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The Documentary Film Institute at Seneca College Celebrates 10 Years

The international documentary community is comprised of a relatively small but very diverse population. A career in documentary can take many forms and the people who work in the industry often come from varied backgrounds and schooling, not necessarily from a film education. So where can one start when they decide they want to build a career in the documentary medium, but haven't gone the traditional route of studying film or production?


For those wondering what working in the Canadian documentary landscape looks, we've interviewed several filmmakers and professionals who currently work in the doc industry. They all come from different backgrounds, but all got their start at the Documentary Filmmaking Institute (DFI) at Seneca College in Toronto.

DFI is an intensive filmmaking course celebrating its 10 year anniversary this year. In those years, it has seen over 200 aspiring filmmakers come through its doors. The course focuses on three main pillars of filmmaking: editorial/creative vision, technical skill (camera/editing/sound/lighting), and navigating the business of the industry, and no prior experience is necessary.

Each student in the program is expected to make one short documentary film (under 10 minutes) wearing multiple hats—producing, directing, shooting and editing their own project. Through the process of creating their first short doc, they learn how all the pieces of fimmaking fit together.

The program is offered as 14-week summer program—an intensive, hands-on boot camp, as well as a one-year, post-graduate certificate program.

The following filmmakers and documentary professionals all now work within an array of creative disciplines within the documentary world. They have shared their experiences of self-determination, grit, and opportunity in the hopes of offering guidance to others who wish to pursue a career in documentary.

Sherien Barsoum
Sherien is a Toronto-based filmmaker and impact producer who is inspired by people and issues making the world a better place. Her first feature Colour Me was a bold exploration of black identity narratives. Most recently, Sherien directed and produced Ride for Promise, Player Zero and Babe, I Hate to Go, three short docs that have won awards, played top festivals like Hot Docs, and been nominated for a CSA respectively. Sherien was the story consultant on the Oscar-shortlisted Frame 394 and co-produced House of Z, the first feature film bought and distributed by Condé Nast, now on Netflix. Sherien is the former director of programming for the Reelworld Film Festival in Toronto, and serves as a mentor with the Documentary Organization of Canada.

Sherien trained as a journalist, but credits DFI for leading her to telling stories of injustice through the doc medium: "DFI was my first real step into documentary filmmaking. It connected me to decision makers, forced me to think clearly about my goals and skills, and provided a safe space for me to knead out my story." 

Her biggest lesson from being part of the first cohort of DFI students 10 years ago is: "It takes a village to raise a documentary! Often documentary filmmakers plug away for months and years nurturing our stories alone. Sometimes it's the only way we can afford to work!  But when its possible to have others join us, our stories are all the more strengthened. DFI was that village for my first documentary."

PJ Marcellino
PJ is a Toronto-based producer/director with Longyearbyen Media. He was previously a photo-reporter, journalist, author, and editor, and later a political advisor with international agencies, before reinventing himself as a filmmaker, bringing to the screen a sense of urgency and empathy developed working on hard-hitting socio-political issues such as migration, human security, and peace-building. He has had two films, a mental health documentary called After the War: Memoirs of Exile (nominated for a SAMHSA Voice Award in 2015) and When They Awake, which premiered at the Calgary International Film Festival, and has received over a dozen awards, nominations and opening night honours at festivals around the world.

PJ reflects how he finally got a chance to jump into the doc world after working in a field that ran parallel to his dreams for a long time: “Two years after taking the DFI three-month summer program, I was head of communications at the Peace and Security Department of the African Union at that time, working out of Addis Ababa, in Ethiopia. My boss announced one day that we needed to produce a 50th anniversary film about peacekeeping and peacemaking. No one on the team volunteered, and I remember thinking: 'I guess that is why I went to film school!' So I story-boarded it, pre-produced and directed it. A few months later I found myself in the Presidential Suite of the legendary Hotel Ivoire, in Abidjan Cote d’Ivoire, interviewing guest after guest—from UN Secretary Generals to former presidents, ambassadors, and peace negotiators. These were tough days—non-stop for three days, 18 hours a day. I was exhausted. But I remember the rush I felt, the privilege I felt to be able to sit down with these folks who had the lives of so many in their hands, and to ask them about it. I don't think I ever recovered from that rush, because from then on, I did not stop making movies."

Today PJ is working on two other documentaries, one produced by a Toronto-based company and another as an international co-production. He is also developing a travel show for a Canadian broadcaster and has just wrapped up a 12-episode narrative script for a political thriller.

Amanda Strachan
Over the last 15 years, Amanda has been working in film, television and commercial production as a producer, director, editor and former on-camera talent. She has worked on award-winning, internationally acclaimed feature-length and short films that have premiered at TIFF, VIFF, Hot Docs and Cannes. As well, Amanda's award-winning television programming and series have aired on CBC, History Channel, Animal Planet UK, ARTE and SUPER Channel. She currently works at a film studio that develops, produces and distributes feature films and television series globally.

Amanda explains how DFI has informed her career: "DFI cultivated my ability to fuse storytelling into every stage of production. From writing, to lens choice, to sound design, it made me very aware of the creative possibilities a filmmaker has to tell a story and elevate the emotional experience of a film. The pace of the program also prepared me for the number of decisions that need to be made on a daily basis in order to make meaningful progress on a project. I think it's important to be well rounded and to expand your mind. I watch a lot of films, read as much as I can, and immerse myself in the artistic work of others. But mostly, I find inspiration every time I experience an empathetic moment." 

Eui Yong Zong
Yong is an award-winning filmmaker whose works have screened at TIFF Student Showcase, Hot Docs, Montreal World Film Fest, CamFest and many others. His docu-fiction Leftover won the 2014 Toronto Film Critics Association Award. He currently works primarily as an editor. 

Yong explains how DFI has helped him become a creative storyteller: "I discovered the love of storytelling at DFI. I have made experimental personal film on 16mm to docu-fiction where I had real people play themselves based on their own memories. I've tried to explore different mediums of docs mainly about stories of family. I made my first ever doc at DFI, a personal film about my grandfather. Sunny and John, along with other industry mentors really helped me craft and shape the story. From the very conception of idea to actually writing down concrete story structures, filming, editing, they were there with me every step of the way, and I really got to experience what it is to make a film in a very short period of time. Just being able to complete the whole cycle of production was a tremendous learning experience."

If you are interested in learning more about the DFI Program you can contact Program Coordinator & Professor Sunny Yi, who is always open and enthusiastic about meeting new aspiring filmmakers, at [email protected] and check out the program website: www.senecacollege.ca/dfi.

Article by Madelaine Russo who is Industry Programmer at Hot Docs. She is also a proud graduate of the DFI program, summer cohort of 2012. 


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