UBC’s Film Production Program began in 1969, offering a handful of workshops to department of Theatre and Film students. The program has blossomed since and now boasts more than 350 alumni, who have screened their work at film festivals around the world including Cannes, Berlinale, SXSW, Sundance, Toronto, IDFA and Hot Docs.
ArtsWIRE caught up with three star pupils of the program to chat about their experience with the UBC Film Production Program, and their successes after it.
BFA alumna Lauren Grant has had her first feature film Picture Day win Best Canadian Feature at the Whistler Film Festival. Picture Day follows a rebellious teenager who is caught between adolescence and adulthood as she repeats her last year of high school. In addition to this, her short film Frost was featured at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Current MFA student Cari Green is the executive producer on When I Walk, which has been invited to screen at the Sundance Film Festival, taking place Jan. 17 to 27. This documentary tells the story of filmmaker and artist Jason DaSilva, who at 25 discovers he has a severe form of multiple sclerosis.
And Bahar Noorizadeh, a recent BFA graduate of the UBC Film Production program, has had her short film, Lingo, chosen in 2012’s Top Ten Canadian Shorts at the Toronto International Film Festival, selected by a panel of industry professionals.
Q: When you were scouting schools and degrees, what was it that drew you to UBC Film?
Bahar: I was considering a number of Vancouver-based schools before registering for UBC. I felt I needed a technical, hands-on education on filmmaking, but at the same time my art comes from a place of mind and I have always been drawn to theory and art history as necessary grounds for my practice. Being based in academia, UBC’s Film Production Program looked the most well-rounded. We are required to take a good number of film studies and elective courses in addition to our production classes. This helps to maintain a good balance of theory and practice. Also the factor that sets UBC apart is its code of professionalism. Our training has been the real-world practice in the film industry. We have to take the process of our filmmaking seriously, unlike any presumed student film.
Lauren: I excelled in science in high school and I thought I wanted to be a doctor despite always being drawn to the arts. After submitting my application to UBC, I called the school to switch my application from Science to Arts. I was inspired by all the programs offered at UBC. My decision to attend UBC was confirmed when I discovered the Arts One program as I thought it would be a great transition from a small town and high school to a large university. In the end, my love of movies drew me to the highly regarded film program.
Cari: Well, there were a lot of reasons that I wanted to come to UBC Film for my master’s degree. I was very familiar with the program and knew the folks running it. I think I’ve known Sharon McGowan since we both started making films. And so many of my friends and colleagues had praised the program. I also got my undergraduate degree at UBC years back. So I was thrilled to be returning to continue studying film.
Q: As someone in film production, is there an advantage to working in Vancouver and in British Columbia?
Lauren: I love Vancouver and I miss it now that I live in Toronto. One of the great things about working in film production is that it allows me to work in both places. I’m developing project that film in both places and look forward to being back in Vancouver to work with the great creative people and crews available in the city. You also can’t beat the scenery in British Columbia and I would love to direct a film in my hometown of Hazelton, BC.
Bahar: To be honest I don’t think we have the best provincial support for Canadian filmmakers here in BC. Historically the arts hub has shifted towards the East coast. But what we have here is a loving Mother Nature, and a unique cityscape. I personally have more attachments to Vancouver now than 5 years ago, since my film network is all based here now. We have supported and helped each other in every possible way, and we are already familiar with each others working habits. It is kind of like a relationship that we have gone through its ups and downs for some years and now it is in a stable spot finally, so it would be very difficult to find the same generous people somewhere else.
Cari: Well, in addition to Vancouver being known as “Hollywood North” for the film and television production it attracts, we have always had a very strong documentary community. So I never felt the need to relocate to Toronto. That being said, we’ve lost quite a few folks in the industry to Toronto in the last while. But films are funded quite differently now, through indiegogo and private sources. You might as well live in the place you love doing what you love.
Q: Cari, you are the executive producer on When I Walk. How did you get involved in that production? What is it about?
Cari: Jason da Silva contacted me when he first started producing the film. He is an incredibly talented young filmmaker whose short films previously screened at Sundance. He contracted MS just a few years ago and When I Walk is a record of how he has faced this life challenge as a filmmaker and as a young person with his career ahead of him. To say he is determined is an understatement. I was really drawn to his enormous talent and his willingness to take this risk.
Q: Cari, when did you first hear that When I Walk was chosen to screen at Sundance? How did you feel?
Cari: I was thrilled for Jason when I heard. It is so important that his courageous battle be acknowledged by his peers and to have his film be chosen by one of the top festivals in the world.
Q: Lauren, congratulations on winning Best Canadian Feature at the Whistler Film Festival. How did it feel to win this award?
Lauren: Winning Best Canadian Feature at the Whistler Film Festival was a huge surprise and incredibly exciting. Picture Day was one of 8 films selected for the Borsos competition and we had our fingers crossed all weekend for the performance award but we didn’t even dream of winning Best Film. We’re incredibly proud of the film but winning an award like this is very gratifying—hopefully this will bring even greater attention to the film when it is released.
Q: Bahar, what is Lingo about and how did it you come to conceive it?
Bahar: Lingo started as a film about the language hierarchy in our post-colonial world, and how each language has precedence over the other and that it is not only an effect of the global political conditions but somehow language is defining the power dynamics as well. Needless to say, all of this was condensed into a 13-minute long film about an Afghan immigrant who lives with her son in Canada. A fire breaks out in the neighborhood and due to a misunderstanding (or not) the two of them get involved with the consequences. The film was my final graduation project for the BFA program, so I approached it as a sort of tribute medley to all the filmmakers that inspired my filmmaking, including Abbas Kiarostami, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Michael Haneke, and a young Swedish filmmaker, Ruben Ostland.
Q: Lingo was chosen as one of the Top 10 Canadian Shorts by the Toronto International Film Festival. Frost and Picture Day were also featured at TIFF. And When I Walk will soon be shown at Sundance. For an independent filmmaker, does it help your film to be featured in an international film festival?
Cari: I believe that even in the age of the internet and social networking, having your film featured in an international film festival where filmmakers, programmers, the media and your public gather in person creates an unbeatable opportunity to network, which is the life blood of this industry. When I look back on how our films got made in the past, I think about how great it was to attend TIFF, BANFF, Hot Docs, and many other festivals and forums to finance and premiere our films. Those are the best memories!
Bahar: Of course. It doesn’t really matter whether you are an independent or established filmmaker really. An organization like TIFF has so much to offer on every level. It is the first venue for a significant number of Hollywood blockbuster premiers, as well as a supporting engine for less recognized local and art house movies. Many programmers from other top-notch festivals are drawn to the screenings each year and they get to see the films and contact the filmmakers themselves. Since TIFF, I had requests from some other festivals to travel with my film in the following year. Also, you get to meet distributors and discuss a potential marketing plan for your film. Quite recently, Telefilm picked the film for its annual showcase in Clermont-Ferrand Film Festival, the leading short film festival in the world.
Lauren: TIFF was an amazing experience. I’ve never had a film in the festival so to have two was incredibly exciting. I’m very thankful to the festival for their support of the films. Playing TIFF is very important to the life of a film. For a short film like Frost, TIFF opened the door to other festivals. The goal with a short film is to have as many people see it as possible and it will hopefully open doors for the extremely talented director Jeremy Ball. For Picture Day, TIFF was important to launch the film and secure sales, which we did.
Q: There seem to be a number of challenges to filmmaking in Canada, including limited funding, an indifferent public and a slew of foreign-owned movie houses. What has your experience working in Canadian film production been like?
Lauren: Filmmaking is a challenge around the world, including in Hollywood. Since it is an expensive art to create, the funding becomes an integral part of creation. The producer’s role straddles both the creative and business side of things. It’s important to have an idea of the marketability of a film. There are advantages and disadvantages to the Canadian system. One of the great things is that it allows for more support for emerging filmmakers. The Canadian system has been an incredible training ground for me and I hope to work in Canada and internationally on my projects going forward.
Bahar: No matter where in the world, filmmaking is a challenge. Of course the nature of this challenge is different in various parts, but I think the one oppressor in common is bureaucracy. In my home country, Iran, this bureaucracy takes the shape of dictatorship, but in Canada it is much more subdued and resolved in distinct organizations, in the strenuous paperwork and lack of support for smaller movies. Some might say a deficient cinema culture emerges out of a collective identity crisis. If that’s so, I think we have to cherish this identity crisis and observe it in a positive light that puts our filmmakers on a constant search to find themselves. It also means Canadian cinema is not dead and very mobile in fact, unlike the American blockbuster industry.
Cari: Well, I’ve always owned my own production companies and worked independently. I think that the major challenge now is the change in the way our entertainment and information is delivered. It’s more likely in the future that the independent films that inspired us as filmmakers will be less likely to be seen in theaters as they compete for screens with spectacle entertainment, and more likely to be seen as VOD. Medium budget films that were the lifeblood of the industry, the films that auteur directors produced, are fighting to be seen, but we’ll find a way.
Q: Canada seems like a great breeding ground for film and television talent, but a lot of our stars are absorbed and integrated into the U.S. What can Canada do to keep its entertainment talent in Canada?
Lauren: Canada is a great place for film and television talent and I don’t think the goal should be to keep people exclusively in Canada. The goal should be to keep Canadians (wherever they live) to keep coming back and working with and in Canada. It’s unlikely we can fund huge projects here so the onus on us is to find projects which are creative and original; ones with which high profile stars would love to be involved.
* Promotional photography of Picture Day in banner, courtesy Lauren Grant.