Clarke’s Beach filmmaker grateful for mentorship provided by Michelle Jackson Award

By Alexandra Brothers, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter / September 8, 2023 Edition

Clarke’s Beach native Brianna Russell attributes much of her success as an emerging filmmaker to her home province and the Newfoundland-based artists who have taken her under their wing.

Russell, 20, was born and raised in Clarke’s Beach but is now living in Ontario, studying film at Toronto Metropolitan University (TMU). Her interest in film stemmed from her longstanding interest in theatre.

“I really liked writing and directing plays and when the pandemic hit, that wasn’t really an option anymore,” she said.

So, she branched off into the world of film.

“I made a bunch of movies with my friends in high school, and I loved it. I wanted to keep making more and more,” she said.

Since then, Russell has been busy honing her filmmaking skills at TMU where film has “been my life for the past few years.”

Russell’s focus as a filmmaker is to give a voice to those who stories are seldom told in film.

“I think that the biggest thing I want to do in filmmaking is really focus on stories about women, specifically queer women,” she said. “I feel that the representation (of those women in film) is not exactly plentiful and often can be a little one note.”

She likes to tell diverse stories of queer women with great aspirations, putting these characters in a variety of different situations outside of the traditional roles they are often cast into film.  

Some of these stories are close to home for Russell, who said she especially wants to use her films to “expand on what it means to be a queer woman growing up in rural Newfoundland.” Although not all of her films are set in Newfoundland, the island is nevertheless a constant driving force behind Russell’s work.

“I always am feeling the most creatively inspired when I’m home in Newfoundland,” she said. “I think there’s something about the water and the forest, the hiking trails, the sky, the stars. That’s what inspires me the most. Even for stories and characters that have nothing to do with nature or the ocean or anything like that — or even Newfoundland in general — I think being home helps me to understand everything else about the world that I want to write about.”

Russell has worked on several film projects both on and off the island in a variety of different roles. She wrote and directed a short film called Powdered Dandelions which has been featured in national and international festivals. Most recently, she has been working on a short film that she wrote and directed, titled Poster Child. Russell received the 2023 Michelle Jackson Emerging Filmmaker Award to help her fund this project.

The narrative short film, which was shot in June, follows the story of a young musician who is attempting to take the place of her childhood idol at the most prestigious music school in the country. The short covers just the first encounter between the aspiring musician and her idol, but Russell has bigger plans for the film. “Really, it’s a proof of concept for a longer feature film that I’m hoping to make,” she said. She has already written a feature-length script for the film. “I’m hoping that through the (short) film I’m able to promote it and submit it to festivals and really use it as a base to build up and receive funding for a larger film.”

Russell was delighted to get to work alongside a wonderful team of primarily female filmmakers for the project. The producer of Poster Child, Kerry Gamberg, is a local filmmaker whom Russell has looked up to for some time. Russell also had the chance to work with one of the filmmakers who has influenced her own work, former TMU student, Jasmin Mozaffari. Mozaffari is the director of the 2018 film, Firecrackers and her methods when it comes to directing have served as a yardstick for Russell’s own directorial standards.

“She has always been one that I’ve looked up to just because of what I’ve heard about her and how she runs a set,” said Russell. She said she admires the way Mozaffari treats her crew and how much effort she puts into creating a safe environment on set. “That’s something I always want to do whenever I’m directing a film,” said Russell.

Mozaffari agreed to personally mentor Russell on Poster Child. The mentorship was part of the support Russell received from the Michelle Jackson Emerging Filmmaker’s Award. Russell said she is “really appreciative” of the award and the mentorship. “It’s a really brilliant award that supports so many amazing women in the province,” she said. The award was founded by the St. John’s International Women’s Film Festival, a group that Russell said has “done so much good work for (female filmmakers in Newfoundland)” by giving them “a platform to show their work.”

Russell was likewise grateful for the team of actors she worked with on Poster Child. She said that working hand in hand with actors is her favourite part of filmmaking. “I love to see what actors are going to do, how they interpret a character,” she said. She had an especially great experience with this on the set of Poster Child, she said, since hertwo lead actresses both understood the characters on a deeper level than she expected. Seeing actors connect with the characters she has created makes for “a cool beautiful moment” that is very rewarding as a filmmaker, she said.

Though she has experienced several notable successes in her short time as a filmmaker, Russell admitted there are hardships associated with the film industry. The unpredictability of the industry can take a toll on filmmakers, she said. On top of that, “there’s a lot of pressure to feel creative all the time, to feel like you always need to be working on the next new idea or the next big thing.” Most trying, are the rejections. “There’s a lot of ‘no’s,” said Russell, but this is to be expected. Something Russell is learning to better deal with and understand is that“a no from one person isn’t a no forever,” she said. “The most important thing to do in that situation is really just keep pushing because one day it’s going to be a yes.”

Her advice to aspiring filmmakers is to reach out to as many people in the industry as possible. “Talk to anyone you know,” she said, but also, “reach out to filmmakers that you’ve heard of, and you don’t know.” She said she has found people in the industry to be so supportive in guiding her career. This is especially true in Newfoundland, she said. The responses she has received from local filmmakers — even those she had never met — were always very helpful and encouraging because the province’s film industry is trying to grow.

Russell’s short film Poster Child will premier at the 34th annual St. John’s International Women’s Film Festival in October.

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