Why web series? These filmmakers are making their own opportunities

From documentaries to heartfelt comedies, here's a sample of what these Canadian web series will be bringing to the NYC Web Fest this weekend.

From docs to rom-coms, these are the 6 Canadian series heading to NYC Web Fest

Shooting the Moon is among six Canadian web series heading to the New York City Web Fest Nov. 10-12. (Courtesy of Danielle Lapointe)

The definition of "web series" can be blurry, shaky — as wobbly as any character on Drunk History. It could be comedy or drama. It could be produced by a movie star or a YouTuber with 15 (or 15 million) subscribers. But if you ask Lauren Atkins, at least one thing's for sure about the format: audiences better be paying attention.

"Because quite simply," she says, "they would be exposed to things that aren't even an option on TV."

Atkins, a web series creator herself, is the Toronto-raised founder of the NYC Web Fest. Its third edition runs Nov. 10 -12 in Manhattan, screening some 96 titles from around the world. It's a diverse slate, eclectic in terms of both voices and genres, Atkins notes — but not just because of its international program.

Audiences need to be paying attention to web series because, quite simply, they would be exposed to things that aren't even an option on TV.- Lauren Atkins, founder of NYC Web Fest

Want to make a web series? So long as you've got time, and maybe a little Kickstarter cash, nobody can stop you. There's no censorship, there are no gatekeepers — no studio saying what an audience will (or won't) care about. So if you're anyone other than the overwhelmingly white, male majority that makes up the traditional film industry, that freedom can make a difference.

"It's pretty defeating as an artist when you need permission to make something and you need permission to see it," says Danielle Lapointe, a Montreal filmmaker who's bringing her semi-autobiographical comedy series, Shooting the Moon, to NYCWF. When she started the project, Lapointe says she knew she could've gone the old-fashioned route — telling the story as a short film or a feature, then hustling for a distribution deal at festivals. But a web series made more sense.

"No one gave me this opportunity. It was really just me saying, 'I want to do this,'" she says — and she figures every filmmaker going to NYCWF will tell you something similar, including the five other Canadians on the slate.

The group, by the way, is a total fluke when you look at the stats on gender representation in the industry. All six series feature women in leadership roles, whether we're talking writing, directing or producing, while the norm in homegrown film and TV — and web series, too — skews predominantly male (according to this 2015 report).

CBC Arts reached out to the six web series headed to NYCWF this weekend. From documentaries (both serious and satirical) to heartfelt comedies, here's a sample of what they'll be bringing to the festival.

Shooting the Moon

Nastassia Markiewicz (left) and Danielle Lapointe in a still from Shooting the Moon. (Courtesy of Danielle Lapointe)

Being over-educated and under-employed: aside from paying down the $50,000 student loan that you got you in that mess in the first place, is there any greater burden on the Canadian 20-something?

But hey, at least you have plenty of spare time and something to write about.

In Danielle Lapointe's case, she was a film school grad stuck working at a movie theatre when she started writing about being a film school grad stuck working in a movie theatre. The result is Shooting the Moon, the misadventures of her web series alter ego — and as she tackles work, dating, roommates and that distinctly Montreal problem of being an Anglophone breaking into the Quebec film industry — the comedy is as personal as it is absurd.

A project that's been two-plus years in the making, Lapointe and former Concordia classmate Jeremy Sandor co-produced the series with a little help from Kickstarter. "I think we raised $3,000, and if you've made anything film-related you know that's enough to make about a minute's worth of content," she says.

Still, she says that going DIY was definitely the best option for the project. "I knew if I made a feature film about a female filmmaker who's kind of naïve and dreamy and works at a movie theatre and bumbles about most people would be like, 'Oh, it's cute. But it's a niche film.' And the word niche is something that female filmmakers know is a sexist term. Stories about women that don't interest men is typically what that means," she laughs.


Avi Does the Holy Land

If Borat were a Jewish party girl from Calgary, living in Tel Aviv... Aviva Zimmerman in Avi Does the Holy Land. (Screen capture)

What if Borat was a Jewish party girl from Calgary?

Avi Does the Holy Land is a mockumentary web series created by Aviva Zimmerman — who also stars as, well, not-quite herself. Avi's "a 20-something ditzy Canadian vlogger who moves to Tel Aviv to pursue her dreams of becoming the Jewish Katie Couric for the internet generation," and in any given episode, she might tackle terrorism, or debate American-Israeli relations with a prominent journalist — all while dropping jokes about blowjobs and the holocaust. (And per the Borat comparison, the interviews are real — featuring "real people, real politicans, real activists, real Israelis and Palestinians.")

"I moved to Tel Aviv a few years ago to work in a short-term contract with a documentary film company," says Zimmerman, who was raised in Calgary, but splits her time between Toronto and Tel Aviv. "As a young, Jewish person living in Tel Aviv for a number of years, I wanted to create something that would satirize the North American Jewish connection with Israel."

"But Avi isn't just a way to examine Israel/Palestine — it's also a way to investigate, identify, question and subvert Western perspective of Israel and the Middle East writ large," she says. "Avi has a bit of a white saviour complex. Arriving in the Tel Aviv bubble she imagines that she alone knows best how to fix the Middle East with bumbling sorority-girl enthusiasm for patchwork fixes of deep-seated issues."


Seasonal Life

A still from the documentary series Seasonal Life. (Vimeo/Sophie Guerin)

Directed by Rodolphe Beaulieu-Poulin, Sophie Guérin and David Champagne, this documentary series explores a fact of life in rural Quebec: the annual arrival of migrant workers from Latin America. Champagne describes the series as "an immersion into [their] daily lives," and the series tells the story from both the perspective of the workers and the Quebec farm owners.

"Many individuals have been surprised to learn that this situation existed in Canadian agriculture," Champagne writes to CBC Arts, talking about the response to the doc so far. (So far, it's already screened at web festivals in Argentina, the UK, Colombia and Spain.) It's nominated for best documentary and best foreign language series at NYCWF this week.


Haunted or Hoax

Isabel Kanaan (centre) and Natasha Negovanlis in a still from Haunted or Hoax. (Facebook/Haunted or Hoax)

It's a paranormal drama featuring a bona fide star (at least of the Canadian web series world). Series actress Natasha Negovanlis also appears on Carmilla — a homegrown vampire web series which scooped up a Canadian Screen Award earlier this year and has been seen more than 35 million times on YouTube.

On Haunted or Hoax, however, she's Ellia, the mysterious owner of a (supposedly) haunted Victorian manor. The property, Grantham House, is being investigated by a couple of best friends/video producers, Casey and Jac — two girls who've convinced Ellia to let them case the creepy joint for their blog. Spooky stuff, and a bit of romantic drama, ensues.

Written by Australian Natalie Forward and billed as an "LGBTQ-friendly series," it was shot in Toronto. Local filmmaker Ryan Sheridan directed the series, and tells CBC Arts that the series was about more than telling a ghost story. "What I find most interesting are the things the three characters uncover about each other and the relationships they build."  


Mom & Me (and Everyone Online)

Swipe right on web series? Rachel Cairns (left) and Barbara Pollard in Mom and Me (and Everyone Online). (YouTube/Mom and Me and Everyone Online)

Online dating is way more fun — or at least way less painful — if you have a buddy going through it with you. But what if that was your mom? That's the premise of Mom & Me (and Everyone Online), a series of super-quick vignettes about a broken-hearted daughter (Rachel Cairns) and her doting single mom (Barbara Pollard).

I'm interested in female-driven narratives, so that's what I'm producing.- Rachel Cairns

"We see things from the 60-something and the 20-something perspective, how their experiences are similar and in the ways they're different," writes Cairns, who released the series online in January. It's not her first — she and series director/editor Emma Pollard previously produced a show inspired by Cairns's one-time gig as a shoe-shine girl (At Your Feet), and she says they have yet another series in development.

As an actress, Cairns says that making web series is one way to really have control over her career — and, as a bonus, she can tell the kinds of stories she wants to see. "I'm interested in female-driven narratives, so that's what I'm producing," she writes. "As a woman I feel a responsibility, because I do feel like there are still unbalanced opportunities based on gender, that I must write stories for women and seek out female collaborators to bring those projects to fruition."


Blank Paige

Like the last series, this one's also about life after break-ups, but Blank Paige has a more dramatic, introspective take — with a few moments of magical realism kicked in.

Kaniehtiio Horn stars as our heroine dumpee, a Montreal painter trying to get her heart and career back together. Series creator Hannah Dorozio plays her salty best friend Cat, and the writer/performer came up with the series as a can-do solution to the lack of choice acting roles on offer.

It's her first filmmaking venture, and Dorozio says she spent three years making it a reality. And while the subject matter might be familiar, the story, she says, is "deeply personal."

"Stories that have been told time and time again are now being told from the female perspective and experience. And because they are more authentic, they are more relatable," she writes.


NYC Web Fest. Nov. 10 – 12, Pit Loft Theater, Manhattan.


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