INTERVIEW: Canada’s Reelworld Film Festival Founder, Tonya Williams

Reelworld is Canada’s most diverse film festival festival and each year, they put the spotlight on BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) content creators. Actor and founder, Tonya Williams spoke to Defective Geeks about the festival, the films and creators, and her insight into the industry.

Hello Tonya, thank you for taking the time on answering our questions. Tell us about the Reelworld Film Festival and about some of the programming, filmmakers and films you showcased. What are the highlights from this year? 

Thank you for the opportunity to chat! This year was the 19th Reelworld Film Festival and for the first time ever, the festival showcased 100% of its festival films created by Canadian BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Colour) filmmakers. For 2019, our programmers picked films with stories about finding a home in the community, in culture and in people. Some of the films that are part of this year’s lineup includes “Farewell Regent,” a documentary which charts the complex canvas of the Toronto neighborhood Regent Park, and puts a human face on the unique tensions and fellowships of the country’s most infamous social housing project. The closing film “Becoming Labrador,” explores the story of a whole generation of Filipino men and women who have traveled halfway across the world to work in Labrador, leaving behind families and friends as they struggle to adjust to a remarkably different climate and culture in Canada. It was a great festival this year and we are already excited and in the planning stages for next year!

To you, what is the best part of the festival every year? 

Watching emerging talent grow. We are in an industry that is a craft– the more you do, the better you get. I love seeing the growth and improvement of the filmmakers and our programmers as well as arts administrators. The festival allows individuals the opportunity to experience the industry and it is something I love to see.

You created this festival in 2001, which means this is your 19th year producing it. Congratulations! What inspired you to start this festival that puts the spotlight on BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color)? What would you say was the biggest challenge for you back then versus now?

Originally I created Reelworld Film Festival to be the first platform dedicated to give a voice to BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Colour) Canadian talent in the screen based industry. I soon realized we had to be so much more. I couldn’t find programmers or arts administrator who were BIPOC, so I incorporated Reelworld to be a training ground for these lucrative jobs. Over the years people that have trained and gained experience with us have gone on to work at other film festivals across Canada. That is something I’m really proud of. 

I soon realized we had to be so much more. I couldn’t find programmers or arts administrator who were BIPOC, so I incorporated Reelworld to be a training ground for these lucrative jobs. Over the years people that have trained and gained experience with us have gone on to work at other film festivals across Canada. That is something I’m really proud of. 

Why did I do it? I come from parents who instilled the values of always helping others– that success can never be just what you achieve for yourself, but how you also improve the lives of others. I enjoy helping people reach their goals in the entertainment industry. I know how challenging it can be, and if I can help them in anyway, that makes me feel good. 

Why was it important to your team that you showcase all Canadian BIPOC creators this year? What do you hope the audience will take away from it? 

Since the inception of Reelworld, my goal was always to have 100% Canadian programming but the content wasn’t there yet. So over the years we would program between 60-90% Canadian content but this year I just decided we’re now doing to commit 100% going forward and it’s been so rewarding. It’s going to be challenging for our programmers (or so they keep telling me), but it’s a direction I feel strongly about. My dream has always been to create an audience that can appreciate Canadian content. It’s no secret that Canadian audiences don’t always support the content out of Canada. I don’t know why, because it’s such good content. I would love for them to appreciate the great talent we have in Canada. We have one of the most diverse countries in the world and it’s important for them to see themselves reflected on the screens and more importantly, it’s important for people who are not diverse to gain a better understanding of what the experiences are for diverse people. 

Today, what would you say is the biggest challenge in representation in the entertainment industry? Where do you feel there needs to be more progress?

I would like to see less stereotyping in the racially diverse characters. It’s time we don’t look at color as a type of person but just create characters who can be played by any race. Let’s not worry if the two sisters in a movie look like each other. We work in the creative industries, we can push the boundaries. It should no longer be unusual for an Asian woman and a Black woman to be sisters. Let’s have our screens reflect the realities of real life on the streets. It’s complicated and doesn’t fit neatly into the boxes we try and create our screen based stories on. 

As an actor and creative person yourself, what inspires you every year about curating and meeting other filmmakers that share your passion for representing people and culture we don’t often see on the big screen?

I am inspired to give people a platform for their voice. I am equally excited for the people who are the filmmakers, their journey, as I am the films they create. But not just the filmmakers– Reelworld is also a training ground for curators, arts administrators who are BIPOC and I’m inspired to see them cultivating their craft at Reelworld and then going on to work at other festivals across Canada and the world.

To wrap things up, one last question: if you could have a superpower, which would it be and what would you use it for? 

I would love to be able to make myself invisible so I could enjoy watching people and how they interact without becoming part of their story.


Reelworld Film Festival took place this year in October– to find out about future festivals, visit Reelworld.ca, or follow them on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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Written by Space Pirate Queen
The Space Pirate Queen loves Supernatural, The X-Files and anything that involves the weird.