Alberta film industry benefits from embracing diverse talent, filmmakers say

When film producer Jananee Rasiah was hiring the cast and crew for her latest film, she made a point to tap into Alberta’s diverse talent pool and uncover different perspectives. 

The result is Disguise, an independent feature film that showcases a blend of cultures representative of the people who call Alberta home, said Rasiah. 

“Our message is, it’s possible,” said Rasiah, who is the co-founder of Edmonton-based FRAME Productions.

“But it takes work. It will require you to step out of your comfort zone depending on what that zone looks like.”

The production team was inspired by Tamil, Hindi and Malayalam film cultures to create a style that isn’t common in independent films, she said.

“What we’re trying to do is show you can make a beautiful story, a good one in all aspects, with a diverse perspective.”

The feature film Disguise was shot in and around Edmonton and features a diverse cast and crew, says co-producer Jananee Rasiah. (Submitted by Sean Gordon)

Encouraging inclusivity within film and television has become a priority for the Alberta Media Production Industries Association (AMPIA), said Michelle Wong, who sits on the association’s board.

She leads AMPIA’s newly formed equity, diversity and inclusion committee.

The province’s production media industry is growing, Wong said, which presents an opportunity to create change.

“We need to open our doors,” she said. “We need to actually diversify our industry so that many people from different backgrounds can find a place within.”

Alberta’s diverse talent isn’t being recognized to its full potential, said Shivani Saini, who has worked in the industry for over 25 years.

“I found that I was often one of the only racialized professionals in a room,” said Saini, producer and CEO of Atelier Culturati.

“It certainly would have helped me to understand that I wasn’t alone in some of the experiences that I was having.”

She founded the organization Creatives Empowered in late 2020 to support Alberta’s BIPOC artists and work toward equity as an allied community.

“To be able to talk about the experiences that we have, the issues that we face and also discuss opportunities, ideas, and solutions,” she said.

Creatives Empowered recently put on its first virtual event in partnership with AMPIA and the Reelworld Film Festival and Screen Institute to talk about the issues BIPOC talent face in the industry. 

Meaningful opportunities

One of Creatives Empowered’s goals is to dismantle stereotypes.

“There are stereotypes that the talent just somehow isn’t qualified enough, or that if you incorporate diversity into a project, that it’s somehow going to equate to lower quality or poor results,” Culturati said.

Productions that give their diverse cast and crew a genuine opportunity to innovate are strengthened in the long run, she said. 

“When the talent is actually empowered with equitable opportunity, then it becomes quite easy to demonstrate how potent the talent actually is.”

Jananee Rasiah and Abhilash Mathew are the co-founders of FRAME Productions, based in Edmonton. (Submitted by Sean Gordon)

Wong, who is the head of business affairs for SEVEN24 Films, encourages producers to take the time to seek out diverse people and their point of view. 

“It takes education, it takes doing research, it takes an openness to provide that opportunity.”

AMPIA is working on more mentorship opportunities for BIPOC artists, something Wong said she benefited from during her formative years.

“Now I can be a mentor to someone versus before when there was a Caucasian person that was giving me mentorship,” said Wong, who has been in the industry for over 30 years.

“Now it can be a person of colour providing mentorship, so there’s a little bit more understanding between the experience.”

Reflecting society

For Rasiah, incorporating diversity in film is also about reflecting the true fabric of society back to the audience.

“One of the biggest benefits is that you’re going to hit a wide, diverse fan base. You’re going to reach a lot of different people and cultures and communities,” she said.

The success of Canadian television programs such as Kim’s Convenience, Schitt’s Creek and Wynonna Earp demonstrates that audiences are hungry for diversity, said Wong.

“We’re smart enough to know that our society is more diverse than the faces that we see on the screen,” she said. “And the more we see the stories of others being presented, the more understanding it creates.”

Rasiah hopes her efforts will encourage aspiring artists from diverse backgrounds to continue to work at their craft. 

“I think it becomes less daunting,” she said. “It becomes something for newer actors or those who are considering film, from Alberta, of different cultures, to say ‘Hey, maybe I can try too’.”

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