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Two Sheridan student documentaries airing on CBC

A filmmaker with a video camera crouching next to an active beehive.  

Daniela Pinto always knew she wanted to make a difference in the world, but it wasn’t until she began studying at Sheridan that she discovered the best way to do it.

“I felt kind of lost in where I was in life. I didn’t know how to express myself or how to articulate the things that are important to me,” says Pinto, who first studied law in university before enrolling in Sheridan’s Bachelor of Film and Television (BFTV) degree program in 2014.

“Coming to Sheridan helped me find my voice as an artist and gave me the room I needed to become the person I was always meant to be. Sheridan has always nurtured individuality and creativity and honesty, and that created an environment in which I felt I could be vulnerable and honest about the things that mattered to me.”

So when Pinto was required to pitch an idea for a documentary in her third year of studies, she felt comfortable enough to tackle a delicate and controversial subject.

In the wake of the 2016 mass shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Pinto suggested depicting the struggles a gay Muslim man might face to be accepted by his family, community and even himself.

Two years later, that film, titled Us = Them, is one of two Sheridan student-produced documentaries that will air on CBC’s Absolutely Toronto this weekend (Saturday, August 18, 7 p.m.). Urban Gold, a documentary about bee keepers in Toronto and Hamilton, will also be featured on the CBC program that showcases films created by local producers and filmmakers.

New perspectives in Us = Them

“Honestly, I had no idea that it would become anything more than an assignment,” Pinto says of Us = Them, which was also a finalist in last year’s TVO Short Docs Contest. “Because we had such a great subject and we had a crew that was so passionate about the doc and really put everything into it, it ended up getting to where it is. I’m really happy with how things turned out.”

The documentary, co-directed by Kyle Smith and produced by Emily Rennie, was inspired by the divisive news coverage that followed an American-born Muslim’s fatal shooting of 49 people at Pulse night club.

“There was a lot of discourse in the news that pitted Muslims against the LGTBQ (Lesbian, Gay, Transgender, Bisexual and Queer) community,” Pinto recalls. “This really bothered me because I know a lot of LGTBQ Muslims in real life… and it made me wonder how queer Muslims would feel about how the media portrayed each of the groups they belonged to and where their sense of self falls in this.

“The fact that we had to hide his identity speaks a lot about why this is such an important topic. It’s something that people aren’t quite ready to talk about.”

Although mainstream exposure is not an objective of the third-year documentary assignments, Sheridan Professor Kathleen Cummins knew early on that Us = Them had the potential to earn a significant audience.

“The key is that the students have the opportunity to learn and develop their skills,” says Cummins, who oversaw the production of the film. “But I felt they were all strong students who would be able to handle the sensitive nature of the film, and it was also a topic in which not a lot had already been made.

“It’s kind of the gravy, or the icing on the cake, when a student film gets out there and does well… You feel happy for the students because it’s good for them.”

Generating buzz with Urban Gold

Compared to Us = Them, Urban Gold isn’t exactly hard-hitting. In fact, producer Chyann Maracle admits she fully expected her idea of a light-hearted film about bee-keeping communities in Toronto and Hamilton would be left on the cutting room floor.

However, the fact that the BFTV curriculum requires each student to pitch a documentary encouraged Maracle to present her idea without fear of rejection or consequence.

“In film school, you get grades for your work and that’s great. We’re here for school,” Maracle says. “But at the same time, you have this opportunity over four years to tell whatever stories you want to tell and experiment and fail.

“If I was working as a production assistant and wasn’t going to school, I would never pitch this because there’s a lot of risks going with bees or going on roofs or finding people who will actually work with you on your roof bee movie. [At Sheridan] we end up with a bit of a safety net.”

Subjects of the documentary range from professional bee keepers in Hamilton and Toronto to a kindergarten teacher who keeps two hives recreationally. Like the creators of Us = Them, Maracle and director Sean Cullen didn’t envision their documentary ending up on CBC, but they’re thrilled that their story will reach a mass audience.

“Whenever you’re doing a project, especially a film, you want it to contribute to your portfolio. So I try to make sure everything I do is something that could live beyond just an assignment,” Cullen says. “It’s great that [Urban Gold] is getting out there. Now yourself and your film have some validity.”

CBC airings a milestone for BFTV program

The airings of two student documentaries on CBC also marks a milestone for Sheridan’s BFTV degree program, which replaced the three-year Media Arts diploma program in 2014.

“Everything’s become bigger and better with the degree program,” says Sheridan Professor Michael Kennedy, who guided students through the production of Urban Gold. “In Media Arts, students did an internship in the winter of their third year, so we only saw them for two-and-a-half years and then they were gone. Now we’re actually seeing them for three additional semesters. We have more exposure to them and they have more opportunities to make more films.”

BFTV’s degree status may also be attracting students who otherwise would have gone the university route. Maracle and Cullen both marvel at the work being done by the first- and second-year students in the program.

“The fact that we got on [CBC] just barely halfway through our schooling speaks really well to the teachers,” Maracle says. “We have a really supportive learning environment, but we also have a really honest and learning critical environment, which is awesome.”

“The fact we were able to get something on TV this soon sets the bar higher for future BFTV students,” adds Pinto, who was part of the program’s first graduating cohort earlier this year. “It gives them something to aspire to, and I think it just increases awareness that this is an opportunity for them.”