Jenn Brown is the executive director of the St. John's International Women's Film Festival.
Interview by Rebeccah Love
1. Can you tell me about the St. John’s International Women’s Film Festival? What’s it all about? How did it get started?
The St. John's International Women's Film Festival is one of the oldest women’s film festivals in the world, hosted in St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador. The Festival has been dedicated to screening films made by women for nearly 28 years. We present special film screenings, workshops, film camps, master classes, industry conferences, emerging filmmaker mentorship programs and other events throughout the year, leading up to our big annual festival every October. We are celebrating our 28th annual Festival October 18-22, 2017. During the five-day event we screen films from all over the world and offer amazing networking events, stellar parties and the [Interactive] Film Industry Forum- bringing the biggest leaders and creators in the country and beyond to present panels, take pitches, and meet artists! We’re really filmmaker focused and create accessible, intimate environments. The biggest decision makers in the country join us and not only can you easily meet them face-to-face (instead of waiting months and months for a meeting in Toronto), but you’re also invited to all of the same parties, lunch sessions and events as them. There’s so much value in that. If you’re new or really established, we treat everyone equal and encourage you to talk and share ideas and hopefully create projects together in the future. We are also a respected leader in the movement for gender parity in Canada’s film industry, and we take a lot of pride in our work to showcase, celebrate, and support women artists.
2. How did you first get involved in the festival?
I first became involved in the Festival as an audience member. I attended a series of great masterclasses with the Forum and loved the quality of what they offered and the atmosphere of the screenings and overall Festival events. There’s no other event quite like it, and the fact that they’re dedicated to women filmmakers was a huge draw to me, as someone who was working in the industry myself. I first started to work with the Festival as the Forum Coordinator then I managed the Scene and Heard film industry conference. I love our industry work and seeing how much people get out of it. I became the full-time Industry Liaison afterward, producing the FRAMED film education series, and then became Executive Director last September just before our 27th anniversary.
3. What are some of the challenges you face in running a film festival?
Like any non-profit arts festival, funding is always a challenge. To execute a festival like ours is a challenge with a limited budget and resources, especially as we pay every artist that we exhibit which is very important to us. With a strong team we’ve been successful in both maintaining and growing the organization over our history, which I think is a big testament to the need and value of women’s film festivals. We work hard to retain and attract new funders, partners and sponsors, with a focus on offering quality programming to attract strong audiences and showcase incredible artists.
4. What types of films are you looking for?
We only screen films written and/or directed by women. We accept films from all over the world and of all languages, genres, and formats (shorts, features, docs, animations, etc.). The Festival accepts submissions of short films and the Programming Committee curate all feature-length works.
5. What have been some of the major titles to pass through St. John’s at your festival? What have been some of your favourites?
There has been so many major titles screened at the Festival over the years. We attract both emerging and very established and celebrated filmmakers, which really provides a diverse and exciting lineup. You’ll go to see a film by someone whose work you love, and then discover so many new artists and new favourites. Plus, we attract a lot of filmmakers who always attend the Festival, so you’ll get to meet many of these people in person which is really amazing. From Deepa Mehta, Patricia Rozema, Ingrid Veninger, Aisling Walsh, Sophie Deraspe, Ann Shin, Althea Arnaquq-Baril, Ruba Nadda- the list of great Canadian and international artists goes on and on over as we look back at nearly three decades of Festival history! There’s also all of the incredible local artists whose award-winning works have premiered or been shared here at home- Sherry White, Barbara Doran, Jordan Canning, Annette Clarke, Mary Sexton, Deanne Foley, the list keeps going.
6. What is the filmmaking scene like in Newfoundland?
The film industry in Newfoundland and Labrador is fantastic. We are home to some of the most creative, hardworking, passionate screenwriters, actors, producers, and crews. Plus, we have really loyal and dedicated audiences- people here support the arts and understand the value in it, and they want to see locals advance and do well. We’re also very embracing of new art and collaborations, which has attracted so many projects to the province. Our industry has been steadily increasing and generating a lot of work. 2016 alone saw over $46 million in film production activity, which I have no doubt will continue to rise as long as our government continues to invest in this growing and important industry.
We also have really attractive tax credits and supports from the province to encourage new film developments and co-productions, which leads to a lot of work and training for local crews. The Newfoundland and Labrador Film Development Corporation is approachable and work really hard to advocate for these opportunities and put financial support behind film teams. It’s a huge part of the reason as to why there’s some of the best professional film crews here. People see the talent, beauty and resources we have to offer and want to create their film projects with us, and they end up with incredible results. This summer alone there’s a couple of feature films shooting, a ton of short films, new tv show pilots, returning large television series, french programing pieces, feature-docs, tons of commercials and more- which is really impressive for a province of our size.
Also, Festivals like ours provide opportunities to screen your work along with leading films in the festival circuit. You’re in good company. The Festival offers so many resources to help develop and advance filmmakers of all genders and identities. We’re leaders in our industry development offerings and are dedicated to advancing both the art and business skills needed.
7. Have you ever tried filmmaking yourself?
My background is in theatre as a performer and director. I studied acting and obtained a Bachelor of Fine Art in university. I began working in the film industry many years ago- my first project was as an assistant director on a short by the lovely Stephen Dunn called Swallowed. I had directed one of the two actors in a several main stage theatre shows that summer and they reached out to me to give a hand. It was a little mini crew of about 4 of us, and I had thought assistant directing in film was the same as in theatre- and I was totally wrong! It was a really amazing experience all the same and working with such wonderful people was exciting. It was a new medium for me and I loved the collaborativeness of it and learning new ways to form stories. Since then, I’ve worked on feature films, web series, television shows, commercials and more. I’ve done props, set dec, gun wrangler, helped with special effects and explosions, mentored emerging filmmakers, and most recently I directed my first music video!
8. Newfoundland is known across the country for having a very vibrant arts scene. What is it about the province that nurtures such a love of creation?
Newfoundland and Labrador is known for it’s storytellers and artists of all mediums. We have a unique cultural identity that we are proud of. Our province is known for it’s hardworking and supportive communities with strong interdisciplinary artists. It’s not hard to find really talented writers, actors, dancers, directors, or a combination of all of the above! We also live in one of the most beautiful, passionate places in the world. We’re rugged and welcoming and all of that shines through our art.
9. What part of Canada would you most like to explore?
All of it! I’ve been really fortunate to do a bit of exploring in Nunatsiavut and some of Nunavut. I’d love to explore more of the North. I’ve also never been to the prairies which I really want to do! I grew up in outport Newfoundland in a really small town right on the ocean, so the idea of the prairies is foreign and incticing to me. I love travel, so the more of Canada I get to see, the better.
10. Who are some filmmakers you are really excited by right now?
I’m really fortunate to get to experience the work of so many fantastic filmmakers, and I have so many favourites for a lot of different reasons. I’m really excited about a lot of local women filmmakers right now. There’s so many emerging and mid-career artists who are creating really innovative and bold work here in Newfoundland and Labrador. They’re supportive of one another and taking creative risks and just going for it. I’m all about that.
11. What advice would you have to give to someone who would like to have their work screened at your festival?
Submit! Share your work with us as well as your ideas- we love to hear from filmmakers and look to the local community for input in all of our planning and programming. And if you don’t get accepted, try again! We receive between 400-500 short film submissions alone and have limited screening time. That’s one of the hardest parts, not being able to screen all of the great films. Regardless of if you get accepted, attend the Festival and all of the events. Meeting other artists and sharing your work and ideas is so important and really will advance your career. We’re a friendly bunch and will help you meet other artists, too! We love seeing filmmakers advance throughout their careers, with many of the emerging artists we screen going on to create award-winning features and more.
12. What are you looking forward to?
We announce our lineup at our press conference in September. Once that happens, it’s out there in the world and real. We start to hear all of the buzz and excitement and it’s full-Festival world! I love that part. It’s so busy and gets busier as we move toward the Festival dates. The week of the Festival always ends of being a blur and goes by so quickly! As a filmmaker or content creator you’ll learn so much, watch really stunning and powerful films, get so many opportunities to meet fascinating and talented artists, get an introduction to our arts world and city, and most importantly, you’ll have a really wicked time and a whole lot of fun. I love when the full Festival team is together and in full-force, running this big festival and doing so much work on little sleep and loving all of it. We see all of our guests enjoy themselves and fall in love with St. John’s and so many keep coming back each year. It’s so rewarding to celebrate international guests as well as local artists. It’s one of the best things. A Festival is much like a film shoot-- it’s challenging, exhausting, exciting, rewarding, and then it’s a wrap!