The 30th Vancouver Queer Film Festival is officially underway and one of our WIFTV blog writers, Hanna B, recently took a moment to catch up with five WIFTV members with films screening at the festival.
“Beauty“, directed by Christina Willings, is a short documentary exploring the lives of five gender-creative kids through their understanding of themselves, the changes they are going through, their thoughts about how others perceived them, their daily challenges, and their hopes and dreams.
The film not only tells incredible stories of understanding and acceptance, it is also a timely piece that reflects on current issues as we watch the kids talk about dealing with bullies or discussing relationships and gender with their parents. A notion the director was also personally familiar with, “I’ve always kind of felt gender was a bad experiment – the way it can lock us into being caricatures of ourselves,” explained Willings. She then added that having children at the center of the film to relay this message was crucial, “Listening to a child really has the power to make irrelevant concerns fall away, leaving only what’s important behind – their survival, their happiness, their thriving. Love.”
The film features animated details and surreal sequences that bring something magic, almost like a modern fairy tale, where a child gets to be what they want to be – their true self. Through ups and downs, with beautiful and heart-wrenching moments that illustrate how far we’ve come to have kids be able to freely express themselves and be accepted for who they are. Yet, the world is far from perfect and more changes need to happen, as some discussions in the film surrounding “bathroom issues” and parents not wanting their children “playing with gay kids” will remind us. But this is the right time, a time when these changes can happen, and as Willings stressed, “We now have this window of opportunity as things have allowed it and changes in society.”
Regarding the animation, Willings mentioned she was quite thrilled about the creative freedom she had. “Thanks to the National Film Board of Canada’s involvement in the project, I didn’t have to produce it or finance it. I had the luxury of writing and directing only, which was amazing.” While she had the idea of including the drawings from early on, she explained, “I had never worked with animation, so figuring out how to create a parallel ‘narrative’ track was a new avenue from me.” Moreover, she confirmed that the ideas and imagery, from mermaids to astronauts, all came from the children, who either drew them or gave instructions. “I really drew on collaboration with the children for the animation. I had them send me images, and chat with me about [what] they were really into … I also love the idea that the children somehow had to break through to another dimension, where they could create a reality of their choosing and bring it back with them, to change the way things are, and their own experience, here on earth with the rest of us.”
Another striking thing about “Beauty” is how well-spoken all the kids involved are, even the younger ones. Seeing kids managing to pinpoint and articulate their feelings with simple yet meaningful phrases, such as “I have a girl body, but a boy brain,” or “I think there’s more than one gender” (a sentiment that will be echoed through Orene Askew in ‘EQ’ discussed below) or that they wanted to be “reborn as a boy”, is not so common and the director indicated that what these children have gone through has forced them to mature and find words to describe/define themselves. Willings noted, “I began to meet kids who had such a deep knowing about themselves – that something about who they were told they should be just wasn’t right – and they knew it with such clarity, so early, I knew I had to amplify their beautiful voices.”
“Beauty” was shot in 10 days over a period of roughly 2 years as Willings had to gain the trust of each subject to ensure their best unfiltered unpolluted representation. She had to make sure that they were comfortable being who they are and feel safe, but as they were all kids it proved to be a challenge that she willingly took on. “Working with kids, although delightful, was also a challenge, but a good one. I had to be really present and willing to adjust on a dime, kids don’t stand around waiting for you to make your mind up – and when they’ve had enough, they let you know!”
As Willings reiterated, the idea of “feeling safe” was fundamental for the kids and parents alike. Although the first half of the film surprisingly does not really feature the parents, she included them later on to highlight the importance of showing that “the kids were loved and safe” in their environment. They probably would have not become who they are, so comfortably or openly, if it wasn’t for these amazing parents who decided to trust her with their family-stories. She described this process: “I pulled the threads of a few connections I already had and made some more – I reached out to people within the gender creative community and began to work to establish trust … and they put me through quite the extended family smell test! I loved it actually! I loved all of it – I was thrilled to have deep conversations about trust and exposure with all of the parents. It’s an indispensable part of earning the right to tell anyone’s story in my view – particularly children’s stories, and most especially trans children’s stories.”
As challenging as a project like “Beauty” can be, Christina Willings succeeded in delivering a very touching and informative piece displaying her knowledge and expertise. She has worked in various companies (as a legal editor, doing poetry on the side, working in a health food store, in women’s shelters and Rape Crisis centres) but has been in the film & TV industry for more than 20 years, She has done it “the long way!” learning through experience, starting as a locations PA “like everyone else,” working in nearly every department before settling in set decoration and becoming a senior Union member (Art Direction). She, also started her company with a colleague in 2011 as she realized she “wanted to be closer to the creative process” and went on to write, produce, direct multiple acclaimed films, broadcast documentaries and also factual TV programs for Discovery, History, Slice, HGTV, Discovery ID, Global and OWN.
Willings is now working at TELUS, commissioning and producing original stream of content, but she revealed that she still has a plan for another important and profound project in the vein of “Beauty”: “I’m fully occupied with other peoples’ projects at the moment! However, when I look down the road, after this experience with “Beauty”, using a more drama/doc hybrid style of shooting, I know I’d love to explore that more.”
“EQ”, directed by Anika Syskakis, a Vancouver-based documentary filmmaker specializing in social justice and inclusivity, follows local DJ Orene Askew aka DJ O Show.
The short documentary observes and explores the interesting life and career of the Indigenous-African-Canadian/American multi-hyphenate (DJ, entertainer, entrepreneur, Sḵwx̱wú7mesh Nation council member, and music instructor) as she talks about her work, her identity, her sexuality, and her understanding of the world. As Syskakis explained “This film originally started as a documentary focused on female and gender non-identifying DJs in Vancouver. Orene Askew, better known as DJ O SHOW was one of the subjects of the film. After spending time with her, I realized that her story needed to be told individually.” As the camera follows Askew in her daily activities and through the various interviews, viewers get a sense of the person she is, learn about her path to finding herself and her passion for empowering people like her or encouraging the youth in her community.
While delving into the duality or multitude of her person, her ethnicity, her self-identification as a two-spirit person, the film also addresses questions and issues around representations or lack of diverse representation in the media; especially when it comes to First Nations peoples.
“EQ” not only presents us with a portrait of a complex individual but it also manages to put things in perspective with its self-conscious or self-reflexive style, which might be why Syskakis was the right director. She remarked, “Film is such a vehicle for empathy and understanding – it allows the viewer to be part of something, be it a movement or worldview, outside their everyday experience.”
Being first an Anthropology graduate, Syskakis mentioned that she has “Always been so intrigued by humans and their stories, from our own local communities to worldwide.” She then studied Documentary Film Production as she understood that it was a great way to blend her two passions. “I yearned for a deeper worldwide cultural understanding to build upon my worldly experience … filmmaking would allow me to support the sharing of stories, while promoting human connectedness, with such potential of reach,” Syskakis added.
Now, a seasoned filmmaker described as “Committed to shining light on topics that spark empathy through diverse stories,” Syskakis has work featured on platforms including CBC ARTS, Out in Schools and various festivals before making “EQ” – that she said was not so easy to make: “I made this film with a VERY small budget. This meant that the filming, sound, lighting, and editing were all executed solo. This definitely proved to be a challenge, but it also taught me so much about all sides of the filmmaking process.” – is ready to tackle a new empowering story. “My current project is a documentary film named “Dancing Through”. It is the story of powwow dancer and metis jigger, Madelaine McCallum, and her journey through cancer of the breast.”
Hannâ B works in the industry and writes about Films & TV Shows on her blog What2watch2night.com.