Interview with Gina Dineen of The Cabbagetown Short Film Festival

GinaGina Dineen has a film degree from York University, is an actor and director, and has worked with Artscape and BravoFact. As the founder of the Cabbagetown Short Film and Video Festival, she will be celebrating the festival’s 25th anniversary on Wednesday, September 7, 2016 at Daniels Spectrum, Ada Slaight Hall, 585 Dundas Street East, Toronto, ON M5A 2B7. Although the showcase has been moved from Fridays to Wednesdays, the submission deadline is still the same, July 31. Thank you Gina for making time for this interview.

What attracted you to Cabbagetown, and what do you want people to know about the neighborhood?

There are people from different parts of the world, and people living within different economic circumstances who have settled here. I think it’s a good mix, and the people who live in downtown Toronto have an attitude that embraces diversity.

Lucky me, my husband was renovating a house in Cabbagetown when I met him, so I kind of hit the jackpot there with a great guy and a home in a fantastic neighborhood. We had 4 kids, and when they were just school age children, I wanted to be involved in the Cabbagetown Culture Festival. After I had already worked on kid’s activities for the street-and wanted to do something different-I had a film degree from York University, and my husband suggested I put on a film festival, so that’s how it was born.

The film festival was supported by the Cabbagetown Culture Festival for many years, as one of the opening events for a weekend of activities.

Could you describe the first few years of your festival and how they compare to the past few years?

The very first Cabbagetown Short Film Festival, in 1992, was held in the Laurentian Room, a closed off area on the third floor of the old Winchester Hotel, pre-renovation. It was the kind of place where you got six skinny beers on a cork tray and people smoked in the bar. It was kind of rough, but it was very cheap. In fact, it was free, and the deal was the Winchester would get the bar proceeds, and I would have the door. I had to rent the audio visual equipment because these venues didn’t have projectors or screens. It was crowded with everyone trying to see, drinking and smoking and talking at the same time, but enjoying the experience none the less.

Eventually I realized people really needed better sight lines, so after a few years at the bar, we moved to the Winchester Theatre, home of the Toronto Dance Theatre, which was a beautiful home for it. It sat about 150 seats, but I had to rent chairs because we had double that attending. It was a sold out show for about ten years in that location.

Why did you decide to focus on short films?  

My love for short films started with a love for commercials. I think to tell a story in a very short amount of time forces you to focus on what’s important and to really hone that visual storytelling skill.

The art of short film making has developed so much in the past twenty years. In 1992, when the Cabbagetown Film Festival started, there was no other short film festival that I was aware of, it was kind of a fringe thing. The only reason people were making shorts was as a “calling card”.

Then, in this span of the past 25 years, what’s happened is that the genre itself has validated itself because of the internet, because of the appetite for content.  Yes the “calling card” is still a valid reason to make a short, but a lot of filmmakers who work in the industry want to exercise their artistic side. They want to explore making that short film as a gem in itself.

I also recognized that a program of shorts set a good pace for my audience. And with my love of shorts, I could put together a program that had a good flow.

Once you have enough films that meet the basic submission criteria, what is the selection process?

In terms of the programing, my whole motivation is to have the audience enjoy the screening experience. I don’t have a political agenda, I don’t have a cultural agenda, I’m not genre specific, I don’t care if it’s a premiere or if it’s a film that’s 10 years old but nobody’s ever seen it. So the criteria of selection and inclusion is really, “Does this enhance the experience, does it add to the diversity of films people are going to see?” I want them to have some laughs and some tears, learn something new, see a perspective from another country, or see a technique, or something unusual that they just go “WOW, that was amazing!”

From about 200 submissions, which I normally watch more than once, I select between 12 and 16 films, which takes about 2 hours of screen time. Then I watch it with a jury of 6 industry professionals, including writers, directors, actors, distributors, producers.  It’s really hard to pick the final selection. We watch and select the winners and decide how the prize will be described.  If we have a lot of dramas that are really the best films, then we have a grand prize, second prize, third prize, honorable prize, or something like that. If we have a variety of best films in different genres, it will be best drama, best animation, best comedy, you know what I mean.

Watching the films with a small jury in my home, we get a completely different feeling from the films then I do watching them on my little laptop alone.  But then, when we screen the program for 300 people, it’s a totally different again.

At the screening everyone gets to vote for the People’s Choice, and I have never had a year, in 25 years, where a film has not had at least one vote. I feel proud of that because it shows that we really do have something for everyone in this festival. It’s just a great experience.

What role do film festivals play in the film industry and has that changed over the years?

That’s an interesting question. Brands and marketing seem to be the new big industry driving the economies of the world. The larger film festivals are very commercial, and it’s all about, selling, and I get that, after all feature films need to have investors, distribution.  But, the small film festivals, at Cabbagetown’s level, are all about celebrating the filmmaker’s achievement and sharing the experience with the audience. Perhaps the small is a beautiful trend making a comeback?

There are a few film festivals that have been inspired by the Cabbagetown Short Film Festival (Lakeshore Shorts, started by Chris Szarka and Michelle Nolden, and Danforth East Short Film Festival, started by Nicole Bergot).

Maybe people want more of these intimate, once a year celebrations of outstanding talent.

Also, I think that as much as filmmakers seek the reach of the internet, they also love to have a live audience respond to their work and to earn festival laurel leaves. Beyond just posting online, it’s important to be selected and celebrated by an audience.

What advice would you give to anyone who is thinking about starting their own film festival?                               

Because Toronto has so many film festivals, I would encourage people to have a good look at the calendar of film festivals before picking a date.

If you think you will make a lot of money, don’t do it. But if you really enjoy people and the stories they tell, I say, go for it. The tools are at your figure tips. All you need to do is commit, do it, do it authentically, and for the right reasons.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

I’m making a short film this summer with my sister. Previously I produced a short documentary that is on YouTube, about a Canadian Artist, Jack Nichols, but this will be my first dramatic short and, boy, I am learning that making a short takes a lot of hard work!

One more thing, I want to thank the volunteers who have been with me for many, many years. Ours is a completely volunteer run, not-for-profit festival. It is the ticket sales, cash bar, and sponsorships from several generous local sponsors that pay for the whole thing.

This year, real estate agent, Richard Silver, is one of our major sponsors. I was laughing with him because the 25th annual screening will be our “Silver anniversary”.

Esther Simera

Instagram: @estherscene

Twitter: @estherscreen

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