Getting to know the NSI Business for Producers students of 2020 (part 3)

Top row from left: A.J. Demers, Andrea Feltrin, Ervin Chartrand, Fonna Seidu, Jacob Pratt, Kate Fenton, Stuart Matheson; middle row: Carmen Forsberg, Bram Timmer, Flore de Bayser, Ian Bawa, Jen Viens, Richard Agecoutay, Priyanka Desai; bottom row: Alex Sangha, Carla Robinson, Alex Duong, Hedyeh Bozorgzadeh, Jason Arsenault, Kulbinder Saran Caldwell, Seth Williams

Top row from left: A.J. Demers, Andrea Feltrin, Ervin Chartrand, Fonna Seidu, Jacob Pratt, Kate Fenton, Stuart Matheson; middle row: Carmen Forsberg, Bram Timmer, Flore de Bayser, Ian Bawa, Jen Viens, Richard Agecoutay, Priyanka Desai; bottom row: Alex Sangha, Carla Robinson, Alex Duong, Hedyeh Bozorgzadeh, Jason Arsenault, Kulbinder Saran Caldwell, Seth Williams

Last week NSI welcomed 21 participants via Zoom to begin the NSI Business for Producers training program – a distance learning and mentorship program designed to help emerging producers nurture creative ideas (of all genres) while navigating the logistics and legalities of screen-based storytelling in a COVID-19 environment. Read more about this year’s participants.

Each was tasked with a writing assignment at the end of their first week. We asked about why they applied for the program, what they hope to get out of it and a little about the project they’re developing through training.

Since there are 21 talented participants, we’re rolling out the writing pieces in three separate posts to avoid publishing a very long post.

Read: part 1 and part 2.

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Alex Sangha – Emergence – Out of the Shadows (Delta, BC)

Alex Sangha

I applied for the NSI Business for Producers program because I am passionate about social justice documentary filmmaking. I am a social worker and counsellor by profession. I feel film is another avenue to do social advocacy and social activism and reach a global audience through film festivals, broadcast, streaming sites as well as high schools, colleges and universities.

I want to empower people to share their lived experience and give a voice to the vulnerable. I am working to produce films with the following themes:

  • LGBTQ+ community
  • Human rights
  • Immigrants and refugees
  • Social justice issues
  • South Asian people
  • Indigenous communities and People of Colour
  • Vulnerable and marginalized peoples
  • Educational documentaries

My first short documentary film, My Name Was January, was about a transgender Filipina woman, January Marie Lapuz, who tragically lost her life in September 2012 in New Westminster, BC.

The film won 14 international awards and 64 official selections at film festivals around the world. The film entered the Canadian Screen Awards for Best Short Documentary and was an official selection in the NSI Online Short Film Festival.

My Name Was January reached audiences all over the world and had an impact in its own small way. This further sparked my interest in becoming a documentary filmmaker.

I expect to absorb knowledge, skills and expertise from the NSI Business for Producers program. I am excited about:

  • Networking with fellow students, staff, instructors and guest speakers to gain knowledge and expand my professional circle of industry contacts
  • Developing a relationship with an experienced mentor in the film industry who lives in metro Vancouver
  • Learning about pitching, storytelling for producers, budgeting, Indigenous protocols and pathways, conditions for successful negotiations, tax credits, finance structure and cash flow, post-production and distribution

I am currently working on a feature documentary film called Emergence: Out of the Shadows.

Synopsis

Explore the taboo topic of being gay and lesbian in the South Asian community of metro Vancouver and abroad. Kayden tells a poignant story of family rejection and self-discovery while embracing his newfound family and life. Parents and their children discuss the struggles they have endured and overcome to preserve the family through generations to come. Success often means setting aside long-established culture and tradition for compassion, love and acceptance.

I feel very blessed and have much gratitude for having been selected to participate in NSI Business for Producers with so many distinguished staff, students, instructors and guest speakers.

I think it’s wonderful that the program is online in part due to COVID. I feel NSI is not only nurturing our careers as filmmakers but ensuring we are safe!

Feel free to contact me at alexsangha@gmail.com

I love to learn and meet new people!


Kulbinder Saran Caldwell – The Nightbird (Toronto, ON)

Kulbinder Saran Caldwell

I was eager to apply for the NSI Business for Producers program because I wanted a formal education in how to produce the correct way.

I was drawn into producing by an associate producer on a docudrama. I was in a volunteer position. He was impressed by my business acumen and asked me to become his partner in a production company. Overnight, I was the decision-maker and lead producer on all the projects on our slate. Although much of producing is entrepreneurial in nature, there is something to be said for having a consistent process to follow every single time you produce a project.

I expect to leave the program with not only a quantity of valuable information but also a toolkit I can reference on future projects. I expect to benefit from being part of a cohort which supports one another. I will be able to reach out to class members with questions drawing on their experience and expertise in situations that are unfamiliar to me. And I will be available to them for the same. We are the next generation of filmmakers and, over the time we spend together, there is as much to learn from each other as there is from the course itself.

I’m adapting Anita Rau Badami’s novel Can You Hear the Nightbird Call? into a limited series called The Nightbird. I fell in love with the story when I read it years ago and it stayed with me until I was compelled to option the book. It is about three South Asian women and how their lives intersect from the Komagata Maru all the way to the Air India bombing and how it impacted the Vancouver Sikh community.

The tragedy has been the 9/11 to the Sikh diaspora since that day. Originally, I intended to make it a feature film, but the story was too epic – spanning many decades and countries – between Canada and India. As I pitched the story to my fellow participants, it was wonderful to hear from Hedyeh Bozorgzadeh that she loved the author and her books. Producers read a lot of books and stories as they search for the IP they want to develop into a film or series – so hearing she was familiar with Anita’s work helped us connect right away.

I enjoy meeting and working with the group of 20 others online. There’s something about seeing everyone’s face and their living space in a small square on the screen to put everyone on a level playing field. We’re all juggling producing with family and life obligations which are heightened as a result of everyone working from home. This is indicative of the daily juggling act we do as producers that isn’t always apparent to others. It humanizes us all that we’re in this together … and if one of us succeeds, so do the rest of us. Which is a pretty lovely place to be in the middle of all this uncertainty.


Fonna Seidu – What Comes After (Toronto, ON)

Fonna Seidu

Hi, I’m Fonna (pronounced “Phone-Ahh). I’m a producer that champions QTBIPOC teams and projects. With five plus years of working in the non-profit sector as a project manager, I translate my experience and skills to film and media production.

Why did I apply for the program?

It was February 2020 at the Afro Prairie Film Festival when Promise Me was premiering. I remember meeting Joy Loewen [NSI’s CEO] at a mixer and she told me about the fantastic programs at NSI and, since then, I’ve been keeping my eye on upcoming programs.

In July 2020, an initiative called #StartWith8HollywoodNorth paired me up with a mentor and previous NSI alumnus, Daniel Bekerman. One of the questions I asked was why he participated in so many incubator programs. He talked about how the stakes aren’t as high as a new producer and “It’s a safe space to ask ‘dumb’ questions and bounce ideas off other people.” A few days after, he forwarded me the call for applications.

The final piece to me wanting to apply for the program is because I am looking for Black queer women producers. Folks in my network who produce mostly do so because they have to and would rather write and direct. If I have to be one of the first then I want to soak up as much information as possible to give the projects on my slate the best possible chance of success.

Here’s a little bit about the project I’m developing through the program:

  • The impetus: Oyin Olalaken (the writer of What Comes After), took part in a three-month writing intensive to develop the story. Oyin was compelled to tell this story because when she turned 19, she was confronted with the realities of her family’s dynamics changing drastically. What Comes After grapples with the myth of certainty that every entry-level adult must face. The theme of the inevitability of change is most clear in the crumbling dynamics of Adésola’s family, Adésola’s hypervigilance of her gentrifying neighborhood, and her daydreams of transforming her mother’s salon. Additionally, the film is an ode to friendship as the soft place to learn the vulnerable lessons of healing, growing, daring and trying something new without knowing the outcome.
  • How did I get involved: do you remember that MASSIVE CBC Creative Relief Fund callout for projects? Oyin asked Sasha Leigh Henry and I to join the project as a producers. Since then, we’ve been developing the project further with Sasha helping Oyin with the script while I’m helping with grant applications and other non-creative deliverables.

Although the program is virtual, luckily I’ve had the pleasure of attending other virtual events such as Gimli Film Festival’s The Future is Ours! mentorship program and film markets like Banff Media Festival, Cannes and the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). I deeply wish I could meet folks in person and connect, but what I value most is the information and hands-on experience gained from the program.


Bram Timmer – Netherworld (Calgary, AB)

Bram Timmer

After two decades as a creative in the digital media space where rapidly consumable content is the norm, I’ve grown weary of continually feeding the insatiable and ever-expanding digital space with advertising content that has an extremely short lifespan.

When my second child was born, I gave ‘legacy’ a great deal of thought. I took time to reflect on past work and whether my kids would be proud of my accomplishments. Was there a sense of pride coming through a portfolio or any shiny statues on a shelf? Would it help them? It took some doing but I realized that it’s not about materialistic things – it rarely is – but simply about being a good father. Being there for them in the now, and always.

That spiralled into thinking about my own upbringing in the Netherlands and the steps my parents, grandparents, uncles etc. took to get to where they are today. When I dug deep into my family history, some laughable but also deceitful truths revealed themselves. Simultaneously, I found this article in Vanity Fair‘s archives about the influence the Dutch have on Trump’s government. Some of it all got a bit too close to home. All this work that doesn’t seem like actual work – because it’s feeding your curiosity – laid the foundations for the dark comedy drama series Netherworld as the project I’m developing through NSI Business for Producers.

Last year, by producing CAMP‘s annual festival, I gained invaluable insight into Hollywood productions through an art-department walkthrough and set visits of Ghostbusters: Afterlife thanks to friend and production designer, François Audouy. It solidified in me, my strengths and capabilities, as well as the continued urge to create meaningful content for large-scale audiences that builds tribes but now through narrative.

After taking a deep dive, joining the Producers Association of America (PGA) and the Canadian Media Producers Association (CMPA), I became acutely aware of the National Screen Institute’s role in helping emerging storytellers find their way in the Canadian landscape. As such, when the opportunity to apply for this program came along and when I saw how it would provide mentorship, enhance my network and give my process structure instead of my ad-hoc approach, I jumped.

When I received the news that I was accepted into the program out of a record number of applicants, I felt extremely honoured. Before the program, it felt like I was living and working on an island even though I was landlocked with mountains to the west and prairies to the east.

Now, after the first week of NSI Business for Producers, I’m acquainted with fellow emerging and established producers across the country together with a swath of doors that have opened. I’m humbled and appreciative of every moment and nervously look forward to each and every session.


Jen Viens – Autonomic (Montreal, QC)

Jen Viens

Hello everyone!

I’m an emerging producer, director and actor. Though I’m originally from Vancouver, I now call Montreal my home.

I began my career in film and television as an actor, but quickly gravitated to directing and producing. My experience up until this point has been largely in independent short form content.

I applied for the NSI Business for Producers program because I am keenly interested in expanding my portfolio and skillset as a producer. I have a fair amount of experience in guerilla, low-budget filmmaking, but I would love to move into larger-budget projects with grander scopes. As well, many of the skills I’ve cultivated to date have been the result of simply getting in and getting my hands dirty – I’ve learned most of what I know on the job and online. I’m excited to learn about producing in a formal setting and acquire new skills.

I’m also grateful to be part of NSI because it allows me the opportunity to connect with other industry professionals and get to know fellow emerging producers. All of whom I hope will continue to be friends and colleagues for the duration of my career.

The project I’m developing is Autonomic – a 60-minute episodic sci-fi series. It’s set in the not-too-distant future, when government and corporations have finally (and inevitably) merged, and the affluent entertain themselves by downloading their consciousness into the bodies of impoverished women.

The series follows one woman, Zero, who signs up to be a service provider – or ‘Hollow’ – as they’re known on the street. Zero struggles with a deep desire to crawl out of poverty and find her place in the world, while ignoring the feeling in her gut that something isn’t right with the process. It’s a grounded sci-fi story that explores themes of policing women’s bodies, the desperate search for belonging and, of course, capitalism.

We are definitely living in strange, virtual times, so being part of a cohort that meets and works entirely online is novel to me and therefore quite an adjustment. Having said that, if this program weren’t virtual, I might not have been able to take part this year. So, I suppose I have COVID to thank for one thing. But ONLY one thing!

Though it’s always more desirable to be able to learn face-to-face, I’m looking forward to getting to know everyone, to building lasting connections and to learning and sharing with the team.


Seth Williams – Baiter (Canmore, AB)

Seth Williams

I’m an Alberta-based independent filmmaker and founder of Flip City Films – an award-winning production company specializing in cinematic storytelling. The scope of work we do ranges from music videos to branded content, short form narrative and documentary films.

As an independent filmmaker working with micro budgets, I’ve developed a diverse skillset, often writing, producing, directing, shooting and editing the projects myself. From script to screen, I’m passionate about the entire process.

As I develop my first feature film, I continue to pursue bigger projects and opportunities to collaborate with others in a key creative position.

Feel free to check out my work and drop me a line if you’re interested in collaborating.

The NSI Business for Producers program

An understanding of technology, communication, leadership skills and creative thinking are some of my strengths as a filmmaker. With the support of the NSI Business for Producers program, as well as industry leaders, I’m hoping to develop a greater understanding of business affairs, tax credits and financing structures.

This is also a fantastic chance to network with fellow filmmakers from across Canada. There are so many unique, diverse and fascinating voices in this program, it will be exciting to watch their careers grow as these projects come to fruition.

Project in development

The project I’m developing through this program is a feature-length film entitled Baiter – a gritty social drama about a man who works with sexually abused and at-risk youth. He becomes disillusioned by the systemic failures of the justice system when a sex offender is released into the community and reoffends. When a child he’s been working with is brutally raped and killed, he decides to take the law into his own hands.

This film will be unique because, in addition to exploring the themes outlined in the story, it’s a character study of a man who willfully surrenders to his own self-destructive tendencies.

Online learning during COVID-19

Having 20-something strangers visit my home several times a week via Zoom has been a welcome reprieve. My only sadness is not being able to meet in person. Hopefully soon …

• • •

NSI Business for Producers is funded by Program Partner Canada Media Fund (CMF); Strategic Sponsors Telefilm Canada and The Winnipeg Foundation; Supporting Sponsors Corus Entertainment and Super Channel; Industry Consultants Executive Education Centre, Asper School of Business, Facilitated Solutions and People First HR Services. NSI Core Funders are Manitoba Sport, Culture & Heritage and the City of Winnipeg through the Winnipeg Arts Council.

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