TV & Movies

What It's Like to Be a Cultural Programmer

In our 9–5 series, we ask some seriously inspiring #bosses what a day on the job entails. This week, Anya Mckenzie, co-director of Mississauga, Ont.’s Mosaic International South Asian Film Festival—which runs from August 4 to 7—gives us a glimpse into her grind

 Anya Mckenzie MISAFF

Anya Mckenzie, co-director of the Mosaic International South Asian Film Festival (MISAFF)

Age: 43

Education: Masters of education in adult education and community development from the University of Toronto; 2013 Canadian Film Centre Producers’ Lab

Length of time at current gig: 5 years

When you meet someone at a party, how do you describe your job? Since I’ve first started, I’ve always been attuned to and inspired by imagery of people of colour and people who are marginalised. As a cultural programmer and film producer, I’ve always stood at the intersection between those issues, and it’s my responsibility to raise the consciousness of audiences and develop conversations around these issues.

What was your path into this field? I was working for a large NGO, and as a woman of colour—I’m Indo-Caribbean—I was sometimes bothered by the imagery of the poor that we had to use to market our cause. Then, life happened; I was in a plane crash while I was on the way to work on a project in Haiti in the year 2000, and it just made me ask what I was doing with my life. Soon after, I met two women who inspired me to take a different direction: Sandra Laronde, the founder of Red Sky Performance, which is a nationally-renowned aboriginal dance and theatre company, and Tonya Williams, the founder of Reelworld Festival, who was one of the only black Canadian actresses on TV at the time.

So how long have you been a cultural programmer, independent of MISAFF? I would say since my first time working with Reelworld, so 2002.

How has your job changed in the past 14 years? The needle has definitely moved! Access to digital technology has allowed for both more fluid discourse between women filmmakers and also a different style of shooting. Production changes have inspired and reached many move voices and artists who may not have had the access to make their stories come to screen.

Obviously, you’ve seen this space develop firsthand. I feel like that’s actually a benefit of being in culture: you get to be very close to what I call the “cutting edge of discourse” from artists around the world. I was very lucky to meet Rajat Kapoor, who Arshad Khan [MISAFF co-director] had worked with for Midnight’s Children, and soon after he was back with Kapoor & Sons, which did so well in the Canadian box office and featured a gay character. A gay role in a family drama that’s narratively driven? That’s the perfect mix of an independent story, great acting and South Asian cinema.

Anya Mckenzie MISAFF

Mckenzie with Arshad Khan, director of MISAFF, at last year’s fest

What else tells you that you’re doing a good job as a programmer? If we can touch people, get them inspired and change the way people view the possibilities in their own lives—women and men—then we have created something truly successful.

Last year we screened Dukhtar, by a great new female filmmaker named Afia Nathaniel. It was featured at TIFF, and we decided to re-present her film in Mississauga because not many people there have access to the festival, and for them, a Pakistani film at TIFF was unheard of. I wondered if anyone would want to see a film that’s already been screened. But the screening sold out, and people asked if we could put it in a bigger theatre. That film is about a mother trying to save her child from being married off at the age of 10, and is set in the Himalayas. It led to a huge conversation in the Q&A session, and when women spoke, you could see that they had lived that life, and here was somebody representing that story, and it was very moving for me.

On that note: what does it feel like to reconnect people with taboo issues that they may have experienced in their own lives? It is awe-inspiring. I don’t think there are too many words for it, and when we connect people with something that raises their consciousness or truly transforms their world view, that is an amazing moment for us.

Is there ever any pushback regarding certain films that you choose to screen? When we played Court last year, it was really inspiring and affirming for us because director Deepa Mehta was at the festival and so an iconic artist was endorsing what we were doing. Most people in the South Asian world are used to seeing lighter films out of Bollywood, so not many people would have appreciated a film like that—a legal drama set in Mumbai. We did have some pushback; people said they didn’t get it, or they asked why we’d run such a heavy film, but you know, it’s just so refreshing to have an artist like Deepa Mehta in front of the audience so that we can say, ‘Hey, guys, take a moment. Just think about this.’ That’s really what we’re trying to do sometimes, to introduce the audience to something else.

What goes into planning a film festival like MISAFF? From the moment one MISAFF ends, we start reflecting on what worked and what didn’t. Arshad and I have an artistic collaboration which is really a labour of love: it started with us putting our time into that project, and now it’s generated even more sponsorships and funding, so we have to keep that ball rolling if we want to grow the festival. We’re very fortunate this year to have the National Bank support us as a title sponsor, but every year it’s a struggle to put those films in place and figure out where the money is going to come from.

So when do you lock down the following year’s roster? We get ideas from TIFF, but we purposely hold off deciding on the roster for a long time because there’s always new films coming out. There’s the Mumbai Film Festival, there’s another one in L.A., and then some movies only come out at Cannes, in May, so we’re not really “locked down” till very late. We try to settle things proper by early July.

What does scheduling involve, then, especially when you have to plan across continents? It can be difficult, but I am very happy for WhatsApp and Skype, they make it so much easier to reach out internationally when you have a tight budget and limited resources! Now I can connect and stay in touch with people a lot more easily, and I can find them on social media. The first contact we made with the Aligarh team—a film about about a language professor who gets fired because of his sexual orientation, which is screening at this year’s fest—was on Facebook.

On the note of money: do you ever have sponsors trying to influence the movies you screen? We haven’t encountered that before because we’ve been very independent. National Bank has been wonderful; there’s no indication that they would ever try to influence an artistic decision.

Tell me what a standard day looks like. We usually start with 6 a.m. WhatsApps, because that’s when we remember what we need to tell the people in India. Then I’m on my email constantly. I start taking meetings at around 10. We’re looking at art, approving art and taking meetings with sponsors to make sure art is okay, and then it could be anything. We need to look at volunteers. There’s also a fashion element to running a film festival, so there are conversations about “What are you wearing?” and “What are our colours for today?” Then there are dinners with the team, and handling more mundane things like event insurance. And last night, I was looking at guest lists till 11 p.m.

How do you keep focused? You have to exercise balance, and you have to have some really good downtime.

What does downtime mean for you? I enjoy time with my nephew, who is two, so even if I can just squeeze in an hour’s visit, it’s important. And when there’s a bunch of things cluttering my brain I find hitting the pool is very helpful in getting that energy out and getting you focused again.

Recently, the world was horrified at the honour killing of Pakistani social media personality Qandeel Baloch. Does that change the game for you? It absolutely does. Arshad was in Pakistan when this happened and WhatsApp-ed me and he said, “please, tell people what happened.” I have already started thinking about how this shifts the conversation in the room for the film A Girl In The River: The Price of Forgiveness, which is also about honour killings. It just raises the bar for us to make sure we really develop our audience relationships for that film, and it brings that relevance right back. Director Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy was already on the cutting edge already when she made this film a year and a half ago, so we feel lucky to be able to present it, because it’s at the pinpoint of something that still needs to be discussed, and women here need to find solidarity to make that happen.

What have you learned about handling sensitive topics like this at the festival? It’s always valuable to have the artist present. Sometimes people actually challenge what they’re seeing on the seen as being untrue—they’re so convinced that this is not possible. We need to make sure that there’s at least a message from the filmmaker or that they’re actually at the festival so this validity is brought to the audience. Having other women who can speak authentically about their experiences also helps.

What are you anticipating from this year’s festival? I know we’re going to have confrontation. I know we’re going to challenge people’s fears, especially with a movies Aligarh. But we’re excited about that—whether it’s negative or positive, it’s still a conversation that’s happening.

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