As a filmmaker and a proud Torontonian, I have a habit of anticipating the Toronto Youth Shorts Film Festival every year. Not only does it mark the start of summer, but I tend to have some kind of involvement to the festival year after year. Whether it was participating in their annual T24 Project or refusing to shake the judge’s hand due to sickness when accepting my award (shameless plug, I know), I always look forward to this event, and so should you if you are at all interested in the fostering creative youth of Toronto. Earlier this week I caught up with festival director and fellow nerd Henry Wong:
In a few sentences, tell me what the Toronto Youth Shorts Film Festival is about? What are you aiming to do?
The Toronto Youth Shorts Film Festival is an event where young artists, serious or otherwise, can proudly showcase their work in a professional context. The people may be new at the game but we treat them like they’re at their prime. The purpose is to be both an educational and entertaining forum for everyone involved.
Where did the idea of TYSFF first come from?
I had to do an event outline as a practicum for my Event Management postgraduate diploma. We had to do research and write it as if we’re actually trying to run the event but we didn’t need to actually do it to get a grade. I thought that was stupid since it was a lot of effort for no gain so the overly ambitious Asian kid in me decided that if I’m putting all these weeks of work into it (not to mention paying the tuition for the facilities in the Hospitality centre), I might as well try to actually do it with whatever resources and knowledge I have. I don’t like wasted opportunities when it comes to taking advantage of your educational resources.
Why did you choose short films as your medium, and why only restrict it to the youth?
Because when young people make features, they tend to be bad. Sorry to be blunt, but let’s face it, it’s true. We’re limited in resources and too green to be tackling features, something that not even professionals dare jump into without some major experience and street cred under their belts. Shorts give new filmmakers an opportunity to explore genres they like but forcing them to go about it in new ways in order to thrive. The filmmakers who simply mimic what they like on TV and in commercial films don’t go very far nor do they produce interesting work.
As for why restricting it to youth? I feel like that’s the one area this city is lacking when it comes to spotlighting artists. Work from young people and students tend to be associated with being amateur or no good and I think the festival can honestly say we take that notion and flip it on its face. Plus, to see what younger emerging artists come up with due to financial restraints can bear more fruitful results when it comes to creativity. I always smile when I see a kid use a hockey stick as a boom pole. Also, older and more experienced filmmakers have access to grants, even if they’re completely terrible filmmakers while young people and students who have the potential of making great work are shut out from that game and are limited to what their institutions have in place.
Can we expect anything new and exciting for this year’s festival?
We have tons of great animation this year. Our docs are as educational as ever and really highlights some of the notions and ideologies around us that we should look at with a critical eye. Fictional dramas and comedies are all also on top of their game when it comes to quality.
Toronto is a very diverse and international city, and we’ve noticed a few Asian filmmakers in the past few years. Should Banana Times readers be aware of any films made by young Asian filmmakers?
I love it when a filmmaker of Asian descent brings us work that has an obvious influence from their background though I am admittedly biased as to why I would like that.
Do you see a gradual improvement in terms of the quality of short films from your first year until now?
Definitely. The quality of this year’s submissions really blew us away and every year, the calibre of the T24 Projects (our 24-hour film challenge) takes it up a notch.
Why do you think this is?
I think it’s just a natural evolution for the festival. Once people know more about the event, they get excited and suddenly, a surge of those who are gifted in the art of filmmaking wants to enter. I also think that it’s a trend to a certain extent. At one point, due to the accessibility of the technology that’s available, it’s all people focused on. How to make something look good or snazzy. Then, people are reminded about things like how important story is. It’s like when bad Reality TV was all we saw on the small screen and due to how cheap and easy it was to make, that’s what most networks produced. Then LOST came and reminded everyone why properly scripted drama, when done right, rocks.
LOST did rock. But a lot of people really did not like the series finale, I am not one of those people. You have a 24-hour film competition every year (T24), why did you do it separately from the main festival this year?
Just to stretch things out basically. I’m not in university anymore and having to run a 24 hour film challenge, promote and host the screening all while taking the final stretch of a full-fledge festival and awards gala will take it’s toll on me and oversaturate our audiences in a short time.
Do you have any personal favourites from this year’s program?
I really like Vernal Equinox for it’s complex simplicity – does that make sense? The combination of the intricate artwork done in the style of a Chinese Manga and its simple story makes it a powerful piece. Speaking of simplicity, The Music Box was effective in that sense for its whimsy. For dramas, I am really impressed with the quality of the acting this year and Breaking Over Me stood out in that department. There are certain parts of Open Invitation that made me chuckle. For docs, I really like Our Best Friends for being able to remind audiences that docs can be light-hearted and meaningful despite the grim subject matter. I also get giddy over The Smash Girls Adventure because I’m a big nerd.
Who is in your jury this year?
We have Matthew Hogue, Kiva Reardon and Rich Williamson. For those who follow news and updates from the Reel Asian Film Festival, Rich is the producer of last year’s WIFT-T award winning The Sugar Bowl which played at Reel Asian and directed a doc that played at Hot Docs.
Where do you hope to take this film festival in the next 5 years?
Man, I honestly don’t know. I would have pass the upper limit of my festival participants’ age range at that time and it makes me wonder if I’ll be able to connect to them in the same level as I have done before and do now. Regardless though, I do hope the festival will become the official hub of emerging artists as a showcase and for the event to be taken more seriously by the mainstream as something other than amateur.
I also hope that participants will collaborate with each other. It would be a dream come true if every year someone from Humber for example clicked really well with someone from Ryerson and they made a film that they wouldn’t have done otherwise since film school students tend to be around people only in their educational circles.
If you could say something to the young Asian artists out there, much like yourself, what would you say?
Don’t feel discouraged. An artistic discipline should never be abandoned or given up on due to arbitrary things like financial commitments. You may not have to commit to it fully or as your primarily mode of living but these are the things that keeps you sane and there is always room for that.
Your guidelines indicates that filmmakers from 14-28 years old are allowed to submit their work. Do you ever get angry people asking how you determine “youth”?
Always! Every year there is a 30-40 year old asking about submitting. It was originally 26 which is the standard from places like employment centres. I’ve had to dig hard to find a suitable definition of youth to stretch it to 28.
Last question, if you weren’t the Festival Director, what kind of film would you want to make to submit to TYSFF?
Probably something in Cantonese that pays homage to Hong Kong soaps or slapstick comedies but with a storyline that resembles Canadian, specifically Toronto, lifestyles.