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A Reel World Experience

Toronto's Reel World Film Festival gives rising minority filmmakers a voice,
stage and an audience

By Rosanna Brazil

Reel World FestivalActor Tonya Lee Williams is one of those women who can make things happen. Aware of the challenges faced by culturally and ethnically diverse filmmakers in Canada, she imagined a film festival that would get their films out there and get them seen. Within a year, the Reel World Film Festival opened its doors. That was in 2001.

“My intention for Reel World was to create an opportunity where people of colour—in particular artists of colour—had the opportunity to empower themselves in the Canadian entertainment industry,” says Williams, a recognizable face to daytime drama fans. For the past sixteen years, Williams has played Dr. Olivia Winters on the “Young and The Restless.” Now in its sixth year, the festival has begun to show signs that it has the staying power of its well-known creator.

Dawn Wilkinson is one filmmaker who knows that Reel World has become everything Williams had hoped it would. “Reel World has developed an audience for my film. It’s helped me get to reach audiences,” said the director who in 2004 screened a rough cut of her film Devotion at Reel World. The story of a biracial child whose father has killed her mother in a drunk-driving accident, it earned Wilkinson the Tony Stolz Completion Award and with her grant money, she was able to put the finishing touches on Devotion for the 2005 festival.  Last year, the final product won the Star! ReelChoice Audience Award. 

Wilkinson gained more than an opportunity from her exposure at Reel World. “With Devotion they’ve given me a lot of support,” says the filmmaker. The first award was critical. “It brought attention to the story” and “it helped me get my film finished.” The up-and-coming director has gone on to enter Devotion in other festivals and has won another award for it in San Francisco.

Director Ritchie Mehta credits his experience at Reel World for the success of his film Amal. Mehta spent two months in India this year turning the story of a poor rickshaw driver who receives a fortune from a disillusioned billionaire into a full length film.

“There’s no way I’d be on the path to directing my first feature without Reel World,” says Mehta. With the help of his connections from Reel World, he shot Amal and then entered the film in 2005 festival. Last year it won the 2005 Kodak Award for best Canadian short. Later on that year, Mehta worked day and night to get the film ready for Telefilm’s 2005 Pitch This Competition. The work paid off and the contest awarded Mehta a $10,000 prize to turn it into a feature length film. 

But helping directors is only part of Reel World’s mandate. As the festival evolves, so does the kind of the help it provides to aspiring artists in the community. With its children’s workshop, “Diversity at Our Doorstep,” a program that encourages children from Toronto’s at-risk neighbourhoods to view short Canadian films, it nurtures talent among kids who never dreamed of becoming filmmakers. After the screenings, participants are taught scriptwriting, production and post-production, and they are then given the chance to create a film on what diversity means to them.

This year’s festival premiered April 19-23, 2006 at the Market Rainbow Cinema in Toronto.