Arts·Cutaways

Catherine Hernandez's first filmmaking experience was all about community — not industry schmoozing

"Scarborough has already given so much to me. The last thing I wanted to do was disrupt its natural rhythms."

'Scarborough has already given so much to me. The last thing I wanted to do was disrupt its natural rhythms'

Directors Shasha Nakhai and Rich Williamson working with Liam Diaz (who plays Bing) and Essence Fox (who plays Sylvie). (Kenya-Jade Pinto/Courtesy of Compy Films)

Cutaways is a personal essay series by Canadian filmmakers, asking them to tell the story of how their film was made. This TIFF edition by Catherine Hernandez focuses on her film Scarborough, which adapts her award-winning book set in the east Toronto borough.

I remember in the Before Times, I attended a TIFF event and was taking a break in the washroom to give myself a moment to breathe. As much as my public persona may say otherwise, I'm actually an introvert. I love my solitude, the quiet stillness of mornings and the intimacy of small gatherings with chosen family. In case you have been spared the chaos, industry events — be they for theatre, literature, music, fashion, or film — are the exact antithesis of this. There have been times when I have sat in the corner of an event knitting/weaving/sketching to avoid the surface culture happening around me.

So there I was, in a washroom, hiding again. Only, there were two people at the sink, giving each other a pep talk. I watched their exchange through the slit of my stall's door.

"Ok, what we're gonna do is walk on over to their circle..." began the one with extravagant blond hair extensions.

"Walk on over? But he doesn't even know us!" said the other one while anxiously applying her sable lipstick.

"All we have to do is sorta laugh when they all laugh, like we're in on the joke, whatever the joke is. Then naturally the circle will widen to include us," Hair Extensions replied confidently with her hand on her hip.

Sable Lipstick applied a thicker second coat. "You think so?"

"Kinda. We may have to elbow our way in a bit. Nod at what he's saying. If we stick around long enough, eventually we'll be the only ones around him and then — "

"And then, I'll hand him my card!"

I shifted back and forth to witness the two women high five one another, then hop excitedly in a circle. They both took a deep breath and stepped out of the door, as if entering from the wings onto the stage in their minds.

Additional cinematographer Morgana McKenzie films Anna Claire Beitel (who plays Laura). (Kenya-Jade Pinto/Courtesy of Compy Films)

You see, this is the reason why I don't like schmoozing. There is a bloodthirsty nature to some people's energy that I abhor. This toxicity, blended with the assumed entitlement to my time, has led people to do all sorts of weird things, ranging from one person offering their condolences about my mother's death then issuing me their headshots, to outright stalking me online. That's why it was so important to me that my film adaptation of my novel Scarborough, was borne not out of schmoozing but from an authentic connection between artists who were committed to telling a story.

There were a few filmmakers who approached me about optioning my novel. While I was honoured and their reels were spectacular, they were all incredibly polished. I was worried about how invasive a large unit would be on my community. Scarborough has already given so much to me. The last thing I wanted to do was disrupt its natural rhythms with the hullabaloo that comes with a production.

So I reached out to Oscar-shortlisted documentarians Shasha Nakhai and Rich Williamson of Compy Films to see if it would be possible for me to write the screenplay but have them shoot it, documentary-style. We had worked together before on a commission from Reel Asian Film Festival and had a great relationship. They accepted the challenge, and over the course of two weeks before a funding deadline, I wrote my first screenplay using Google Images to learn how to format the script.

Director Rich Williamson works with Anna Claire Beitel (who plays Laura) and additional cinematographer Morgana McKenzie. (Kenya-Jade Pinto/Courtesy of Compy Films)

Shasha and Rich were eagerly learning the world of fiction as I eagerly learned how the hell you tell a story through film. Our team grew, with over 300 generous people touching this project with their blessed hands to love this project into being. Since August 2019, each one of us has been connected intimately with one another, with crew members doubling as daycare staff because of the child cast members, and parents becoming like family members to me. Add the fact that our team was mostly made of BIPOC from leadership right down to our extras, and this project became a model for what filmmaking could always be — should always be.

Now let's think back to those two women in the washroom, hoping to somehow jumpstart their careers by elbowing their way into someone's orbit. There is no schmoozing that can replicate the authenticity of our project. It began with a dream, a connection, and a commitment to the story and a community. That's all. You can't bottle that — but you can cultivate it.

The next time we are eager to engage in the superficial act of brushing shoulders with those we admire, instead let us bring our hearts into the conversation. Let us look into each other's eyes and commit to the work itself.

Directors Shasha Nakhai and Rich Williamson with writer Catherine Hernandez on Day 1 of filming. (Kenya-Jade Pinto/Courtesy of Compy Films)

Scarborough plays at the Toronto International Film Festival to September 18.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Catherine Hernandez is the author of Scarborough and Crosshairs, the screenwriter of Scarborough the film and the creator of Audible's sketch comedy show Imminent Disaster.

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