Blog: Women in film steal the show at Whistler awards

Ingrid Veninger, Melissa Leo and a special announcement by WFF exec director Shauna Hardy Mishaw make waves on the film festival's last day.
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In a year that has arguably been a fine one for Canadians in film and Canadian film, it was befitting that the closing day of the last film festival of the year ended on a distinctly Canadian high note.

Following the awards for the best in short filmmaking and Variety’s Top 10 Screenwriters to Watch, Jennifer Merin, founder, the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, took the stage to honour two women for outstanding achievement in the industry in 2013.

It marked the first time the AWFJ partnered with a Canadian festival commemorate its annual EDA awards, which are handed out at select year-end festivals in the U.S. (and now Canada).

Merin first honoured the emotionally charged work by First Nations filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin (for 2013′s Hi Ho Mistahey!) with the best female-directed documentary award. The presentation then took a turn for the unexpected when Ingrid Veninger, Canada’s renegade indie filmmaker, took the stage to accept the EDA award for best female-directed narrative feature, for her film The Animal Project.

A visibly emotional Veninger thanked the jury and declared her desire to see more feature films directed by women. Moreso, she was backing up that desire with action, launching a program to support six female filmmakers turn their scripts into feature films, in a six-month timeframe.

Taking a deep breath, Veninger then issued a challenge to the audience: “Is there anyone in here that will step up and donate $6000 to support [this program]? I’ll give you six seconds to respond!”

One, two…

“I’ll do it!!” a woman in the front row yelled, jumping up and waving her arms with glee. As the room erupted in applause, so too did the collective realization that it was Oscar-winning actor – and fellow renegade female – Melissa Leo who made the commitment.

Perfect, right?

Catching up with Veninger following the ceremony proved difficult, as she was mobbed by well-wishers and friends, and at least three women who congratulated her on the “ballsy” – direct quote, all three –move.

But Veninger was as surprised as the rest of us:

“I didn’t know it was Melissa Leo! I just heard someone yell “I’ll do it!” But when she came over to the table and said “I’m going to make this happen”… She has won the award in the past; Kathryn Bigelow, I think, has won twice… it was amazing.

“Over the past five years, I’ve seen incredible feature films directed by women,” she continued. “But I don’t see them coming back. They make one film and they fall away, or they get into development hell and then it’s five or six years between features. That’s not good enough. Women need to be making more feature films, consistently.”

Veninger currently has 20 scripts in front of her, which she’ll read, review and interview each woman about her project. In January, Veninger will announce the six who made the cut. The $6000 will facilitate travel to work on the scripts over the six-month timeframe.

The trend then continued, with red-hot Canadian actor Tatiana Maslany receiving the best actor award for best performance for her role in Jason Priestley’s Cas & Dylan, in which she stars alongside Oscar winner Richard Dreyfuss.

And in her closing remarks, festival executive director Shauna Hardy Mishaw – no shrinking violet herself – announced the Whistler Blackcomb Foundations’ donation of $160,000 towards a new digital cinema system that will complete the soon-to-be-renovated Rainbow cinema for the 2014 festival.

Given that, as the WBF spokesperson noted, the festivals first screenings were run off laptops, and the currently logistics nightmare faced by organizers in arranging digital projection for the festival, the donation (augmented by $50,000 from Christie Digital Systems and Zoom AV) is a win the festival has been waiting for.

“I’m so excited to be ending the festival on this note, knowing we can be even better next year,” Hardy Mishaw concluded, releasing the audience to the waiting arms of the airport shuttle outside.