Karen Chapman was ready to quit filmmaking.
The award-winning short documentary filmmaker had been pitching features for years. She’d heard “No” so many times – in various languages – that she decided after she completed her feature film script for The Village Keeper, that this was her last shot.
“The [gap] between a short film and a feature film is huge. It’s massive. And I was trying to bridge that gap for all of these years,” she says. “I’ve done so many accelerated programs, incubator programs, new filmmaker programs, emerging programs, and it felt like nothing [happened].”
But then Chapman heard “Yes.”
And then another “Yes.”
First she was selected for this year’s CFC Cineplex Entertainment Film Program Director’s Lab, where she’ll develop and package her debut feature. She has also been named to Telefilm’s revamped 2018 Talent to Watch program, where she’ll have 18 months and get more than $125,000 to make The Village Keeper, her first narrative project, and which was nominated for the program by Caribbeantales.
The film, set during Toronto’s deadly “Year of the Gun,” follows a young African-Canadian girl who secretly cleans up crime scenes in her neighbourhood so local parents and kids don’t stumble upon them. “It’s about a community hero,” she says. “So many times, in these situations, there are heroes everywhere, there are helpers everywhere. We don’t see them because they are usually women.”
Inspired by neo-realist, slice-of-life scripted projects like The Florida Project or The Wire, Chapman’s producer Leslie Norville says The Village Keeper is very much grounded in reality. “Even though it is a departure from the documentary genre, she definitely will have one foot in the documentary world. All the way down to the fact that she wants to keep the crew small so we can approximate that documentary production vibe,” says Norville.
The pursuit of authenticity is what got Chapman into documentary in the first place. “The [narrative films] that people were making, and have been making, they didn’t feel true to me,” she says. “Documentary gave me avenues to define what [truth] is for me.”
Her 2008 short Beauty Lies explored her insecurities about her natural hair as a black woman. It premiered at the Vancouver Student Film Festival, where it won Knowledge Network’s BC Perspective Award. After graduating in 2011 from Emily Carr University with a degree in Media Arts, Chapman interned at the NFB (one of the “best jobs” she’s ever had, she says), and continued to make documentaries like 2014′s experimental spoken-word piece Patriarchy, and 2015′s dance doc Rise. Chapman’s 2016 short Walk Good is a portrait of a Toronto mother whose three children were killed in separate acts of gun violence. It debuted at DOC NYC, later aired on CBC Short Docs and won WIFT Showcase’s 2017 Audience Choice Award.
“She has a very singular vision and the subject matter that she gravitates towards is work that looks at resilience and trauma in communities of colour,” says Norville, who also produced Walk Good. “She has a beautiful eye and is able to tell these stories in a really poetic way.”
While Chapman’s been pitching features for years, there is an emphasis now in the Canadian industry to open doors that have long been closed to so-called diverse voices. What a program like Telefilm’s Talent to Watch signifies, says Chapman, is that the industry is finally willing to take risks on filmmakers outside of the white-male profile. “It’s changing the inference that only a certain type of person or a certain type of team can manage a large amount of money,” she says.
And, Chapman hopes, that means the next generation of aspiring Canadian directors will find it easier to see their truth on screen, too.
Image: David Leyes
This story originally appeared in the Fall 2018 issue of Playback.