By Ab. Velasco
In Tonya Lee Williams’ ideal world, Canadian films would be celebrated by Canadians and audiences worldwide.
That’s why the former Ryerson theatre student started the ReelWorld Film Festival: to bring a certain Canadian flavour to the world film scene.
“It is my vision that the ReelWorld Film Festival will be an event that honours and encourages Canada’s diverse filmmakers, so their work may be acclaimed by fellow Canadians and the world,” says Tonya Lee Williams, the festival’s founder and president.
The ReelWorld Film Festival 2003 begins today and runs until April 6 at Silver City Empress Walk (5095 Yonge St.). It will feature more than 100 hours of feature films, shorts, music videos, documentaries and animations from Canadian and international talent.
The festival was founded in 1999 to celebrate Canada’s culturally and racially diverse film, video and new media production.
This year’s festival opens with the film Now and Forever starring Adam Beach and closes with good Fences starring Whoopi Goldberg and Danny Glover.
The majority of this year’s films will also reflect the issues going on in the world right now, such as the war, while continuing to foster an environment for culturally diverse films.
For instance, the South Asian film Where the Boys Yaar explores the relationship between a group of college students and the group of foreign students they are trying to avoid.
Last year’s festival drew celebrities such as Robert Townsend, Vanessa Williams and Eric LaSalle. This year’s roster is unconfirmed, due to the onset of the war.
While entertainment is a top priority, the festival will also have a practical side for those aspiring to break into the entertainment industry.
Workshops and panels will cover issues such as getting a career off the ground, getting work in Canada, and writing for reality TV. The public can ask questions to immigration lawyers, casting directors in the US as well as actors and writers.
Many Canadians may recognize Williams as Doctor Olivia Barber on the daytime soap opera The Young and the Restless, a role she has played since 1990.
The two-time Emmy nominee was once enrolled in Ryerson’s theatre arts program. After completing just one year, she received an apprenticeship at the Brock Theatre in St. Catharines, Ont. This led her to find steady work, including a stint on PolkaDotDoor. Williams never came back to finish her degree at Ryerson.
Having grown up in a city like Toronto, arriving in Hollywood was culture shock for Williams. “What upset me when I got to LA was the extent of the segregation,” she says. The melting pot was one source of inspiration to form the culturally diverse festival.
In 1999, she founded the entertainment PR firm The Publicity Group and continues to serve as the firm’s president.
Simply put, in an era where Canadian audiences are forking over more dough for big budget American films, Williams wants her fellow citizens to be proud of Canadian films.
She says it’s not even about big budget films. “I like what the British and the Australians are doing. They were creating a unique product,” she says, citing Snatch by British director Guy Ritchie as an example. “I don’t think it’s about Canada coming up with $80 million movies. You can come up with it on a small budget.”
Williams has many influences and cites Robert Redford as one. In many ways, she is much like the legendary film star and director.
She met her idol at a recent Sundance Film Festival. He told her that when he launched Sundance in 1978, nobody took it seriously.
“He told me that for the first three years, no one turned up, but he just kept the faith,” she says. “’For the first three years,’ he said, we pulled people off the streets and begged them to watch out films.’”
In just three years, the ReelWorld Film Festival has grown tremendously, but Williams recalls some early bumps in the road. She got a lot of flak for placing the festival outside the downtown area.
She says she made her choice to avoid the chaos of downtown, and establish a name for the festival in an area where you wouldn’t normally expect one.
Besides, Robert Redford said she had the right idea, so who’s to argue with an Oscar-winning director?
Williams is also trying her hand at directing, much like Redford and other actors who have done so. She is in the process of directing two projects: A documentary and a romantic comedy. She says, with a laugh, not to expect them in the near future, because she likes to work at her own pace.
“I don’t ever want to be pressures the way people are in Hollywood. I don’t work that way. I want to work at my leisure.”
In the meantime, Williams is already envisioning a day when her festival will be as large as Sundance.
More importantly, she looks forward to a day when race does not matter anymore. “I’d know I accomplished my missions when we sit together in a theatre and watch a film where the director is black, and the actor is Asian, when I can’t recognize the world.”