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  • Writer's pictureHingman Leung

For the love of film festivals

I'm about to go on stage as a speaker at the 2021 Digi60 film festival in Ottawa, recounting my filmmaking journey from my first submission to this festival five years ago to having two films featured on CBC Gem this year.

As I'm writing out notes for the story I'm about to tell about my journey, I notice a consistent theme. Every time I encountered something that jolted me out of my own self doubt, that inspired me to try something new, that introduced me to people who would become integral to my filmmaking journey, it was because of a film festival.

Looking back, I had never set out to make films for film festivals. I've been doing this work because deep inside my heart they were stories that I needed to see on screen. What I realize now though, as I'm preparing and shaping the narrative of my journey for a festival audience, is that film festivals are and have been the key to my growth as an independent filmmaker because they build community.

The first time I ever saw my work on the big screen with a general audience, was in 2017 when I volunteered as a mentor at a filmmaking workshop put on by the One World Arts Film Festival based in Ottawa. It was a workshop targeted at helping newcomers, refugees, and immigrants tell their stories using film. I was attracted to this program because by then I had been producing content for a variety of local organizations (event videography and social media content, mostly) and I wanted to get back into documentary work. Though I volunteered as a mentor, sharing technical and storytelling experience, what I gained was a realization that if only the general public got to know these incredible people one on one like I got to, people would be more inclined to question their prejudices and their fear of the "other".

I was involved in creating A Dream of Burundi, about a woman's life mission of finding harmony amongst opposing tribes interrupted by having to flee to Canada, only to find the same conflicts playing out in the diaspora. I also created my own documentary, creating a single meandering narrative of immigration and assimilation through interviews with my friends, called Six Voices One Story. These films were screened at the One World Arts Film Festival and also Digi60 that year.

This experience was what led me to found 613TV in 2018, the digital media arm of local award-winning arts and culture blog, Apartment613. I launched 613TV with two friends, Sean Nauth and Chantalle Clarkin, and for the next 2 years we created over 50 short form videos about the hidden gems of Ottawa. The three of us all moved to Ottawa bright eyed and bushy tailed, but all found it difficult to tap into the different sub cultures that otherwise would have been easier to find in larger cities. Combined with my personal commitment to telling stories about people that you wouldn't normally see in the mainstream, the mission of 613TV was to bring the vibrancy and diversity of Ottawa from the streets to the screen, through the eyes of people who are typically underrepresented in mainstream media. One of my favourite projects was a pilot for a web series that follows a regular Joe as he tackles pro or unique sports in Ottawa, to hilarious results -- The Good Sport pilot.

This was a period of immense growth for me as a filmmaker. Chantalle taught me about the technical side of filmmaking -- lighting and framing, the shape of a story, and how colour plays into mood; while I brought my project management and partnerships expertise into building larger and larger scaled projects. We decided to participate in the first 48 hour film contest through the Ottawa Indian Film Festival and that was how I was introduced to and fell in love with narrative filmmaking. It also helps that the film we made came in second place!

By 2019 I felt ready to challenge myself by meeting new people and enter the ring as a filmmaker at Digi60. Digi60 is a film challenge where filmmakers have 2 months to make a film based on a specific word that's announced at the launch of the challenge period. All submitted films that fit the requirements (length and keyword) are screened at a 3 day festival that also includes professional development workshops which I have benefitted from immensely. I was a co-producer, director of photography, editor, and sound mixer on the project, a film called Found Me, directed by Ludmylla Reis and written by Livia Belcea. I learned an enormous amount working on this film, because I was working with people I haven't worked with before, I was introduced to new ways of working. The three of us all felt deeply about telling a story that was true to what we wanted to do an how we wanted to do it, and we all went on to submit our own films in the 2020 festival. By the way, Found Me can be watched on CBC Gem Absolutely Canadian season 20.

And finally, it was through my involvement with the Ottawa Canadian Film Festival in 2020 that motivated me to try my hand at directing my own narrative film. I was hired on by the festival to create content that captured the in person element of community and connection for a virtual audience. Aside from intro videos, I also organized and hosted multiple panels with groups of featured filmmakers from the festival. To produce the panels, I got to watch every single film in the festival and have conversations with the filmmakers about their process, their motivations, and just get to know them as human beings. This experience made me realize that I was ready to step into my directorial debut. That's one way to look at how my dark comedy Curbside Pickup came to be, which placed top 3 in CBC's Short Film Face Off in 2021 and available to watch CBC Gem.

Film festivals have been a huge motivator for me, whether I realized it at the time or not. But now that I know, I can be even more intentional about engaging with film festivals, by submitting films, volunteering, pitching special projects, or perhaps, even becoming a board member.

Thank you to the One World Arts Film Festival, the Ottawa Indian Film Festival, the Ottawa Canadian Film Festival, Mirror Mountain Film Festival, and Digi60 for inspiring me, and introducing me to people who have expanded my creative practice and filmmaking.

A red lovely carpet moment with the cast and crew of Ruby's Way for the Ottawa Indian Film Festival Awards in 2019.

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