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“The festival touches hearts and changes lives. That’s what it’s about. A tight community is one of the fruits of doing this work.”

“The festival touches hearts and changes lives. That’s what it’s about. A tight community is one of the fruits of doing this work.”


Regent Park Film Festival community cinema from distant lands

by Frances Rooney | November 5, 2008

How do you open a door to hope for kids who left far-away countries because their lives were impossible? Kids who came to Canada, only to live in a place where their lives were still impossible?

You show them films. Films from their home countries. Films from their new country. You show them how to make their own films that show their impossible lives.

You start a film festival.

This year, the 6th annual Regent Park Film Festival will show 50 films from places like Canada, Congo, Kenya, Iran, Scotland, USA, India, France, Australia, Japan, South Africa, United Kingdom, and collaborations between Canada and India, Iran and Canada, Burundi and Canada, Austria and Estonia, and Iceland, Philippines, France and Thailand.

The festival runs from November 5–8, 2008.

The films are made by award winners and first-time camera-holders. They are made by seasoned artists, and new artists – children living in Toronto’s Regent Park.

For decades, Regent Park has been considered one of the toughest neighbourhoods in Canada. It’s been home to low-income – often recently immigrated – families, many of them single women with children. It also has a reputation for being overrun with guns, murder, drugs and the sex trade. And fear.

In the 1980s, women formed resident committees to try to improve life in what’s called The Park. While they were effective to a surprising degree, they could not turn the situation around. In desperation, the city decided to tear the place down and start over.

Regent Park now looks like a war zone. It is being systematically demolished and rebuilt.

The residents of The Park, a few buildings at a time, are being housed elsewhere until construction is complete. People – many of whom came to Canada because they’d been displaced at home – are once again displaced.

In the middle of all this chaos, there is a healthy, vibrant community of creativity, hope, joy and pride.

In 2003, Chandra Siddan was a student teacher in The Park. Recently arrived from India, she lived just up the street and had a pretty clear idea of the realities of her students’ lives. With the support of the principal of Nelson Mandela School and her professor at York University, she founded the Regent Park Film Festival.

RPFF brings the world to Regent Park and puts The Park in the world.

The festival’s background statement notes that it is “dedicated to screening films relevant to the communities living in Regent Park with an emphasis on thought provoking films from our regions of origin: Africa, South Asia, East Asia and the Caribbean, as well as from Canada and the rest of the world.”

The statement goes on, “We showcase independent films of all genres celebrating differences and cultivating solidarity, exploring immigrant experiences, inner city issue, cultural identity and multicultural relationships.”

Rooted in and serving its community, many of the festival’s films are shorts, made by the people who live the issues seen in the work.

This year’s festival will show 50 films from 20 countries representing many of the more than 60 ethnicities represented in the residents of Regent Park. They include:

  • It’s me, It’s me, by Ndim Ndim, about a lesbian and anti-abuse activist, South Africa
  • Family Motel, the story of a woman and her two daughters from Somalia, who have been displaced from their home in The Park to live in a city-run motel in the far east end of metro Toronto, and their struggle to pay the bills
  • Nappy Heads, a 3-minute short shot on the streets of Toronto
  • Feminine, Masculine, by Sadaf Foroughi, about the first woman bus driver in Tehran, Iran
  • Bevel Up, by Nettie Wilde, a day in the life of street nurses in Vancouver – a film that brings up issues including health, drugs, the lives of sex workers. A study guide accompanies it for use in schools and health care workers’ training.

This year’s panel discussion will be about relocation and the Olympics. It will focus on the upheaval in the lives of people in Beijing and Athens when their communities were destroyed to make room for Olympic buildings (Beijing) and a parking lot (Athens). The topic is particularly relevant to Regent Park, whose residents are now being relocated while The Park is rebuilt.

For a child or youth who lives in poverty in an area where there are few opportunities for creativity, to make a film and have it shown to your community and to visitors from across the world is a life-changing event.

All year, young people work on films with the Regent Park Focus Youth Media Arts Centre. They learn skills, gain confidence, have exciting experiences with friends and mentors, and meet people they would never otherwise get to know.

Festival director Karin Hazé said, “The kids! Oh my God, the kids! They work all year. It’s a great joy to them to see their work on screen, to have their family and friends see it. Because of the work with Focus, a lot of these kids are now working as technicians. They have a huge sense of community. They’re not hanging around taking drugs, selling drugs, wondering what they’ll do today. They know who they are and they do good work.”

In 2007, the festival began presenting matinee films in 12 local schools. Showings are followed by discussions of “immigration, racism, growing pains of bi-cultural children, religious harmony and youth media art literacy.”

Also last year, RPFF initiated year-round events, including film evenings on the fourth Thursday of each month at the nearby Parliament Library.

“The festival touches hearts and changes lives. That’s what it’s about,” says Hazé. “A tight community is one of the fruits of doing this work. All the events are free – films, workshops, panel discussions – and we provide child care so that mothers with kids can come.”

The one event the festival charges for is a professional workshop. This year it was on animation (Toronto: animate your weekend! “This [was] an all-day workshop, a $500 workshop, and people [came] for $50. That’s pretty good,” says Karin Hazé.

RPFF started with volunteer workers, a few films, and small audiences. It now has paid staff and is hoping to hire more people on contract. It still depends on over 50 volunteers, starting with the community board of eight. In 2006, it incorporated. Last year, 1,726 people went to the festival. Forty-five films were shown, along with workshops, discussions and question periods.

This year’s festival is even larger. For films and the schedule, see the RPFF website. Here are some of the highlights, including details about the panetl discussion, posted on a separate page of Regent Park Film Festival panels and parties 2008.

With special thanks to Karin Hazé.


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