Farzana Shammi is a Canadian-Bangladeshi journalist and filmmaker. She is an alumna of DOC Toronto’s Breakthrough Program (2016) the documentary Channel Doc Accelerator (2014), and the Reelworld Film Festival Impact Film Lab (2015). Her directorial debut, a mini doc about an orphanage in Bangladesh, aired on TVO in 2011. She has worked in various roles on award-winning and nominated films, including Nisha Pahuja’s The World Before Her, Jennifer Baichwal’s Watermark and Noura Kevorkian’s 23 Kilometres. She got her start as a research intern for Emmy Award-winning filmmaker, Shelley Saywell. Before immigrating to Canada, Farzana worked as a journalist and copywriter in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Her writing is frequently published by Bengali-language news sources, and she regularly contributes to Bangla Television Canada as a reporter and camera operator. Farzana has an Advanced Diploma in Broadcasting and Film from Toronto’s Centennial College, and a Master’s Degree in Mass Communications and Journalism from the University of Dhaka. She is fluent in English, Bengali and Hindi.
Katy Swailes is a multiplatform storyteller based in Toronto. She recently co-produced the short documentary film The Ravenite, which is set for release in spring 2018. Since 2012, she has coordinated and co-produced various programs for the CBC, including the documentary television series, Absolutely Canadian, the short film competition series, Short Film Face Off, and the national radio program Writers & Company, where she is currently Associate Producer. Katy began her career working for nonprofit organizations, including Women in Film & Television-Toronto and the Centre for Independent Journalism in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. She’s a graduate of the Public Interest Media program at the University of Western Ontario, and received a certificate in Business Management for Media from Toronto’s Humber College.
Why are you passionate about what you do?
Farzana Shammi: I’m passionate to make films about social justice issues. Through documentary, we can hold up a mirror to the world around us and demand to make it a better place. I believe that sharing stories is a way of inspiring change. And that is why I’m passionate about what I do.
Katy Swailes: My passion is driven by curiosity and a constant desire to tell stories. Regardless of the medium, it always comes down to an unshakable sense of “this needs to be told,” or this character has something unique to say. And it doesn’t always have to be about social injustice. While I’m definitely passionate about highlighting social issues, I’m also very much drawn to small, simple stories that resonate on a basic human level. I’m driven by the power of storytelling to connect us as human beings – to illuminate our shared experience as well as to help us make sense of our differences. And film is such a powerful medium through which to do that.
Who inspired you to pursue this path?
FS: Award-winning Canadian documentary filmmaker, Shelley Saywell – my first industry mentor. My first gig working in film was as an intern for Bishari Films, Shelley’s production company, and she encouraged me to get on a plane and go make my film.
KS: I can’t say there’s one particular person who inspired me. But a major influence was my time working for Women in Film & Television, my first job out of university, where I had the chance to meet so many inspiring women in the industry (including Farzana!) Being exposed to this diverse community and seeing so many examples of creative, successful women got me thinking that film was something I could actually do. Now I’m fortunate to be working with incredible people who inspire me every single day, which is so important in an industry that can really challenge your endurance. I draw so much energy and motivation from my peers, as well as from the subject of our film, Rumana, who is an endless source of inspiration.
What are you working on? What do you wish you had an opportunity to work on?
FS: The project that Katy and I are working on, along with Executive Producer/Producer Lalita Krishna, is a one-off feature documentary that tells the remarkable story of Rumana Monzur, a Bangladeshi-Canadian woman who is fighting to overcome a vicious domestic attack in order to achieve her dreams. The film also follows the lives of characters who are currently living in Bangladesh – independent women whose unfolding stories will take the audience on an intimate journey of abuse and resilience, healing and hope.
I had the opportunity to work on Global Television’s award-winning investigative program 16x9, which has now ended, and I really wish I could work on another investigative news show like the fifth estate or W5.
KS: In addition to the feature project with Farzana, I’m working on a one-hour documentary – with directors Dennis Mohr and Morgan Schmidt-Feng – about an 80-year-old artist in New York CIty, who has been documenting the East Village through his art for more than 40 years. Among other themes, it’s a story about bearing witness to the injustices around you, and about staying true to who you are and what you believe in, regardless of passing trends. It deals with topics of immigration, community and belonging, so it’s very timely given what’s happening in the U.S. right now.
The experience of working on these projects has been very different – one being a major production involving many stakeholders, and the other a small passion project among friends. But at the end of the day, what we’re hoping to achieve with both projects is more or less the same – a compelling story that engages, entertains and makes people think differently about something they’ve taken for granted. Of course, with Rumana’s story, there is the added intention of sparking dialogue, of creating change, of inspiring other survivors of domestic violence. And along with the film we’re developing a robust digital media and outreach campaign to achieve that impact. Ultimately, we hope the message of the film will resonate long after it’s off the screen.
Tell us about a barrier that you faced in your career and how you overcame it (or didn't). What did you learn from this experience? What advice would give others?
FS: There are many barriers to breaking into the film and documentary industry. As an emerging filmmaker, finding funding to create your first project is the biggest obstacle I’ve faced. The competition for public funding is fierce, while researching and applying to funds can be like a fulltime job. Many opportunities require the commitment of a broadcaster or cooperative before your project is eligible.
I overcame this barrier by participating in different development programs like Breakthrough and the Doc Accelerator, where I got the chance to pitch to industry decision-makers. These programs offer you credibility, and bring you face-to-face with the people who you would otherwise not have access to as an emerging filmmaker.
KS: I have to agree with Farzana. Without a track record, getting our project financed was a huge barrier – until we partnered with a highly experienced, reputable producer. Teaming up with Lalita was a game-changer for us, and working with other mentors has been essential in helping me overcome the steep learning curve that is the daunting, complex process of filmmaking. I have found the Canadian doc community to be largely supportive of emerging talent, especially if you show the initiative and passion -- and importantly, if you have a strong story to tell. Just be sure to be upfront about expectations and make sure the partnership is a good fit all around. Remember that you bring something to the table, too!
What actions would you ask the community, industry, or society at large to take in order to break down barriers, and create opportunities for women and diverse voices?
FS: As a woman of colour, I would ask the industry to create more job opportunities for diverse candidates – and hire them. And especially for the first-time or emerging filmmaker, I’d like to see more programs that will help them get into the industry – to provide them with more opportunity, where they can learn and grow – since the spaces are very limited.
KS: I would implore experienced professionals to take an emerging filmmaker under their wing, and help them realize their first film project. This is a crucial step to breaking down the barrier for new and diverse voices to have their stories heard.
Every individual has the power to effect change. What actions have you taken or will you take to champion inclusiveness and break down barriers for others?
FS: I would definitely like to help any emerging filmmaker in every possible way. I’ll create opportunities to hire them for every project I work on, and I’ll also refer them to other filmmakers, which I do currently.
KS: It is so strange for me, someone who is squarely in the “emerging” category, to have young aspiring filmmakers looking to me for advice. But I’m always willing to share my experiences with those who are starting out – many of whom are young women, often from diverse backgrounds – and I do my best to help guide them in the right direction. I feel I have a lot to pay forward for the generosity that I’ve been shown, and I’m excited for the time when I’ll be in a position to really champion the voices of diverse creators.
This series is called “The Ask.” If you were to request one thing that would help your career or project right now, what would that be?
FS: The opportunity to work full-time is one thing that would help my career.
KS: Several more hours in each day. That would be REALLY helpful.
How can the community connect with you?
The website for our film project and LinkedIn (Farzana Shammi; Katy Swailes).