Victoria West: Looking back at 2001 when you founded ReelWorld Film Festival, do you think you achieved what you were hoping for, after these 13 years, or even more than you hoped for?
Tonya Lee Williams: I don’t know, not more that I hoped for, but exactly what I actually thought. We needed a place, a meeting place, let’s say an oasis, where all these diverse film makers could come together, share their experiences, and help each other. What I’ve watched over the 13 years is how they have bonded. They are now working together, they have produced and directed films, built production companies, and that’s really what I wanted the festival to be – it’s the oasis where we come together, and share, and move forward. It was also a great platform to attract a lot of distributors and more senior professionals in the industry to be able to impart their knowledge to a lot of these emerging artists.
At the time when we started the festival, there was really nothing like it. There wasn’t a place where people could just go every year: “This is where I can put my film, this is where I can meet people who can help my career”. The fact that that keeps happening, is what my expectation always was; and if that keeps happening, then this is where I meant it to be.
VW: What are you the most excited for about this year's ReelWorld Film Festival?
TLW: I think the programming is so superior this year. We have some amazing films. Not only do we have 66% Canadian films this year, but we also show films from Egypt, Iran, Uganda, Nigeria, UK, Ireland, Caribbean, Guadalupe. We have the first film from a female director from Guadalupe at the festival this year. The films are absolutely amazing. I’m also very proud of our music video program. When people think music videos, I think they are always thinking hip-hop and urban music; but it’s an art form, and there are so many directors doing so many beautiful things, visually beautiful things, and that’s what we want people to look at when they look at the music videos that we programmed this year.
Also, industry series – people forget that a film festival is not just screening films. We have amazing panels. Telefilm is doing a panel that is the best panel for people who are emerging film makers and who are always saying: “How do I get my film made, how do I get financing, how do I move it to the next step?” This is the panel you need to be at. Another wonderful panel is the panel with The Writers’ Guild of Canada – there is a lot of writers who want to get into TV shows; how do you become a part of a writers’ team? This panel is about that.
And then the networking events that we do – when we say networking, we think less about parties, we don’t think much networking thing happens at parties. We do a brunch with an Ontario Media Development Corporation support session where people can talk and sit, and be casual and comfortable, and yet in a working environment.
Another event we do is Face2Face, which is an opportunity for emerging artists to have 15 minutes one-on-one time with more senior professionals to talk about whether they are pitching a project or if they are trying to move their careers to the next level.
So there are so many components! What’s great is we have an amazing website that Wired Messenger developed, and we just launched it on March 20th. On the website, there is everything – an opportunity for people to see information about more that 84 films that are in the festival this year, and to see all the different workshops, and panels, and everything that’s going on, including our Reel Youth screening, which happens on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday (April 12th, 13th, 14th). Schools bring kids age 8 to 13 to see an amazing production of some films that we’ve gotten from the National Film Board, and also LIFT is doing a workshop for them. So there is a lot in 5 days.
VW: How it is decided which films to be screened for the opening and closing nights?
TLW: We do it as a collective. I worked with 7 programmers this year (I was the director of programming), and we looked at everything. This year we’re opening with a film from Ghana, Contract; in fact, there are not many films that have come from Ghana. Every year we try to look for what’s the community that we should spotlight a bit this year. That film is a hilarious one, a comedy. We’re closing with a salvation Bollywood film, Aayna Ka Bayna, but a Bollywood film with a twist that has a modern take on how Bollywood films are done.
These are done as a collective. We as programmers get together, we discuss all the programming, we look at what we think is the strongest film to open the festival with, what would be to close the festival, and then what pieces to put all in the centre.
VW: How do you see ReelWorld Film Festival in the future, let’s say in 10 years from now?
TLW: Ten years from now? I want it to be the same festival actually. I just want a bigger audience. I want the Canadian audience to come to the festival excited to see what Canadian artists are doing, what international emerging artists are doing, so for me the growth at this point is always now about the audience. We have great filmmakers, we have great films, we have incredible staff, we have phenomenal programmers – that is all great. If I can keep all that up, then I am really happy. What I still find challenging is how to get the audience to get out of their bed, get in their car and come down to Canada Square and check out the five days of the festival. And I think most film festivals struggle with this, but it’s something that we work on all the time. TIFF, Cannes – everybody struggles with it. But I think that’s what I would want in 10 years – everything to be sold out, every single film.
And we have to expand the festival. Sometimes people even now say to me: “The festival is 5 days, why don’ you make it longer?” I said I would not make the festival longer, until I see every film is filled in the five days. Then I will know it’s time to expand it. But there is no point to make the festival longer for no reason.
For more information about the festival please visit ReelWorld.ca.