Growing up, Gillian McKercher was fascinated with film. Every week as a kid, she’d track down the latest review by Roger Ebert. Later, she’d pour over editions of US Weekly and Empire.
It was a film camp run by the Calgary Society of Independent Filmmakers (CSIF) that helped transform McKercher’s love of movies into a desire to create them. But filmmaking never seemed like a realistic career option.
Still, she never quite let go of the camera and continued to be involved with the film community.
“Doing CSIF, I was still getting to do this thing I love. I could still make movies.”
It wasn’t until a few years ago, when she was laid off from her job in the oil and gas sector that she decided to make it more than a hobby.
“I had been wanting to leave, but I just didn’t know how to make that happen,” she says. “I felt like, well, I need to give this a shot now.”
In 2017, she started shooting on Circle of Steel, the story of an engineer and her co-workers coming to terms with massive layoffs at the oil company they work for. The film, which was screened at festivals in Canada and the U.S., became available online this month.
McKercher recently was a panelist during the Women Leading Innovation virtual conference presented by the Alberta chapter of SHEInnovates and Alberta Innovates. She is one of several female filmmakers in the province who are gaining ground in what has traditionally been a heavily male-dominated industry, both in Alberta and the rest of the world.
While statistics in the province are hard to come by, figures compiled last year by the non-profit Women in View are striking. In 2017, only 25 per cent of the film writing, directing and cinematography contracts in Canada went to women.
Increasing the influence of women in Alberta’s film industry is about more than just fairness. As Robert Ebert famously put it, “Movies are like a machine that generates empathy.” Film shapes the way we see the world.
McKercher says she’s grateful for the work that female filmmakers before her have done to normalize women working in film. Still, there are times that she feels her work has been tokenized, judged more on who she is and less on what she has created. And part of that can only come by more women in leadership roles on films sets and in the production offices across Alberta.
Like McKercher, Andrea Beça’s love of film started at a very young age. By Grade 1 she knew she wanted to grow up to be a storyteller. She shared a desire to make movies with her brother but, lacking a camera, the closest they could get was a radio show played on the family’s boombox.
It was through “a lot of happenstance” as a teenager that she found herself falling in with the local theatre community, which eventually led her to study playwriting and dramaturgy in Scotland and started staging her own productions.
Eventually, she started to make short trailers as a way of promoting her onstage work. Soon, her love of making movies was rekindled.
“It was a hilarious adventure of self-taught filmmaking,” she says.
She says she’s always had an independent streak. Filmmaking offers her a level of control over the final product that few other mediums can match. Every shot, every cut and every sound are assembled to show the audience exactly what she wants them to see.
“There’s a really huge shift that happens when you have women and women of colour in those leadership roles,” says Beça.She points to research that shows that when the director of a film is from a marginalized community, there’s a much higher chance that the cast and crew will be more inclusive.
As a result, the Edmonton-based independent filmmaker makes it a priority to hire women and queer crew to work on her productions.
Beça says the works of female filmmakers — and those of any marginalized group — are a key part of Alberta’s story. So much of the industry, both mainstream films and independent work, are dominated by those with similar backgrounds and perspectives.
Making more space for women in cinema better reflects what Alberta really is.
“We’re not used to seeing that representation because that’s what we crave,” she says. “They want to see stories that are relevant to them. That’s our life.”
Increasing that representation was one of the reasons that Beça created the Solidarity Film Camp, a program that offers a two-week crash course on writing, directing and shooting to unrepresented young filmmakers.
The first iteration of the camp started involved eight youth, many of whom were hungry to pursue a career in filmmaking but who felt shut out of the current industry. Beça is currently working on a documentary about Film Solidarity Camp’s first year and the work of the young filmmakers who were involved.
Growing social and economic impact
The film industry directly employed 1,850 Albertans in 2018, with an additional 5,350 spin-off jobs, according to the Alberta Screen Industry Action Committee. The same year, the total volume of film and television production in the province topped $255 million. Many of the roles on a film set are highly technical or creative.
While Alberta has enough capacity to handle big Hollywood productions, it often comes at the cost of smaller projects. She argues there is a lot of room for growth, which would attract more investment both from inside the province and outside of it.
“When the big Brad Pitt production comes in, they have the crew, they have all the crew,” she says. “If the incentive were there, I think we would be overflowing.”
A robust local film industry also helps lift other parts of the economy. Millions of moviegoers have seen Alberta’s natural wonders in films like The Revenant, Inception and other blockbusters. McKercher says cinema is an incredible opportunity for Alberta’s tourism sector, providing the kind of exposure impossible with any other approach.
But more than that, there’s something that resonates with us about movies. The same thing that hooked McKercher and Beça. Something that makes people pick up and camera and then never put it down. That kind of “cultural capital”, as McKercher calls it, is something few other industries can claim. She says Alberta is a unique place with incredible stories to tell. And it should be Albertans telling them.
“We talk about what it means to be Albertan, or what it means to be a man, or what it means to be a woman. Cinema is such a populist medium, anyone can see it. There’s such an opportunity to say something about ourselves on a human level, in a way nothing else can.”
This story is part of our October feature on Women in Innovation. See our related stories below.