The launch of our tenth annual festival is a major milestone, but we haven’t forgotten where we started: as an idea in the brain of one inspired educator and artist named Chandra Siddan. Ten years — and many more screenings — later, we chatted with Chandra about how The Regent Park Film Festival first got off the ground and the vision that underpins its roots.
How did the festival get started? Where did you get the idea to start a festival in Regent Park?
You might be surprised to hear that it came of a homework assignment! When I was working on my Bachelor of Education, I was a new immigrant and living in St. Jamestown and attending classes here in Regent Park, where York University had opened a new campus with the aim of preparing teachers for community-based education. In my paper on multiculturalism, I wrote that it would be just the thing for Regent Park to have a film festival as a way of breaking its isolation from the rest of the city.
More to the point, I found the various communities in the area—if not the whole city—isolated unto themselves. I wanted more interaction between the communities, some with historical enmities. New solidarities needed to be built. A film festival would provide the forum where we could learn about one another, acknowledge our histories and imagine new relationships. We could discuss issues of common interest, like race, class, immigration, local and global citizenship, inner city life, affordable housing, cultural identity, parenting, sexuality, and human rights. We could celebrate the opportunity we have of living among people from all over the world, relate dynamically to new situations, and self actualize in powerful new ways. We could question static notions of identity and culture and see them as an ongoing process where we are the agents of our present and future.
What were some of the challenges in the beginning?
The biggest challenge was a lack of enough funding, which meant years of voluntary labour on a full-time basis for several months of the year for the first few years. There was also a lack of knowledge on my part about how community organizing works. After all, I had no background in social work or community organizing — I was coming from a full on aesthetic film programming mode. Like many new organizations, I suffered from trying to do everything oneself, an inability to delegate, difficulties of asking for assistance from people, and not being able to effectively utilize it when offered, since volunteer coordination is a job unto itself! The festival also struggled to build audiences, and bridge different types of stake holders. Finally, now that there is a beautiful theatre, I can acknowledge that setting up the theatre and the projection used to be a real logistical trial!
What’s it like to see the festival now, at its 10th anniversary?
It’s absolutely thrilling and gratifying that it remains true to its roots and keeps on going! That such wonderful people who believe in it are supporting it is a clear sign that it will survive into the future! I’m so happy that all that work amounted to something that lasts.
What was your most memorable moment from the first festival?
My favourite memory is of the Q&A after the screening of Cyrus Sunder Singh’s Film Club. I felt so wonderful and fulfilled at this beautiful way of being with people, the joy of building community. Also after the screening of Safina Uberoi’s My Mother India, a film about her white Australian mother and her Sikh Indian father who lived through the riots against the Sikhs in Delhi in 1984 after the assassination of the Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi. An audience member came over and expressed his pleasure at how the film questions nationalism from a richer, more expansive perspective.
Why does Regent Park need a film festival?
As I mentioned earlier, it’s important for its ability to facilitate conversations between the diverse communities of the neighbourhood. What should also be added is how the festival facilitates a dialogue with the city as a whole. As a community of social housing in downtown Toronto, Regent Park’s historic importance as the space of housing for the poor and new immigrants needs to be constantly acknowledged. As downtown becomes more and more gentrified, the poor are removed from central neighbourhoods and pushed towards distant suburbs. Gentrification constantly renders the underclass invisible. The festival protests that erasure and silencing, and holds the space for public discourse on class, race, inner city issues, multiculturalism and social justice. The festival, like the other cultural organizations of the area, builds social capital and civic pride in the place of shame.
What are your hopes for the Regent Park Film Festival in the future?
I just hope that it continues to thrive and explore the issues above mentioned through thought-provoking films and other visual media.
-Interview by Erin Charter | Photo credit: Diana Kurtzer Photography