Tonya Williams Previews The 2019 Reelworld Film Festival

Tonya Williams is the fearless founder of the Reelworld Film Festival, a festival that puts a spotlight on Canadian BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People Of Colour) filmmakers and allows those diverse communities to bring their own unique perspectives to the table.

Close-up Culture’s James Prestridge spoke to Williams about this year’s festival (17-21 October) and promoting inclusivity in the Canadian entertainment industry.

Q: Can you tell us about this year’s line-up and what excites you about it? 

A: Since the launch of the festival in 2001 our focus has always been on Canadian BIPOC films and content, but there was a lack content there, so we’d buffer the festival with some international films.

Over the years we always programmed at least 50% Canadian BIPOC, and sometimes up to 85% Canadian BIPOC films – but this year I felt the increased support funders have given Canadian BIPOC filmmakers over the past few years is now bearing fruit and we could see the increased amount of BIPOC content out there. So I decided this year – no matter what from now on – our agenda is to program only Canadian BIPOC and this is the first year we’re going all in with 100% of our programming reflecting that.

Of course it’s still challenging to find it, since the entertainment industry for BIPOC filmmakers is so disconnected across Canada, but the amazing team of our 5 programmers that worked with Reelworld this year did an amazing job in their outreach and they found some jewels, which we’re proud to present at this year’s festival to audiences. 

Q: The theme for this year’s festival is ‘Home’. Can you expand on this theme and why it felt like the right choice for 2019? 

A: For BIPOC people in Canada the idea of ‘Home’ can be elusive. Even if we have been in Canada for generations, much of white Canada sees us as immigrants as people who came to their country.

BIPOC Canadians are constantly asked, where are you from? Something that white Canadians are rarely asked. Our passports say we are Canadian, but we can feel ostracized and the films we chose this year are reflective of our struggle to make this place our ‘Home’ – to have family and extended family – to find our place and feel welcomed and belonging.

We are once again in challenging times, with so many countries including USA, UK and others leaning to values that say BIPOC people don’t belong here, so this year we wanted to put a spotlight on that and bring more understanding and sensitivity around this area. 

Q: What type of atmosphere can audiences and creatives expect to experience at the 2019 Reelworld Film Festival? 

A: The word that is used a lot around our festival is ‘inclusivity’ – all are welcomed and supported. I have been going and loving film festivals since 1977 when I attended my first one as a teenager.

Since then I’ve gone to many film festivals around the world. One of the things I didn’t want for Reelworld was for emerging filmmakers to feel that there would be events, that had that ‘red’ rope that meant they were not VIP enough to access. At Reelworld everyone is on the same plane – there is not VIP room and section – everyone has access to you – and that creates a welcome feeling – it puts emerging and experienced professionals together in a shared space, which builds confidence and allows those experienced professionals to get a more up close and personal access to the BIPOC talent that is out there.

‘Becoming Labrador’

Q: In 1979, you were one of the first black actresses to break into mainstream Canadian television. How do you reflect on that time in your career and the attitudes towards people of colour in the industry? 

A: One of the things you realize when you are a BIPOC person is that you are a role model whether you want to be or not. Everything you do is put under a microscope. You become the representation of your entire race. I’m not saying it’s fair, it’s just the way it is.

So back in 1979 when my career took off, you can only imagine that pressure. There were literally no BIPOC people on TV or in Film at that time. I was an anomaly. White people thought it novel and Black Canadians were so proud of me so it was a lot of pressure for a teenager. But it made me grow up fast – I knew the steps I was taking would be the steps that would be forged for others, I was cognizant of that and over 40 years later I’m still cognizant of that.

My successes are for all BIPOC people, but I know if I did something wrong or embarrassing, it will also reflect on all Black people – so I’m very careful and thoughtful of the steps I take. It is a pressure that White Canada never has to think of. 

My first year starring on The Young and The Restless the show received so much hate mail from racists that didn’t want any black people on the show – it’s not hard to imagine what kinds of things they said in those letters. But I think back even earlier than that – when I started my career in Canada and overheard many conversations with producers on whether it would be positive or negative to have a black person in their production. You have to hold fast when that kind of ignorance is all around you.

On the surface those attitudes don’t appear to be there anymore, but they are. Take the time to look at many of the government agencies for film and TV, and broadcasters, distributors – how many BIPOC Board of Directors, or Executive Staff do they have? – these are the people with the power. Look across Canada, how many Managers, Agents, Casting Directors, Entertainment Lawyers are BIPOC? We have a long way to go – I feel my last 40 years has only seen a small crack in the opening of access – those doors will take a long time to be flung wide open.

My wish is for future BIPOC Canadian generations to pick up that mantle and push it all forward for those generations to come. 

Q: You founded the Reelworld Film Festival in 2001. What achievement are you most proud of in that time? 

A: Two things I am the most proud of:

1 – That we have launched the careers of so many BIPOC Canadian filmmakers, content creators and other talent. 

2 – That we have helped the Canadian entertainment industry recognize there was a problem with inclusion and representation, and they decided to work with us and other organizations to change that. 

But really there is just so much to be proud of. Watching filmmakers and other industry talent navigate through so many challenges and succeed makes me so proud. Something people don’t always think about is the fact that Reelworld has also been instrumental in the training of Arts Administrators. When I started the festival back in 2001, they were pretty much no BIPOC programmers, sponsorship and marketing personnel, board members, or just general staff.

So I realized very quickly we’d also need to be the organization that trained people in those roles and I am proud that so many of the people we have trained have gone on to program at other festivals across Canada – or taken jobs in other arts administrative positions. That has helped create more BIPOC faces in areas you never would have seen any. 

‘Because We Are Girls’

Q: Can you tell us one or two standout memories from running the festival over the years? 

A: Our very first opening night screening at the inaugural festival in 2001 was a film called Bearwalker by Canadian filmmaker Shirley Cheechoo. Shirley is an amazing filmmaker who happens to be Indigenous. Her film was powerful and yet no other film festival in Canada accepted her film, which by the way came out of the Sundance filmmakers program back then.

I saw the film and was blown away by its intimate portrayal of an indigenous family’s struggle in the face of domestic violence. Most audiences had never seen a story like this, but it was a story that was too familiar. We screened it and it impacted our audience so much – people were crying, it was an intense way to kick off a festival. 

Black Canadian filmmaker Alison Duke, made her first film Raisin’ Kane: a rapumentary, that no other festival in Canada accepted, we screened it at Reelworld because we knew the film was fantastic, ahead of its time. It ended up winning an Outstanding Documentary award at Reelworld, and because of that, went on to screen at Urban World in New York and won an HBO Best Documentary award there. Since then Alison Duke has been a much sought after director and she often credits Reelworld as launching her start in this business. 

Richie Mehta came to Reelworld in its first year, he dreamed of becoming a filmmaker but didn’t have the courage to say it to anyone. While at our festival he became friends with a producer and an actor, and over the next two years they worked together and created their first short film Amal, which screened at Reelworld. Amal then went on to become a feature, which screened at TIFF to much accolades. 

Samantha Wan was one of our E20’s – a program we created to help Canadian BIPOC creators to have the opportunity to develop and pitch their projects to top industry professionals. Samantha pitched and got a deal with CBC to develop and then air Second Jen

Dawn Wilkinson is a black female director who got her start at Reelworld – she is now working in Canada and the USA directing shows like Switched at Birth, Murdoch Mysteries and many more. 

You can imagine that over the past 19 years of Reelworld I have hundreds of stories like these – too many to mention all here. It’s what keeps us going, knowing we’re making this kind of impact in the Canadian entertainment industry. To know that these stories and these characters have a chance to impact larger Canadian audience, change views, create better understanding and inclusion of races and cultures that a mainstream audience (which is becoming more and more BIPOC itself) can experience. 

Q: What do you hope will be the prevailing impact of the 2019 Reelworld Film? 

A: I hope that all the people we helped will in turn help even more people and long after I’m dead, generation after generation will continue to bring the next generation forward – until one day – way, way, way into the future – there will be no need for the term BIPOC.

That everyone will finally see that we are all just one human family – all born from the same two original man and woman – that basically we have populated an entire plant from our original Mother and Father, and that we are one – one family of the same Homo Sapien.

The 2019 Reelworld Film Festival runs from 17 October to 21. For more info

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