The 18th annual Reelworld Film Festival features inspiring films from creative filmmakers aiming to spark social change, empowering racially diverse and Indigenous filmmakers to tell important stories through film. These films address a range of social topics including gender identity, environmental issues, climate change, human rights, and gender equality.

“The festival grows stronger each year because we’re programming films that speak to the cultural struggles of our communities,” says Founder, Executive & Artistic Director Tonya Williams. “Since the festival’s inception in 2001, the quality and maturity in our programming improves each year.  Our racially diverse filmmakers are not afraid to delve into difficult issues and show us the raw emotions of these complex topics.”

The festival opens on Tuesday, October 9, with Roobha, which makes its Toronto premiere during the opening night gala at Glenn Gould Studio (250 Front Street West). There’s a second screening October 10th at Famous Players Canada Square Cinema (2190 Yonge Street).

Roobha weaves a unique romantic tale that deals with the complexities of personality and gender identity within the South-Asian community. Roobha, a trans-woman, struggles to make a living in Toronto after she is ostracized by her family. Her chance encounter with a family man, Anthony, leads to a beautiful romance. However, their blissful existence is short lived as their families soon discover their relationship. She’s enchanting… and then she dances… A runaway train of intensity. A raw multi-layered look into feelings that many don’t understand. A relationship develops between an older Sri Lankan man and a young woman. He’s… married, with children, and she’s… a trans-woman. Yes, it’s complicated, but it’s also a beautifully thoughtful portrayal of what we all want… to love and be loved. 

Directed by filmmaker, Lenin M. Sivam who was born in Jaffna, Sri Lanka and raised in Toronto, Canada. He is widely acclaimed for “revolutionizing Tamil cinema” through his offbeat, realistic and powerful depiction of the Tamil Diaspora. After several years of making short films, Sivam first achieved international recognition with his feature film debut 1999 in 2009, which won critical acclaim winning several film awards both in Canada and around the world and established Sivam as an emerging Canadian filmmaker to watch for. Sivam’s success continued with his next film, A Gun & A Ring (2013), which was well-received both critically and commercially. A Gun & A Ring made its world premiere at the Shanghai International Film Festival in June 2013 and was shortlisted for the coveted Golden Goblet Award.

theBUZZ had an opportunity to chat with Lenin to find out more about this film, and what’s next for him…

1. Roobha is a very touching film, delving into several topics for discussion – transgender, religion, sex work, intergenerational relationships, and more. Can you tell me where the initial concept for the film came from, and if it’s based on any personal aspects from your own life?

Roobha is based on a short story by the respected writer and poet Shoba Sakthi. As soon as I read Roobha, I knew it was going to be my next film.

The first thing that struck me about Shoba’s story was the spontaneous love between Roobha and Anthony. I felt that this forbidden romance between a young trans-woman and an older Tamil family man was unique and universally appealing.

Secondly, I liked the parallel that can be drawn between Roobha and Mohini, the only female avatar of Lord Krishna. My childhood is filled with memories of listening and reading Hindu mythological epics, and one of my most memorable characters was Mohini. Her ravishing beauty and her playful adventures were always a treat. I thought it would be an amazing opportunity for me to convey my fascination with Mohini through Roobha.

Lastly I felt that Roobha would be a great tool to tackle the transgender stigma and biases that exist within the South Asian community. I felt that there are so many Roobhas out there who are living a fake life. Hopefully, this film can help launch a healthy dialogue about acceptance and respect for the many voiceless transgender members of our communities.

2. What’s the key message you hope audiences take away from this film?

I want the audience to first enjoy the film and see that it is a beautiful love story. If they can see that, I believe that they will realize that love can happen anywhere between anyone and as human beings we all should respect one another, irrespective of our differences.

3. Are you currently working on any future projects, film or otherwise?

I am working on a script called Black July. It is also a romantic drama of a rich young Sinhalese woman and a charismatic young Tamil man set during the bloody anti-Tamil riots of July 1983 in Colombo, Sri Lanka.

Watch the trailer for Roobha

The closing night film, Circle of Steel, is another interesting film. It tells the story of a chemical engineer, Wendy Fong (Chantelle Han), who must navigate personal ethics and corporate interest within Canada’s most controversial industry. With the recent spotlight on Alberta’s trans-mountain pipeline, Canadians would definitely be interested in hearing about this film.

Amidst Alberta’s oil and gas crash of 2015, chemical engineer Wendy Fong (Chantelle Han) is new to Paloma North and unsure of the future she worked so hard for. As rumors of layoffs begin to circulate in her small, isolated team, her monotonous routine crumbles, giving way to ambivalence. Long days in the field and long nights alone begin to take their toll. With support, and often-questionable guidance from her coworkers, Wendy must navigate personal ethics and corporate interest within Canada’s most controversial industry.

“You never find what you’re lookin’ for, while you’re lookin.” A well made satirical slice of life, about Alberta’s oil fields. As the employees of an oil company grapple with the possibility of layoffs, we see how each of them handle the pressure, not so gracefully, leading to comedic results. A witty reflective multi-character study, in which everyone is just being themselves.

Director Gillian McKercher is a Calgary-based filmmaker and an Alberta Foundation For the Arts Young Artist Prize winner. She completed a BSc in Chemical Engineering at the University of Calgary while she practiced filmmaking at the Calgary Society of Independent Filmmakers. After she worked concurrently in film and engineering, she decided to focus on cinema. She notably directed the two-season web series The Calgary Collection, the short documentary Where the Sage Brush Grows, and music videos for folk-roots artist Amy Nelson. Her experimental film work on Super 8 and 16mm film is often incorporated into her projects, and heavily informs her aesthetic. Circle of Steel is her first feature film as director.

Watch Trailer for Circle of Steel

Scroll to the bottom for a list of all other films screening at the Festival this year.

ReelWorld Film Festival was started by Tonya Williams, who has been head of the festival since its inception in 2001 when she founded it.  A WIFT-T Crystal Award recipient, Williams has established herself as a force to be reckoned with. Always fearless, in 1979 she was one of the first black actresses to break into mainstream Canadian television. She is best known for her twenty-year starring role as “Dr. Olivia Barber Winters” on the popular daytime drama The Young and The Restless which airs in over 60 countries and has garnered her two Emmy Nominations and numerous national and international awards, including two NAACP Image Awards and the 2005 ACTRA award of excellence.

With over forty years in the entertainment industry, she has worked in front and behind the cameras. Through her production company, Wilbo Entertainment, she has been both producer and director, and for five years Tonya sat on the Toronto Film Board where she worked tirelessly at creating more opportunities for emerging talent. Tonya Williams is a passionate, tenacious advocate for filmmakers of colour around the world.

In 2001, she created the Reelworld Film Festival as a powerful means of empowering racially diverse emerging talent in Canada. Now in its 18th year, Reelworld has launched the careers of hundreds of racially diverse artists and continues to be a launching pad for talent in all areas of the entertainment industry.

Tonya’s work as an Actress, Producer, Director and Founder of Reelworld has garnered her many awards including a Harry Jerome Award, and the 2005 ACTRA Award of Excellence; one of the highest achievements for Actors in Canada. The city of Oshawa, where she attended high-school, immortalized her with their Oshawa ‘Walk of Fame’ Award. In May 2012, she was also named one of the Top 25 Canadian Immigrants by Canadian Immigrant magazine.

She has also been honoured with many other awards including; Howard University’s The Legacy of Leadership Award; a 2004 Boomerang Award nomination (Australia’s daytime drama awards); the Red Ribbon of Hope Award bestowed on her from the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, a Positive Impact Award for her years as a positive role model in the Canadian community; the Doctor Bird Award presented to her in Jamaica for outstanding artists of Caribbean descent; the prestigious Harry Jerome Award in 2004; the 2007 African Canadian Achievement Award; the Planet Africa Award for Media and Entertainment; the 2012 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr Award in Montreal and the 2012 International Women Achievers Award.

theBUZZ chatted with Founder, Executive & Artistic Director Tonya Williams to find out a bit more about this extraordinary woman:

1. How do you see the representation of POC within the film industry has changed since you first founded the Festival?
Since the inception of the festival in 2001, we’ve seen a growth in numbers of representation in front of and behind the camera – Back in 2001, we didn’t have any show-runners who were racially diverse, we now have lead actors in night time shows who are racially diverse – we’ve had shows that are created by, produced and directed by them – that has changed significantly.  I can also see that organizations like WGC, DGC, ACTRA, CMPA have been diligent about getting more opportunities for their members who are racially diverse. WGC actually has a diverse group of writers and each month they send a script out to stakeholders in the hope of getting more diverse scripts produced. We have also seen an explosion of additional film festivals that support different racially diverse groups.  Broadcasters have hired on more racially diverse staff at their executive level.  We still have a long way to go, to see the kind of representation on screen as we see on our streets – but it’s an encouraging start. When I first started the festival, reporters kept asking, why is there even a need for this – and 18 years later – they don’t ask that anymore – they now see how important that need was, and how our initiative spring-boarded many other initiatives that have created the significant impact we see today.

2. Of the many highlights from the past 18 years, what are one or two that remain as a standout moment for you personally?
I am most proud to see many of the filmmakers who were featured in our first couple of years –  who are now significant names in the Canadian entertainment industry. Seeing Ritchie Mehta, Dawn Wilkinson, Alison Duke and so many more – credit their start through Reelworld – and to have them now come back as mentors and help the next generation – that is the kind of thing that stands out for me and brings me immense joy and satisfaction.
I’m also really proud of amount of racially diverse people we’ve trained to be able to work at other film festivals – when I started Reelworld, I couldn’t find very many diverse people with experience in programming film, or industry panels, or who knew that much about marketing a festival – writing grants – so over these last 18 years, we have trained so many people – many of them now work in many of the film festivals in Toronto – including TIFF. 2 people after training with us – started a film festival in Kenya and in Uganda – that is just incredible.

3. Other than running Reelworld, what other projects are you currently working on, or have coming up in the future?
Reelworld is a full-time gig for me right now – it’s been hard to get my head into auditioning and luckily my agents have been supportive of this time I’ve taken away from my acting career.  But also as I get older, I am not as motivated to go out for work if I don’t feel passionate about the message of the story – so the next step for me would be to develop the kinds of stories I’d like to see told – and not necessarily be in those stories – I love the idea of creating content that finds new talent and puts them in the spotlight – that is something I’d really love to concentrate my time on.  For me it’s all about the next generation – I’ve had a spectacular run- I’ve surpassed any of the dreams I had for myself, so to be able to kick-start other careers – that is where I’m at these days.

Watch Full Festival Trailer

Additional features include:

When the Storm Fades – Sean Devlin | Canada |  Toronto Premiere

A genre defying docu-dramedy starring a real Filipino family re-enacting their daily struggle to recover from the strongest storm in recorded history – 2013’s Typhoon Haiyan.

3 Seconds Divorce – Shazia Javed | Canada | North-America Premiere

Divorce! Uttered three times and it’s legal and final under Sharia Law. Shot verite style, we follow Lubna’s journey from disenfranchised single mother to empowered social activist.

Un Printemps D’Ailleurs (A Touch of Spring) – Xiaodan He  | Canada | Toronto Premiere

A portrait of Montreal Chinese life in all its contemporary glory and existential complexity, with some skillful performances providing a comic touch.

Ce Silence qui Tue (A Quiet Killing) – Kim O’Bomsawin | Canada | Toronto Premiere

Unrelenting and absolutely necessary, this documentary showcases first-hand accounts of previously silenced women and men who testify to a troubling reality and cry out from the heart to break the silence that kills Indigenous women.

Letter from Masanjia –  Leon Lee | Canada

A powerfully suspenseful documentary about individual determination that rivals any dramatic narrative feature. The film reveals the true cost of whistleblowing against the Chinese government.

Drowning in Sands – Lucy Provan | Sudan | Canada Premiere

In Sudan, sand is the ultimate destroyer. It leaves behind a wasteland where nothing can grow and no one can live. Two Sudanese inventors try to stop the desert from swallowing their country, persevering past terrorist sanctions, and executing agricultural robotics.

The Color of Medicine – Joyce Fitzpatrick  | USA | Canada Premiere

Homer G. Phillips Hospital was an all black hospital that galvanized an African American community. This poignant and insightful film tracks the black migration story and commemorates the medical professionals that pioneered the American black middle class in St. Louis.

19-S The Earth Shouts – Adriana Delgado Ruiz | Mexico | Canada Premiere
A fast-paced documentary with an incredible assemblage of news and private video footage depicting cities rocked by the 2017 Mexican earthquakes. Planet earth isn’t always a safe home for humans. But, were the deaths of hundreds of people inevitable?

Short Film Program:

This year’s short films include Protect our Future Daughters – Maryanne Junta and Helena Lewis | Canada, Protecting our Homeland – Ashton Janvier | Canada, Night – Joosje Duk | USA | Canada Premiere, Good Girls Don’t  – Ana de Lara | Canada | Ontario Premiere, Turning Tables –  Crisann Hessing | Canada, Every Grain of Rice –  Carol Nguyen | Canada, Boys of Nunavut – Andrew Maguire | Canada | Canada Premiere, JAP – Derek Pike | USA | Canada Premiere, Easter –  Chih Chieh Wu | Taiwan | Canada Premiere, Mad Rush – Heejun Lee | Korea, Nothing on Us –  Evelyn Obamos | USA | World Premiere, and Rebel Lion –  Graeme Mathieson | Canada | World Premiere

ACTRA Shorts Program:

Reelworld Film Festival will continue to highlight emerging talent by featuring six short films from members of ACTRA’s Young Emerging Actors Assembly (YEAA Titles): All the Things | Ayisha Issa, Everbliss | Celine Tsai, Maternal | Andrew Simpson, Strawweight | Lindsay Murray, The Drip! | Sofia Simanovich, and Club Six | Anthony J. Baldwin.

Free Industry Panels held at Toronto Reference Library Oct. 12 – 1:00-5:00 PM: The Leap by Directors Guild of Canada; Telefilm Case Study on Roobha, The Showrunners by Writers Guild of Canada: Funding Your Project with TAC, OAC, OMDC and Inspirit Foundation.

About the Author

Bryen Dunn is a freelance journalist with a focus on travel, lifestyle, entertainment and hospitality. He has an extensive portfolio of celebrity interviews with musicians, actors and other public personalities. He enjoys discovering delicious eats, tasting spirited treats, and being mesmerized by musical beats.