Edmonton high school film shines spotlight on GSA challenges

A group of high school students is struggling to form a gay-straight alliance (GSA) amid resistance from their principal — at least, that’s what the script says.

'We thought we were making a story about the past'

Victoria School of Performing Arts teacher Chris Aanderson offers some guidance while students prepare for another day of filming on the set of a film about GSAs. (Nathan Gross/CBC)

A group of high school students is struggling to form a gay-straight alliance (GSA) amid resistance from their principal — at least, that's what the script says.

It's the premise of an original musical short film in its final days of production at the Victoria School of Performing Arts in Edmonton. "One Voice" is slated to premiere at the school's theatre on May 31.

The movie follows the students' challenges — such as threats of being outed by their teachers if they successfully form a GSA — as they try to win the support of the school administration.

It's an unlikely scene for the student cast from Victoria School, where LGBTQ peer support groups have long been supported. Chris Aanderson, film and media arts teacher, described the school as "one big GSA." Roughly 50 students comprise the main cast and crew, with around half identifying as LGBTQ, he said.

"The students that we work with went, this is a story we should tell about how important it is when the school is open. How kids can just be kids when we're not putting that judgement or discrimination on them," Aanderson said.

'We thought we were making a story about the past'

The film was several weeks into production when premier-designate Jason Kenney made a campaign promise to replace the NDP's amended School Act, rolling back some protections for LGBTQ students.

The incoming UCP government's plan would allow teachers to tell parents if their child joined a GSA.

Director Kristine Wry gives some final directions before filming on the set of "One Voice". (Nathan Gross/CBC)

"We thought we were making a story about the past," Aanderson said. "But now, as these issues have come up, I'm really glad that this important story is being made at this point when we're asking those question again."

Advocates have said the UCP plan jeopardizes the safety of vulnerable LGBTQ youth. They fear it could create dangerous situations at home for students who are not prepared to tell their parents about their sexuality, adding to the over-representation of LGBTQ homeless youth in Canada.

About 30 per cent of youth experiencing homelessness in Canada identify as LGBTQ, according to a 2016 national survey.

Student walkout planned to protest UCP plan

A group of Calgary students have organized a provincewide school walkout to protest the plan on May 3, the same day as a planned walkout to protest inaction on climate change.

Amelia Troughton stars in the film as Jay, the self-described "gay mentor" that champions the fight for a LGBTQ support group.

Off screen, she leads her school's GSA and is mobilizing her peers ahead of the walkout.

"We need these bills that protect LGBT youth and we need to make a big statement about that," said 17-year old Troughton, who told her parents she's gay after joining the school's GSA.

Troughton said the musical number, written by Edmonton composer Sauve MacBean, "My Kind of Weird" is a personal highlight of the show. It's about reclaiming the idea of "weird," and reimagining it as a celebration of unique identities and personalities.

Amelia Troughton stars as the leader of a student-led action for a gay-straight alliance in the short film "One Voice". Off screen, she leads her school's GSA. (Nathan Gross/CBC)

The school gym was humming with activity during Friday's after-school shoot. Crew members monitored shots of the set, operated cameras and gathered behind-the-scenes footage. The film itself is being shot on industry-level cameras thanks to a unique partnership with ARRI, a leading film equipment company based in Germany.

The students also have help from industry professionals. The principal is played by Vance Avery, a former Broadway performer, while Brett Manyluk is helping operate the cameras after finishing the latest season of the hit TV show Arrow.

The set at Victoria School for Performing Arts was humming with activity as students wrapped up shooting on the short musical film, "One Voice". (Nathan Gross/CBC)

Grade 9 student Blake Spence was setting up lights ahead of Friday's shoot. The 15-year-old already has plans to study at Red Deer college in hopes of pursuing a career in film and television.

The changes to GSA guidelines and the film had him reflecting on his own experience as a gay and transgender student. He said his parents were accepting when he told them and have supported his transition.

"I honestly think that it went best because it was on my terms," he said.

He started going to GSA meetings when he was still closeted in Grade 7.

"Being in that GSA gave me the family I needed to be able to come to terms with who I was."