Lights! Camera! Action!

For two jam-packed days in August, short independent films will fill the big screen at Orangeville’s Opera House.

June 14, 2024 | | Arts

Danielle Hawkins says seeing the 2018 teen romantic comedy about a closeted gay teen, Love, Simon, inspired her to start writing film scripts, but not because she liked the movie – quite the opposite. While it was marketed as a film about a gay teen, it was criticized for how much it was targeted toward straight women. “I thought a lot about how very little queer representation in media there was,” says the high school senior. “There were barely any coming-of-age films with queer women as a focus, which is something that I really wanted to see.”

Local and visiting filmmakers will have a chance to see her first film, Lakeweed, at the inaugural Dufferin Film Festival taking place August 9 to 10 in the Orangeville Opera House theatre. Danielle’s film is one of two that are based on scripts that won the screenwriting competition sponsored by DFF. The other, a haunted house tale called Handsy, is by Liam Gillespie and James Gerus.

The two-day celebration of Canadian independent short film is more than a showcase of movies; it’s intended as a testament to the creative spirit and cultural vibrancy of the Headwaters region, says founder and festival director Kelly McDowell, a Caledon native now living in Orangeville.

“This is an arts and culture community – the Dufferin Arts Council, Alton Mill Arts Centre, Theatre Orangeville, Orangeville Blues and Jazz Festival, Monday Night at the Movies – and the film festival is a way to make Canadian film more accessible, and to help people learn how to network and meet more people in the film industry.”

dufferin film festival 2024
At a recent Saturday workshop at Westside Secondary School, screenwriter and Orangeville high school student Danielle Hawkins (left) works behind the camera with Dufferin Film Festival director Kelly McDowell, while festival event manager Christine Hann looks on. Photography by Rosemary Hasner.

Kelly and Christine Hann, a filmmaker living in Mono and the event manager of the festival, infused it with this accessibility ethos from its start in September 2023 when they announced the screenwriting contest to connect local talent to the proceedings.

After submitting scripts by the end of December, the budding filmmakers learned of their wins in February – and the opportunity to bring those scripts to life with local production house Rose Digital Media Group, which is run by Nick Rose and where Kelly works, in addition to her occasional work as an actor.

The young filmmakers met with the team in April at Westside Secondary School to start planning their June shoots. (A group of young people from Shelburne’s youth arts organization, Streams Community Hub, are also joining in to assist and learn.) From location scouting to casting and creating the shot list, the winners have been meeting weekly with the crew to keep on top of the production process.

“They are wonderful,” says James Gerus. “No egos on that team. They’re people who love to make art, love to make cinema.” And Christine, who often works with Rose Digital Media Group, says the winning screenwriters “bring a lot of professionalism and enthusiasm to the process. Each of them has brought great ideas and are also open to learning about each stage. It’s been a pleasure to work with them.”

Kelly says much like the Orangeville Blues and Jazz Festival and others, the film fest has the capacity to boost the local economy. “DFF fits in under our economic development initiatives,” she explains. “Our goal is not to go to our small businesses for money. It’s to bring in business and show what this community has to offer.” Although it’s not Toronto or Sundance, Kelly’s inspiration does come from ongoing discussions and meetings with fellow film festival directors worldwide. A not-for-profit organization, DFF is supported through local partnerships with sponsors and individual donors.

A theatre actor since the age of seven, Kelly didn’t see a way forward as an actor unless she was willing to move to Los Angeles. “What I didn’t realize then, and I know now, is that you didn’t have to be in Hollywood to build a successful career as an actor,” she says. After earning a degree in business communications and public relations, she worked in event management with Arts Whistler and others. In 2016 Kelly embarked on a career in film involving everything from acting, to casting and production.

On the Program

Filmmakers from across Canada have applied to appear on the program, and Kelly is confident the festival program will be reflective of the diverse tapestry of Canadian culture and identity. “We have had an unexpected number of films submitted for our first year and we are very excited to present them to our jury,” she says.

For Kelly the focus on shorts in the 20-minute range allows DFF to showcase as many films as possible, as well as shining a spotlight on as many Canadian filmmakers as it can. “They allow you to just take a bite.”

The weekend kicks off with an opening night red carpet and film screenings Friday, August 9 at the Opera House. This will include the two premières from the screenwriting competition. This is followed by the Friday Night Social in the Bluebird Café & Grill back parking lot. Movies start up again bright and early on Saturday morning, along with a networking coffee event at the Town Hall Atrium, followed by more movies in the afternoon.

Film lovers can also attend a speaker series at the Orangeville Library’s Mill Street location, featuring industry professionals such as a special effects artist discussing her experience as a woman navigating the film industry. For many attendees the highlight will be the awards presentation on Saturday night. The full schedule and tickets will be available at dufferinfilmfest.com in June with newsletter subscribers being among the first to know.

In the meantime, the festival has already provided a platform for emerging talents Liam, James and Danielle. Family movie nights first sparked Liam’s interest in film – early favourites were The Incredibles and The Lego Movie – and when his interest turned toward Oscar-winning films as he got older, he also became hooked on storytelling.

dufferin film festival 2024
Mono screenwriter and actor James Gerus (left) and Orangeville screenwriter and high school student Liam Gillespie collaborated on their film, Handsy, which will be screened at the Dufferin Film Festival.

“Stories are one of the foundations of the human spirit,” says Liam. “I remember being really enveloped in that world and I began writing.” A Westside Secondary School student headed to McMaster University in Hamilton this fall, he has several creative interests, including photography.

Liam was inspired by the DFF screenwriting workshop he took back in November 2023. There he collaborated with James to produce their winning script. Handsy is the tale of a young boy who becomes trapped in a haunted house while looking for his lost dog. When James, a Theatre Orangeville veteran and screenwriter himself, heard Liam talking about his initial seed of an idea for Handsy, he could immediately visualize the concept coming to life on screen and suggested they work together to develop the script.

Danielle attends Orangeville District Secondary School and will be at Ontario College of Art and Design University in the fall. While Hollywood may seem worlds away, Danielle’s passion for storytelling has no bounds. With a love of non-traditional storylines garnered from 1980s classics such as The Breakfast Club and St. Elmo’s Fire, along with the recent innovative animation in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, she is excited for the opportunities that lie ahead.

For Lakeweed, Danielle drew on a collection of short stories she had written to create a short that touches upon themes of friendship, loneliness and anger, and is inspired in part by Danielle’s penchant for spooky stories. “At its core, it’s an urban legend tied to the emotions of a very tumultuous relationship between two girls. I think everyone will see something different,” she says.

A Welcome Development

Brenda Stephen, a longtime organizer of Orangeville’s Monday Night at the Movies (MNM), sees the DFF as a welcomed addition to the community. MNM, known for its curated presentations of independent films, operates in collaboration with the Toronto International Film Festival’s Film Circuit, which brings outstanding films and artists to communities across Canada.

Brenda says the new festival will not only promote the area as a cultural destination, but also provide enriching opportunities for local youth interested in the film industry. In an era where blockbuster superhero franchises and over-the-top action movies often take top billing at the box office, Brenda says she is heartened by the DFF’s focus on creating a space for Canadian independent filmmakers to thrive.

Tristan Barrocks, a Canadian film director who lives in Shelburne, led the screenwriting workshop Liam and James attended after connecting with Kelly and Christine over their shared passion for film. Tristan is also a member of the festival jury. He sees the DFF as an opportunity to both share his experience with budding screenwriters and give back to his community.

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  • “I was happy to help because I grew up in theatre, and then film, photography and editing. Anything to support these grassroots opportunities for a younger generation,” Tristan says. “Not everyone needs to be at the Toronto International Film Festival to share their stories. There is a certain cadence and feel to the larger festivals. We need a curated experience that speaks to the diversity of race, of thought, of perspective and from the rural perspective.”

    Tristan, like his students, emphasizes the importance of storytelling: “Our greatest gift is our perspective, the way we see the world, the way we take in information, the way we put it through our lens, and filter and personal experiences.”

    Finishing Touches

    As Kelly and Christine finalize the festival plans, they say they’ve been inspired by the response to a call for volunteers and welcome any help from film enthusiasts. “Even if someone only has a few hours, we would gladly appreciate their help,” Kelly says.

    At a time when competition for audience attention is fierce, Kelly hopes local audiences will embrace the event. “The success of the Canadian film industry relies on the relationship with and support of its audiences,” she says. “As Canadians we should support and encourage the artistic growth and development of our homegrown talent, and be impressed with what our country’s filmmakers are creating.”

    About the Author More by Anna Lee Boschetto

    Anna Lee Boschetto is a freelance writer living in Bolton.

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