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Telefilm Canada, the top Canadian indie film financier, insists it has reached some initial goals on racial parity while promising to do more on diversity and inclusion efforts.
“We have been really focused in a very singular fashion on increasing access for filmmakers who have been historically disadvantaged by systemic barriers,” Christa Dickenson, executive director of Telefilm Canada, which invests around $100 million in Canadian indie film annually, tells THR.
Telefilm’s strategy is to ensure the many — and not just the few — get the full benefits of its indie film financing amid a racial reckoning for the Canadian industry. That means diversifying the process around which the federal agency finances and supports indie filmmakers from underserved communities, especially among Black and Indigenous Canadians and people of color who in the past were stifled as they entered the domestic industry due to systemic racism.
Telefilm has launched a development fund for Black and people of color, with around $2.5 million having been invested in 143 projects written and produced by filmmakers in those underserved communities. Of the 143 projects backed, about 36 percent had Black screenwriters and producers, and around 63 percent were written and produced by people of color.
“We’re just at the beginning. We’re at a fragile place where only with time and consistency will we see the change and those results come through,” Dickenson adds. Canadian BIPOC filmmakers THR has talked to for this story are mostly embracing Telefilm’s ambitious efforts to produce meaningful and sustainable diversity and inclusion — but with impatience.
“We’re in the early stages, and it’s early to call whether or not there’s been equitable change that’s been made and will be made. At this point, it’s about taking advantage of the opportunity and doing the work, and we can reassess in four or five years,” says Thyrone Tommy, whose feature debut, Learn to Swim, will premiere at the Toronto Film Festival after receiving Telefilm investment.
Joan Jenkinson, executive director of the Black Screen Office, applauds filmmakers from BIPOC communities getting on Telefilm’s radar as the indie film funder reworks its investment criteria. “They are doing more consultations with equity-seeking organizations and being more transparent,” she says. “This is definitely a move in the right direction. But when you’re starting from scratch there is so much to be done.”
Others fear whatever progress has been made could be reversed if the federal film funder does not accelerate its efforts. “We want to see progress obviously move very quickly,” says Andrew Chung, who debuted his first feature, White Elephant, at NewFilmmakers LA in July.
He points to a typically short career span for most Canadian filmmakers that could see many diverse talent never enjoy the fruit of Telefilm’s efforts toward racial parity if they go elsewhere for more sustainable careers. “That’s why the urgency is so great for racialized communities because if we don’t see this happen soon, then we get left out of the process and then we move on to different careers,” Chung adds.
Pakistani-Canadian director Haya Waseem credits Telefilm financing for ensuring her debut feature, Quickening — a coming-of-age immigrant tale having its world premiere Sept. 12 at TIFF — got made. “Telefilm was and is the only option to make a movie in Canada at the moment. Maybe Netflix is coming in and things are changing, but Telefilm remains the only main resource for film financing,” she insists.
At the same time, Waseem is wary about being pigeonholed as an under-represented filmmaker. “I’m a diverse filmmaker, but I also have a huge respect for the craft of filmmaking. And I’m not getting acknowledgement for the work that I’m doing and that I put so much effort into,” she argues.
The new film funding requirements for racial equity also are putting cost pressures on diverse filmmakers. Vancouver-based director Anthony Shim is currently shooting his second feature, Riceboy Sleeps, about the struggle of a Korean immigrant and her son, and received key Telefilm financing to get his cameras rolling.
But the Canadian film, which will shoot partly in South Korea, requires key Korean Canadian talent to be drawn from a relatively small pool in Vancouver compared with the available white Canadian talent available in the city. “I’m trying to hire more Korean people and more Asian people in general, and I’m limited to a small pool, and a lot of time it doesn’t work because I don’t have the money to fly people out from Toronto or Ottawa where there’s more Asians,” Shim explains.
Dickenson knows there’s criticism from some industry quarters about whether the indie film funder’s reforms are significant and sustainable. She points to new measures that include advisory committees that will recommend which indie projects that Telefilm should finance so that the decision is not made by one person. The funder also is tackling language and how it plays into what is considered a “Canadian-content” film in one of the country’s three official languages — English, French and Indigenous.
“There was a push for us to update our eligibility requirements to bring them more towards the reality of producers and content creators who want to tell their stories in another authentic language,” Dickenson recalls as she anticipates a new framework for diverse language projects to be rolled out later this year.
Telefilm has faced criticism over its racial-parity initiatives from established producers who have called for a Canadian caste system that guarantees financing to those at the top remain in place, albeit with reforms. The pushback coincides with Telefilm undergoing a shift from reliance on measuring domestic box office to accounting for digital audiences in an expanding streaming space dominated by Netflix and Amazon.
“Streaming platforms such as Netflix and Starz prize Black filmmakers and TV producers now that they see the value in attracting Black audiences,” the Black Screen Office’s Jenkinson argues. “Canadian broadcasters and distributors seem to be driven by equity and inclusion policy directives rather than the business case for satisfying the demand for Black content.”
She sees the structural shift in movie viewership online working to the advantage of Black filmmakers as Telefilm considers more access to promotional funding so diverse filmmakers can attend international Black film festivals like the American Black Film Festival stateside.
Telefilm’s Dickenson accepts that expending care and money on achieving racial parity isn’t easy and that progress will take time as Telefilm continues to collect data on the progress being made by diverse filmmakers in the Canadian industry or not. Says Dickenson, “This will continue to evolve because until we know what our blind spots are, we can’t provide the outreach and support where it may be more greatly needed.”
This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter’s Sept. 10 daily issue at the Toronto International Film Festival.
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