North·Video

'It's unbelievable': Rookie Yellowknife filmmaker hand-picked to go to Cannes

Keith Robertson, an amateur filmmaker and grade school teacher in Yellowknife, was hand-picked to go to a screening in Cannes after showing his short film, BAIT!, at Yellowknife's Dead North Film Festival.

‘It’s incredible to sort of shoot to the top like this,’ says Keith Robertson

Keith Robertson holding his award for Best Poster at the Dead North Film Festival this year. This was moments before he was told that he was picked to show his film at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival in France. (Submitted by Keith Robertson)

After the awards ceremony at this year's Dead North Film Festival in Yellowknife, Keith Robertson — a local amateur filmmaker and also a teacher at Range Lake North School — was approached by a festival director.

"[He] came up to me and said he had some big news, and he was very serious," recalled Robertson, who had just screened his short film BAIT! — his first film in nine years. 

Robertson won the award for Best Poster at Yellowknife's 2017 Dead North film festival. (Submitted by Keith Robertson)

Robertson was taken to a back booth where Danny Lennon, one of the festival's judges, was waiting for him.

"He just said: I would like to take you to Cannes," said Robertson.

Lennon is a part of Telefilm Canada's Not Short on Talent program, which runs parallel to the international Cannes Film Festival in France. Selected films will be screened during the festival in May, but won't be a part of the official competition.

"I absolutely loved it," Lennon said of BAIT!

We're looking for the little gem behind the film, and I think with Keith's, we found one.- Danny Lennon

"We want that little spark," said Lennon. "He's got that spark."

Robertson said he "thought it was a joke" at first because someone was photographing the exchange.

"It was utter shock and disbelief on his face," said Jay Bulckaert, the president of the Dead North Film Festival, who was the photographer.

This was the moment Danny Lennon (center) told Robertson (left) that he was going to Cannes. (Submitted by Jay Bulckaert)

When Robertson realized Lennon was serious, he was speechless.

"Dead North is a small festival and Cannes is a huge festival. So, you know, it's kind of like… being signed to a record deal or [being] picked up by a sports agent. It's unbelievable," said Robertson.

An 'identifiably northern' film

Robertson's eight-minute film takes place on a lake where his sole character is ice fishing. The film approaches the concept of 'bait' with a twist. 

BAIT! is a short film produced by a filmmaker in Yellowknife for local film festival Dead North. This film was chosen to participate in Telefilm Canada's Not Short on Talent program at the Cannes Film Festival in France. 0:51

"I was playing with this idea that we all have our bait — you know, something that we know is probably not good for us but we will go for whether that's binge watching on Netflix or drinking too much coffee," he said.

"I wanted to do something that's identifiably Northern, and horror movies aren't really my thing, so I tried to do more of a comedic approach."

Dead North is changing the face of the film industry in the North.- Jay Bulckaert

Lennon said the comedy in this film will strike a chord with many programmers and directors around the world.

"I love the humour, I love the Northern aspect," said Lennon. "There's something going on in this film."

It was mostly a one-man-show, says Robertson, who wrote, shot, directed and edited it himself.

Robertson shooting one of the scenes in his short film. (Submitted by Keith Robertson)

And despite the few sound and lighting glitches, Lennon says the film won't have to go through too much tweaking before Cannes.  

"We're not looking for the perfect film. We're looking for the little gem behind the film, and I think with Keith's, we found one."

'Sort of like a rogue film school'

In the past five years, the Dead North Film Festival has produced 90 original short films from the North. Tickets sell out within the first two hours. Many of the films have gone on to screen internationally, like Robertson's. 

"Every year, it's getting bigger and bigger," said Bulckaert. "It's sort of like a rogue film school at this stage. Dead North is changing the face of the film industry in the North. It's utterly inspirational."

Last year, Telefilm Canada selected 65 Canadians to go to Cannes. Participants have to apply for grants to cover travel costs. That's in order to teach participants to understand the processes within the industry, says Lennon.

The overall Cannes experience will be "a crash course" into the biz and Robertson will be introduced to industry influencers from directors to buyers. 

He'll also have his moment on the red carpet. "He's going to have to buy a suit, or borrow one," said Lennon.

Robertson is currently a Grade 4 teacher at Range Lake School. He says his students were his first critics. (Submitted by Keith Robertson)

Robertson's first critics were his Grade 4 students at Range Lake North School. 

He said he's been considering film school and considers this opportunity "life changing."

"[I thought] I would have needed to do my time and do many films until I got this kind of recognition," he said.

"It's incredible to sort of shoot to the top like this. I just feel very fortunate."

With files from Loren McGinnis, Jay Legere

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