping to produce and co-direct that film. In the process, I kind of fell in love with documentary filmmaking. That project led me to pursue more training in the craft and learn the business of filmmaking.
What was a great collaborative experience you had on a project?
Ten years ago, I went to the Documentary Filmmaking Institute at Seneca College in Toronto and participated in their summer intensive program. I worked on a short documentary called Damned If She Does and Damned If She Doesn’t which was about two women who had made their way to Canada; one was born Muslim, one chose Islam. The film focused on their choices to either wear or not to wear the headscarf. When I returned to Edmonton, I became very involved at FAVA. I knew that I needed support as a filmmaker coming to it late in life. The technical side of that was a challenge for me but I found tremendous support at FAVA. I began a wonderful working collaboration with one of the founding members, Rick Gustavsen. Rick has been the cameraman on all subsequent shoots that I’ve done, and also has done sound. He worked with me on my documentaries Gently Whispering the Circle Back and Lana Gets Her Talk which focus on the impact of residential schools on Indigenous communities, and not only the survivors but the children of survivors. Dave Cunningham was the editor for both and is very sensitive to Indigenous stories, being Métis himself. Rick also followed me with Brothers in the Buddha which is a local story about a young Vietnamese-Canadian Buddhist monk who resides at a monastery in Edmonton. We followed him as a young teenager at high school and the challenges that he faced taking the practice into the public world, but also developing the practice at the monastery. I learned so much working with Rick and Dave; they are seasoned filmmakers and I’m just so profoundly indebted to them as mentors and collaborators. I also worked with FAVA member Johnny Blerot on sound; he did the audio for most of my films. I’ve also worked with Sarah Taylor, a local filmmaker who has edited a number of my films and I’ve really enjoyed working with her as well.
How has FAVA supported your filmmaking journey?
FAVA was so important for me because it gave me a community to draw on and network through and build teams with. My work has been primarily a documentary but my most recent project was my first dramatic narrative and that again was a collaboration with a new Canadian, this time with my friend Tobias Nicholas who Turkish-Canadian, and he wanted to get into filmmaking in Canada. He told me a story of when he was going to university that had such a strong connection to my student project about women and headscarves. His story was about a young woman who came to university to write a final exam, but she wore a headscarf. At that time in Turkey, they were prohibiting people from wearing religious attire in public institutions. The professor told her she had to remove the headscarf if she wanted to write the exam. Tobias found a creative way to protect her privacy and allow her to write the exam. When he told me this story, I told him it would make an amazing short film. I’d never done a dramatic film and it’s a whole different kettle of fish. But we decided to go for it and again, I built a team from people that I knew at FAVA. We did The Final Exam last year with Rick Gustavsen on camera again. Tobias and I directed, produced and wrote the story. David Baron was our gaffer and Katrina Beatty was my assistant director. We worked with actors who were such a delight and embraced the project. Adolfo Ruiz did a storyboard for us, which was essential to me having never done a dramatic film because I needed to have it visualized. Through that whole process and on a number of my projects, I’ve been mentored by FAVA member Hans Olsen who is both a documentary and dramatic filmmaker, and he has a beautiful humanistic touch to his work. FAVA has supported me in every aspect of my filmmaking along the way, both hands on and with quiet support in the background. I’ve been fortunate to have had my films selected a number of times to screen at the FAVA festivals. I’ve continued my education in filmmaking through the educational programming offered by FAVA as part of my professional development.
I should also mention that I brought the idea of doing the Gotta Minute Film Festival to Dave Cunningham at FAVA when he was the executive director. When I was in Toronto in 2010, I was seeing advertisements for the Toronto Urban Film Festival which ran on the TTC in Toronto. I thought, “we could be doing that in Edmonton.” The LRT was expanding and had just installed digital screens in all of the stations. It was a wonderful opportunity for us to be a sister festival with TUFF. We collaborated closely with the artistic director in Toronto of TUFF, Sharon Switzer. We’ve been able to build that festival and show other members’ works, the one-minute silent films short films. It’s a way for us to find another way to screen the work of FAVA members, but we’re open to the world as well. It’s been a wonderful journey with FAVA to realize not only my own work, but to build that festival. My role is continuing to work in the background with Gotta Minute, primarily in terms of supporting the award program for our filmmakers.
How does it feel to present your work with an audience?
I really do enjoy presenting with an audience. It’s wonderful to see people respond and it’s also a way to measure whether you are hitting the mark with your work. It’s a good corrective, but also I think for me, I’m still an educator at heart and my work continues to be directed towards informing people and shifting attitudes. My work reflects my interest in diversity and inclusion, and for me, the films are a way to bring important information to a broader audience. When you work with film, it’s a creative way to bring similar information to a wider audience. I’m so excited when my films are selected for a festival or to have had the opportunity to share my works on FAVA TV. I’m developing my own website now and spending some time on marketing and distribution, which is a piece of the puzzle that many of us miss. We often put a lot of effort into making films, get them into a few festivals and then they sit on our shelves or go nowhere. That’s something that’s beautiful about FAVA is that it has provided us with the opportunity to share and work on FAVA TV and find a wide, continuing audience.
What are you working on next?
Now I’m working on getting The Final Exam out to festivals and working on the marketing component of my film. I recently secured funding from the Edmonton Heritage Council to do a digital memoir of a local elder Betty Letendre. She’s a family friend and approached my father who recently passed away to have him tell her story. He was a writer, but I always felt that her story would be better told as a digital story because she’s a wonderful storyteller. My father passed away before he could meet his commitment to her and so I’ve picked that up. Betty and I are going to be working with the supportive heritage council on a digital memoir. So through this pandemic, I’m hoping we can meet in parks, in quiet wooded areas and have her share her story on camera, just the two of us. I will edit that lightly because it is a digital storytelling project and incorporate some of her personal photographs and a little bit of footage that speaks to the land and her life. It will have a home on the Edmonton Public Library digital storytelling platform.
Where can we see your work?
Check out Beth’s website: www.wishmacproductions.ca