Cheers ripple through the crowd of students packed into a Mississauga high school gym as the final dance battles of the 2007 Canadian film How She Move play out before them. The gym has been transformed. An enormous screen has been erected at one end and black velvet curtains mask the area around it from floor to ceiling. Chairs have replaced the usual bleachers, and a makeshift projection booth sits at the back, from which REEL CANADA’s tech whiz Chris Kelly controls the images and sounds on screen. During the film’s dramatic sequences, the audience is so eerily quiet it’s hard to believe there are over 500 teenagers seated in this space. When the crowds in the film begin to scream for their preferred dance crews, the live audience goes wild too.
Favourites have obviously been picked. For many of the students in this gym, REEL CANADA is their first exposure to Canadian film, and they are eating it up. As the dancing begins, the teens erupt into cheers and enthusiastic whooping. The applause is thundering as the credits roll and a moderator introduces two guests from the film, actors Kevin Duhaney and Daniel Keith Morrison. These guys might not be household names, but they’ve got 500 brand new, totally crazed fans. Girls are screaming, boys are freaking out. The young actors are veterans of these high school screenings, but they’ve never experienced a reception quite like this. They answer questions and joke around. Kevin is more reserved, but Daniel agrees to dance for the crowd. The resultingng enthusiasm borders on mass hysteria. The audience has officially lost its cool. When the bell rings to dismiss the kids for lunch, the guests are mobbed by so many students that our crew has to step in to rescue them from the melee.
In a similar gym across the hallway, another group of 500 equally rapt high school students watch Deepa Mehta’s light-hearted musical Bollywood/Hollywood. The film ends, the house lights go up, and the crowd explodes with applause as Mehta herself walks up to the front. Some had no idea who Deepa Mehta was until this day, while for others she’s a huge star whose films they watch in their own native language. Regardless of their familiarity with the director or her work, it is obvious from the moment she appears in front of the students that they are awed by her. Mehta commands the room with a quiet yet powerful presence. When the Q&A wraps up, dozens of young women hover near the exit, hoping for a photo opportunity.
Meanwhile, I’m in the staff lounge, our cozy makeshift green room for the day, calling drivers to confirm our afternoon guest pickups, fixing a schedule for the next school festival, and of course making sure that lunch is laid out for our guests and crew, when they pile in after the morning Q&As are over.
This is life at REEL CANADA. It’s one of those jobs that requires more than eight hours worth of time most days, but somehow I find myself not minding because it’s pretty exciting. When we talk about the programme to the press, or to potential funders, we refer to it as a visionary nation-building initiative, an ambitious venture that introduces young people to the incredible achievements of Canadian filmmakers, past and present. Watching a festival unfold successfully, it’s easy to see that those descriptions aren’t just hyperbole. There is something transformative about these experiences that touches kids in a way most school activities rarely accomplish.
REEL CANADA was originally conceived as a travelling one-day festival of Canadian film that would move from school to school. We send a curated catalogue of dozens of Canadian features, documentaries and shorts to a school and the students pick what they’d like to see. They vote, creating the programme for their school.
We screen three films in the morning and three after lunch. Students go online to order tickets through our website for the films they want to see, just like at a real festival. The night before the event, we roll into the school with digital projectors, big screens, sound systems, chairs, and of course, a crew to run the equipment. When we’re done, three venues (auditoriums, gyms, libraries, drama rooms and the like) have been transformed into movie theatres. The change is impressive. It’s a bit like waking up to discover a carnival has set up in the empty lot in your sleepy town overnight.
There’s always a live component to what we do, so every film is followed by a work-shop or Q&A with a filmmaker, actor, film industry professional, or an expert who can speak to the issues brought up in a documentary. Sometimes, we’re lucky enough to get stars such as Paul Gross, Sarah Polley, Gordon Pinsent, Lisa Ray or Atom Egoyan to stop in. But even when it’s just an unknown sound guy, the kids appreciate the human connection, the fact that someone has taken the time to do this.
Teens are more honest and direct than festival audiences, and when something is on their minds, they speak up. For filmmakers, seeing those raw, honest reactions can be a pretty gratifying experience. At a screening of the zombie comedy Fido a couple of seasons ago, a young man in the audience raised his hand and asked director Andrew Currie why there were no people of colour in his film. A murmur rippled through the crowd and teachers glanced nervously at each other, worried that the question might stir up controversy or offend the guest. On the contrary, Andrew brightened up and replied “I’m so glad you brought that up,” before going on to talk about the highly stylized, white- washed world he created. The students had no trouble understanding the layers of meaning. They understood right away that Fido’s zombies could stand in for oppressed groups, minorities of all sorts. They were entertained, but they were also thinking deeply about what they saw.
I’ve been working at REEL CANADA for four years now, and I’ve watched it grow from a scrappy start-up to a respected national organization. An array of programming options are now available for schools to choose from, and schools in places as far flung as Carlyle, Saskatchewan and Trepassey, newfoundland are contacting us, asking about how they can put on their own festival of Canadian films. I remember racing around at a school in Toronto’s north end a few years ago, helping the crew pack up after a very successful festival day at which Don McKellar presented both Last Night and The Red Violin and documentary filmmaker Peter Raymont talked with students who were deeply moved by Shake Hands with the Devil.
A girl of about 16 stopped me in the hallway and sheepishly asked, “so, how did you find such a cool job?” I smiled, unsure of how to answer. Of course she was right, it was cool (still is), but it was also unwieldy and difficult. I was working very long hours in a small cubicle that has been generously donated by one of our partners. I was alone, surrounded by boxes and no co-workers to chat with during my workday. With the exception of our Executive Director Jack Blum and our Artistic Director Sharon Corder, I was the sole employee. Working for REEL CANADA was never boring, but it was also far from glamorous. When I paused for a moment to look at it through this girl’s eyes, I saw how impressive it seemed. What happened at her school that day was a Big Deal. To her, I looked like the ringmaster of a really exciting circus, surrounded by celebrities, putting on a fabulous show. I told her it was a bit of a fluke how i got the job (true), but that my enthusiasm and eagerness for taking on something challenging played a part (also true). I tried very hard not let on just how small an organization we really were. I wanted her to keep thinking we were big, impressive and cool.
We’ve certainly grown since those early days. We’re not exactly huge, but we’ve hired a couple of staffers and the cubbyhole I used to call an office has morphed into an actual room with walls and a sunny view. A few Toronto-based festivals have turned into dozens of events across the country. Of course we still get insanely busy, and there are days when i wish we had ten times the staff and resources. Still, what we lack in infrastructure, we make up for in inventiveness. We hardly ever do the same thing twice, and it’s easy to say yes when schools ask for something different because there’s no lengthy approvals process, no red tape. There’s just us, the school, and the limits of our collective imaginations. It’s not just a creative way of doing business, it’s also a necessity, because as we’ve learned over the years, schools are a lot like snowflakes. No two are alike. I’ve developed a sort of sixth sense about it. Now, when I walk down the halls toward the main office at a school for the first time, I know if it’s going to be a good one. I can feel the vibes in the air. I’ve always known how important good teachers are. During my first year on the job I worked with a woman who inspired fierce devotion in her kids, even though she was a strict disciplinarian, prone to giving stern looks and barking out orders. Watching her operate reminded me of my own favourites, a teacher whose caring attitudes changed the course of my life. As a student, I thought that the quality of my high school experience depended solely on my teachers. What i didn’t realize until I started working at REEL CANADA is how important a good principal can be. My high school principal, a certain Mr. Cornelius, a man with a 10,000 watt smile and an easygoing manner, hardly ever entered my consciousness at the time. Now I see that everything rides on a principal’s leadership skills, and that the elusive good vibe that I feel when I walk into a great school can turn chaotic and glum overnight when a bad administrator is transferred in.
Just a couple of months ago, I wandered into the cafeteria at the end of one of our best festivals ever to find the principal addressing a group of our student volunteers. She’d just ordered them some pizza, and as they waited for the delivery she was asking them to tell her what they learned from the REEL CANADA experience. I ended up staying for nearly half an hour, answering students’ questions and telling them more about our work. As I was leaving, one girl turned to me and said, “I’m graduating this spring, but if you guys come back next year, I’m totally coming back just for this.”
When the bell rings at the end of the day and the students clear out, we pack up our travelling carnival and go home. The following morning, the only proof that any of it really happened are the stray REEL CANADA posters still hanging in the hallways. There’s a bit of magic to putting on this kind of event, and when it works, the feeling is palpable. And when students are impressed by our programme, or by the cool job I have, I no longer feel like I have to hide how small we are, because we’re really not that small anymore. Last year, a teacher asked me to be a celebrity judge at her school’s short film contest. I went, and gave my comments in front of an audience of about 1000 students. It seemed plausible to them that i was a “celebrity” judge. After all, I help run REEL CANADA. That’s huge, right?