Rejected from 60 fests, Cleo Tellier was ready to abandon film...then her short got 17 million views
When MISHKA hit a million YouTube views in three days, it reignited the 23-year-old filmmaker's faith
Four and a half months ago, 23 year-old filmmaker Cleo Tellier was working as a social media consultant for a Canadian PR firm, having abandoned her dream to make movies of her own. Tellier grew up on camera as a child actor, appearing on shows like Degrassi: The Next Generation and Nickelodeon's Max & Shred, but had always felt a strong desire to tell her own stories.
The Montreal native relocated to Toronto so she could study film at Rosedale Heights School of the Arts. She then attended York University's Film Production program but left after her second year. Tellier had wanted to make a short film called MISHKA about a 13-year-old grappling with an unwanted pregnancy, but her professors tried to talk her out of it, expressing concern about her script, which they felt gave her victimized protagonist little agency. So she dropped out and shot MISHKA herself that summer, financing the $20,000 budget with savings from her child acting career.
Despite a few technical errors — and a few male members of the crew talking over her on set — Tellier felt confident she had done a good job. It was a slow burning drama with a devastating climax, centered by a strong performance by her 12-year-old lead actress Matia Jackett. But then came a setback — typical for filmmakers, but no less painful to experience: complete and utter rejection.
"I applied to 60 film festivals and literally no one wanted to play the film," recounts Tellier over espresso at Arts Cafe in Montreal. (She's recently moved back to her hometown to be closer to her family.) This was a paradigm shift as her first short film, The Silence — a documentary about four survivors of childhood sexual assault — had won 45 awards at film festivals around the world, even qualifying her as a contender for the Academy Awards.
"Honestly, it made me feel like, 'I'm not a good filmmaker — I should go into something else,'" says Tellier. "After a while, I stopped applying [to festivals] because I thought it was a waste of money. I didn't want to make other films because I felt like all that pain, heartache and difficulty wasn't worth it."
She reluctantly decided to post her 17-minute short on YouTube on April 22, 2018. When she refreshed the video three days later, it had over one million views. As of August 2018, it's received 17 million hits and climbing. Tellier now averages over two million new viewers per month and receives approximately $3,000 per month in advertising revenue from YouTube, which she is putting toward a sequel. Now writing in the mornings, evenings and weekends between work, Tellier is preparing to pitch a TV series inspired by her film to Netflix. It will show her young protagonist making her way through the foster care system as a survivor of sexual assault.
Filmed with a cinematic restraint that shows Tellier's appreciation for her fellow Québécois directors Denis Villeneuve and Xavier Dolan, MISHKA originally seems like a stylish after school special about the dangers of teen pregnancy. However, its devastating climax — revealed only in the final seconds of the film — makes you rethink everything you've just watched. By simply presenting narrative facts and asking the viewer to draw their own conclusions, the film's viral success could be thanks to its non-judgemental treatment of the most controversial subjects in our culture: sexual abuse, teen pregnancy and abortion. These are all experienced by a 13-year-old protagonist who doesn't even speak until seven minutes and 45 seconds in.
Tellier is interested in making films about topics usually left untouched by filmmakers — including the sexual abuse and trafficking of young children, as she tackled in her debut documentary The Silence. MISHKA's titular protagonist is put through the ringer with a bleak and shocking ending that points to something far darker than underage sex. Despite the film's lack of resolution and ambiguity, Tellier is proud that survivors of sexual assault have identified with her story.
"I'm 100 per cent sure my film does not represent all the kids who have been abused — but I'm also sure that it's probably a reality for a few of them," she says. "A lot of people have sent me emails or DMs sharing their story. I always knew film was a powerful tool because so many movies have changed and helped me. But now that I've seen this response, I know without any doubt that you can use filmmaking as a tool to make a difference in the world."
Like other child actors-turned-directors (Canadian auteur Sarah Polley comes to mind), Tellier was drawn to filmmaking to regain a sense of control she could never experience on set as a young woman.
"The more I discover about this industry, the more I see things that I don't enjoy and don't want to be a part of," says Tellier. "As a director, you get it less because people aren't just there staring at your body. But as an actor, I've had someone on set grab my ass; I would overhear [crew members] talking about [the way I look]. As I grew up, I would get into an audition room and be asked to turn, just so everyone could look at my body."
As the dialogue surrounding #MeToo and representation in the film industry continues, it's crucial to ask who is telling our stories and why. Tellier describes herself as a young, ambitious filmmaker who struggles with confidence on set, even at the helm of her own self-financed production. She explains that her experience making her viral short film was difficult as older male crew members debated her instincts as a writer, director and producer.
"It's hard for a woman to tell a man what to do — and yet that's the job of the director," says Tellier. "You try to ask nicely, but no matter how you phrase it, it makes men feel uncomfortable. One thing I've noticed that helps is if you have an older guy who backs you up, suddenly you're more heard. As sad as it sounds, I find I need an older man to tell everyone in the room to listen to me. It should be a position on the call sheet."
As she prepares to pitch her series to networks, Tellier says she's trying to cultivate an inner sense of self confidence, bolstered by working going viral online. "The fact that MISHKA was so successful has really made me rethink my career path," she says.
"I know that as a woman in 2018, it's always going to be hard making movies, but now I have the confidence to say, 'I've done this successful film, I know what's right for the story and you have to trust me.' I didn't have that confidence before — now I have 17 million people backing me up."