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From Kitchener to Cannes – Communitech

On May 30, 2023, ten student films from the first cohort of the Open Gate Filmmaker Lab were screened for a packed house of students, teachers and local officials at the Apollo Cinema in downtown Kitchener. The screening was the first for the new program designed and facilitated by Digital Sabbath, a local film production company. The City of Kitchener, the Zehr Group and Christie Digital sponsor the program.

Carmen Benyair, Senior Manager of Global PR at Christie Digital, said the program aligned with the digital projection leader’s values and mission. 

“We thought it was fantastic that Digital Sabbath and the City of Kitchener wanted to help students explore their interests and understand more about filmmaking and the industry. We want to help nurture the next generation of not only technologists but also filmmakers and cinematographers,” said Benyair.

The program is the first of its kind in Waterloo Region. Digital Sabbath’s Film Director, Kyle Sawyer, said the idea came from conversations with Bob Egan, the City of Kitchener’s Film, music and interactive media officer. Last year, Egan’s team launched the Creative Recording Initiative to provide students with the mentorship and equipment to become music producers with equipment donated by Communitech.

“I told him I was interested in teaching filmmaking, and we started spitballing ideas. We realized it was going to be tough to find participants the same way they were doing it for the music program,” said Sawyer. “Then we talked to Rob Waldeck, the media arts instructor at Forest Heights Collegiate Institute in Kitchener, who told us we should just do the program in high schools.”

Sawyer and Egan worked with Becky Zettl, Specialist High Skills Major Lead at Waterloo Region District School Board, to set up a pilot project at Forest Heights. In four days, the program had students producing four original short films. 

“It went well. We had a leftover budget and decided to do it again at Cameron Heights Collegiate Institute. Now we're looking at what the next iteration of this could be. There are many opportunities to go to different high schools across Ontario,” said Sawyer

The program is more than a creative way for students to explore the art of filmmaking. It also shows students the variety of career opportunities available in television and film production across Ontario and Canada. Katie Billo, Producer at Digital Sabbath, said they always look for people to work with on their productions.

“We benefit from the film community growing in Waterloo Region and we want to see it take off. We want to help be the answer to that by showing these students that it's a possible career path,” said Billo.

Sawyer said he hopes the students from the first two cohorts will continue studying filmmaking after graduation.

“Maybe they go to film school and then in two years, we have another creative who we've already planted the seed of the ways in which films should be made,” said Sawyer.

At the screening, Justin Cutler, Film Commissioner of Ontario, said Kitchener and Waterloo Region are quickly becoming a go-to film and television production hub. Cutler works for Ontario Creates, a provincial agency focused on growing Ontario's cultural industries, including music, interactive digital media, publishing, film and television. He said that film and television productions spent over $3 billion in Ontario in 2022, creating jobs for 45,000 skilled and creative workers.

 “We're dedicated to building the industry focusing on studio growth, environmental sustainability on set, developing our world-class workforce and ensuring that productions radiate across the province.We're doing this to ensure that future filmmakers like you can find a fulfilling and interesting career opportunity in the industry and make really great projects for the world to see,” he told the audience.

Benyair and Arlonna Seymour, Executive Director of Corporate Marketing at Christie Digital, attended the screening at the Apollo. Seymour said she was amazed by the quality of the short films that the students created.

“I was so pleasantly surprised that in such a tiny period, they could produce that quality of work. They got what was in their mind out and onto the screen, and that puts them on the path for the great filmmaking careers that are out there,” said Seymour. “To see that passion ignited when they were getting their pictures taken after the screenings, you could see it written all over their faces. If a spark like Open Gate Filmmaker Labs can generate that kind of energy, we're hopefully going to have more James Camerons and Ang Lees — and it's all homegrown talent.”

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