INTERVIEW - Henry Wong (Toronto Youth Shorts)
Henry Wong Founder and Festival Director Toronto Youth Shorts Henry is the Founder and Festival Director of Toronto Youth Shorts. He produced the Rockie Awards international program competition for the Banff World Media Festival for four years and has provided event coordination and marketing support to the Toronto Reel Asian International Film Festival, the Canadian Film Centre, and the Scarborough Walk of Fame. He also regularly takes part in community and youth-based initiatives in the arts, having been on the jury for the Zoom Student Film Festival since 2012. Henry is the recipient of a 2016 Legacy Award as well as a 2010 Chinese Canadian Youth Achievement Award for his contributions to the Toronto arts community.
Interview conducted on 08/01/2017 (Telephone interview) throwdown815: To start off, tell us about how you started the film festival. Henry Wong (Toronto Youth Shorts): The film festival started when I was actually in school. I was doing a post grad degree for event management, and part of the curriculum involved the students having to produce an event, so I chose to create a film festival. I've done student screenings before when I was at UofT during my undergrad degree, and I was just naturally interested in seeing what young people who were specifically studying the medium were doing from other schools. I thought it was a cool way for me to elevate what I was doing at UofT and seeing some of the talent that was coming from these other schools. That's how it started. And then from there the demand was just constantly pouring in, even after that first event, so I just kept going. It's been growing steadily, pretty much over the last nine years where we've introduced different programs. We've shown more films than ever before and the caliber of the work - it's not just for students, it's also for very young professionals who are just starting out or they're graduate from these different schools and they're branching out and doing their own thing. We also show films that are from people who don't study films whatsoever, but have an interest to work in the medium. We pick a wide variety of things and program something that presents itself and its own voice as the next generation of content creators in Toronto. td815: And did you always have a team of people helping you organize the festival, or were you doing things on your own?
HW: I formed a volunteer team from the get go. Some of them might come and go, but over the last four years, we've had a solid team that's been working at this for a good number of years now. It's always been a volunteer endeavor with a group. It's not something that I think one person can take on. Especially given the scope of running any type of festival. td815: It seems like a lot of work. HW: Yeah, absolutely. I'm really thankful for my team actually. A lot of the times they really pulled for me and for the festival. If it weren't for them, none of this would happen. td815: Right, and it sounds like this isn't a full time job for anyone, including yourself. Everyone seems to just be doing this on a volunteer basis. HW: Exactly. All of us are either working full time jobs or some of us are students. But yes, this is a side gig. A side volunteer gig for everyone. td815: And you mentioned that the number of submissions have been growing over the years, and this has been linked with an increasing demand from general audience members as well. Aside from the sheer number of submissions, how else has the festival changed over the years since it was initially created in 2009? HW: I think that the caliber of the content has changed as well. We've been doing this since 2009, which is like the peak of the tape age so to speak. Everyone - regardless of whether you were an amateur filmmaker, professional filmmaker just starting off, like an indie filmmaker or someone who was interested in playing with your parents old camera in the garage - everyone worked on tape because film was just way too expensive for someone starting out. Everyone worked on tape and then in order to exhibit anything we had to use tape, and obviously that process would deliver a different kind of result. With just the accessibility of the medium nowadays, we get a lot of different results and what we're seeing is a lot of experimentation. A lot of people transcending not just one genre, but incorporating different methodologies and types of content into something new and also a lot more diversity when it comes to content. A lot more voices and faces that are representing underrepresented groups are joining the creation process. They may not necessarily be budding full time filmmakers in the future, but because of the accessibility of the medium you could be holding another full time job or doing something else completely, but still be interested enough to make a film. You can have that undertaking without really breaking the bank. We're getting a lot more diverse voices as a result. And overall, with YouTube and with a lot of other short form mediums popping up, there's definitely an influence there in terms of how stories are told and how content is created. That certainly influences the type of stuff we're getting at the festival as well. td815: And in terms of submissions, do most of the submissions come from people from Toronto, or is it much broader than that? HW: I would say the majority are from the GTA (greater Toronto are). Not necessarily Toronto itself, but definitely from the GTA, and then a good chunk from southern Ontario. We try to keep it local. We want to try to maintain that local focus. The idea is that Toronto is such a huge festival city. The audience has an appetite for festivals. There is certainly a drive to create festivals considering the sheer amount of events we have every year, but if you look at the total real estate to how much screen time is devoted to local films - not just local films in general, but local films made by a younger generation - there isn't much. So that's why we're here. The initial mandate, even from the get go, was to highlight local stories, local filmmakers, local voices, local young voices, and their stories. td815: So given that the festival showcases work from younger filmmakers, is the target audience also a younger crowd as well? HW: We don't specifically target young people in the audience. Of course, we love for them to come out, but it's more of a general, broad audience. It's made up of different age groups from all across the city. When I first started, I specifically meant for the festival to be for young people. It's almost specifically made for their eyes just because of the creators behind it. td815: Can you speak about how you go about finding a venue for the festival each year? HW: We do specifically try to find a venue that could fit the vibe that we're giving off. Nothing against Cineplex or any of the big multi-houses, but a lot of times when shorts are presented in places like that it gets really overwhelming just in terms of the size of the seats and everything. Every time I've attended a short screening, whether it be at Cineplex or TIFF, there's basically a good number of empty seats. That doesn't mean that they are under attended in any way. It's just that when you have a house that fits 800 and the programs are only an hour long, what are the chances you're going to fill that whole house? We really want to create that intimate vibe so that everyone's rubbing shoulders with one another. The reaction that you generate from watching the film on screen when you're that close together, it's a much different vibe than if you were sitting by yourself in a whole row. In fact, our opening night this year will be at the Alliance Francaise de Toronto, which is a french school that runs a number of cultural programs. That's going to be really cool. At the end of the day, Toronto Youth Shorts is not a business oriented festival like TIFF or Hot Docs. Filmmakers don't submit work to Toronto Youth Shorts hoping to land the next acquisition or sale. They come because they believe the festival is worthy to showcase what they believe is their voice. We want to maintain that intimacy both for the audience and the filmmakers so that they can really get used to one another. They can more easily navigate the festival. They can engage with each other in a more organic setting, as opposed to something that feels overwhelming, especially for younger people who are just starting out. td815: Okay, the next question is something I try to ask everyone I interview. Where do you think Toronto Youth Shorts fits in terms of Toronto's film festival cultural? And not just in terms of all the other film festivals playing across the city, but specifically in terms of all the other short film festivals that the cit houses each year. What do you think is the thing that really stands out about your film festival? HW: The locality of it all. I mean what Toronto Youth Shorts does - and it's something that no festival in the city or even province has done so far - is basically generate that highlight for the local, emerging voice. A lot of local festivals showcase a spectrum of talent from across the country or abroad, but very rarely would you find an event where they're saying: we're showcasing over 50 films, made by young filmmakers, specifically from this region. Usually, the screen time is shared among some international hits or some commercial films. What's happening with Toronto Youth Shorts is a much smaller event compared to the big guys, but even back when the Worldwide Short Film Festival was running they were basically on the scope of TIFF. They had multiple screenings happening simultaneously over the course of a week. Even so, they had a lot of films that were coming from all over the place. I think something we do pretty well is being able to narrow that even further and say, here's the next generation of Toronto's voices in content creation. We're able to tell everyone in the audience, or those who are in the area, this is kind of what the local perspective is like. td815: I went through the program this year and it looks like there's a lot of cool stuff going on. Just from your perspective, what are you most excited about the 2017 edition for the festival?
HW: The lineup overall, with its diversity and eclectic voices, just feels like a proper representation of what Toronto is to me and probably what the city is to a lot of people, and it's really exciting to have audiences enjoy a piece of home on the movie screen. I'm really looking forward to showing the audience a selection of great locally made short films, many of which have won awards in other festivals: Hanna Jovin's Erika swept the Ryerson Film Festival's award slate this year and I'm super excited to be showing another of her works, having played an animated piece from her that won a few awards in 2015; Caio Bau's Luiza, which had a strong festival run around the world and is having a Toronto premiere at Toronto Youth Shorts; and Maisie Jacobson's Billsville, which took home the Corus Fearless Female Directors Award at the NSI Online Short Film Fest. We're also showcasing a good amount of strong comedies this year, which is a rarity as the trend of dark subject matters have been pervasive in a lot of film and TV lately. A few standouts for me include But Wait, There's More by Mike Mildon about a washed up infomercial salesman helping out a struggling Jehovah's Witness and Hell of a Gap from the hilarious Arms Up comedy troupe with it's commentary on the gender wage gap. A lot of the films stem from a really personal place from the director, such as Haaris Qadri's Goree, Sean Kung's Project CNY, and Annie Amaya's Why Do Flowers Die? and I feel like such works will evoke a lot of energy and energy and impact on the audience. That's the great thing about short film festivals - there is always something for everyone's tastes. td815: Alright, two more questions. First, how do you see Toronto Youth Shorts changing or growing in the next couple of years? Are you content with the way things are right now given the growth and expansion that the festival has seen over the past few years, or are you still looking to expand the festival in some way? HW: I don't know if expanding is the right word. We've been growing ever since the start. Even every year we've always tried to change things up a little bit just to keep things fresh. This past year, earlier in February, we had a showcase called TYS180, which was short video and films that were 180 seconds or less, taking place 180 days before the actual festival itself. That was specifically geared toward the cellphone video age. For those who are just making anything and everything, and these quick timelines that we're used to. It's also designed for the YouTube age where people are creating content that's a lot shorter in scope. Each year we try to see what the trend is. We see what opportunities there are and we take advantage of that and try to develop a program based on that. We work with a lot of industry players as well. Each year, we have a really strong slate of industry professionals who jury the festivals and they get to meet with the filmmakers so that the filmmakers get feedback. That's something that I don't think any other festival does. It's almost run like a theatre festival where you have plays and then you have a critic who gives you feedback before they determine the awards. We've been doing that ever since year one. It's a really, really, great learning curve for the filmmakers who are involved, so we definitely perceive that continuing. In the past couple of years, we've also had a couple of films that have managed to acquire some business opportunities. A good 20 something films were sold to various distributors so that was kind of neat because it's a young emerging film festival. Most of the filmmakers involved are just up and comers, or just students themselves, and they're able to say, "Hey! I sold my short film for distribution somewhere, due to the festival!" The festival was really never designed for something like this, but the fact that such an opportunity came up was really neat. And if something like that happens again this year or in the future, we're more than welcome to embrace something like that. Overall we're just looking for different opportunities with industry partners who've been really, really, great to us over the years by supporting local emerging voices. The main thing we probably foresee for next year is our 10th anniversary, so chances are, we're going to make a big splash out of that with perhaps even more films or more venues. Who knows, we'll see when the time comes. td815: And just to close off, what's your favourite film festival in the city? HW: That's a really tough question. I've been to so many and a lot of the organizers are my friends so I can't just single out any one in particular. Can I name three? td815: Of course! HW: The three that are close to my heart would be Reel Asian, Canadian Film Fest, and TIFF. Reel Asian for a good point of time in my career was sort of like my second family. I worked with them for a good couple of years and they really helped me grow. Not just my festival endeavours, but my overall career prospects and everything. Not to mention the content they've produced. It's really close to the chest just because of the stories, me being of Asian descent and everything. With Canadian Film Fest, I love what Bern Euler does for Canadian voices. It's exactly what Toronto Youth Shorts does, but on a larger, more commercial and national scope so they're just giving a platform to local voices. I really applaud what he does and what TIFF does in putting Canada on the map. I mean, to be able to say to the world that Toronto's a big deal. That's all pretty much thanks to TIFF. I got to say those three are pretty high on the list.