HotDocs Interview – INTO LIGHT director Sheona McDonald

“At its core INTO LIGHT is about simple things: accepting another human being for who they are, honouring their individuality, and trusting they know who they are better than you do. It’s about acceptance, grace, patience, trust and love. It’s about darkness, light, space and what happens in the shadows. Practically, Into Light is a short, experimental/non-traditional documentary about a family, mother and daughter, coming to terms with the child’s gender choices.” Filmmaker Sheona McDonald on INTO LIGHT which screens at this year’s HotDocs. 

I hear you are back at HotDocs this year! Tell me about your previous experience here at the festival and what you showed.

I lived in Toronto from 1996–2009, and in the early days I lived right near College and Bathurst. Hot Docs was small and all of the events and venues were minutes from my house. It was fantastic! I had a film called CANADA’S NANDAN, about a Chinese operatic dancer, play at the festival, and a couple of years later a short MOCDOC I made called Documentary Bootcamp was shown. After that, even though I often attended, having films accepted became more challenging at times because they were broadcast prior to the festival.

Tell me about the idea behind INTO LIGHT! 

The family in the film are friends of mine. The mother lived with my family while she was pregnant, and we have remained close in the years since the child was born. We visit often. Watching the challenges of the mother navigating the transition was interesting to me. So, one day I asked her if she wanted to make a film about this. She’s a very private person and I anticipated a no, but she said yes!

I mentioned it to Teri Snelgrove at the National Film Board of Canada and asked if they would be interested. A transgender story wasn’t new for the NFB at that time, but the story of a mother navigating the choices and decisions of a very young child was new, and so we started a conversation. It wasn’t a fast process, but it did keep speeding forward with its own momentum, and it felt like the right people were turning up at the right time to tell the right story, so it was all a simple exercise in trust.

Who are some of your creative inspirations? Any particular filmmaking talent or movie that inspired you for this short?

I am always challenged by this kind of question. I find inspiration in many things… well-known people, people close to me, things I read or watch. I don’t, in this case, feel like I drew filmmaking inspiration from any particular source. We knew we wanted to incorporate the landscape, the North, the light and dark, the seasons, as a metaphor for transition.

How did you put this together from a technical viewpoint? What sort of cameras/lenses did you use and/or did you have any creative challenges in making it?

Simon Schneider, DP, who I love working with, came up with the inspiration to shoot the film anamorphically… this achieved some important things. It’s more cinematic, it incorporates the landscape in an interesting and organic way, it hides some of the characters more naturally than in a 4×3 frame or even 16×9. In an anamorphic frame, close up, it’s hard to capture a whole person; so it provides a beauty in hiding rather than a sense of shame.

In addition, we used an Arri Alexa with an anamorphic lens package and Simon’s eye. I had gone to Yellowknife on a pre-development scout with Shirley Vercruysse from the NFB. While there, I recorded an interview with the mother. When I returned to Vancouver, I put together an 18-minute audio cut of what I imagined the story to be. I didn’t realize at the time how crucial this would be to the process. From that we created a script and assigned imagined images to that script. It became a good guide.

When we went to shoot in Yellowknife in March of 2020, we weren’t going to do another interview with the mother; we were going to save it until our next shoot scheduled for the summer but at the last minute I decided we should interview her since we were there. This was remarkable for a few reasons: it made me realize that the original interview I had done had been captured at a time when she was more vulnerable and closer to the process, so having both was important; and, once COVID hit, I asked if we could/should try to put together what we had, to see what we were missing. Having the original 18-minute cut gave the editor, Jocelyne Chaput; someone who I have never met in person, but did a fantastic job finding a very comprehensive jumping-off place and a great base. And, of course, we couldn’t have finished the film as we did if we hadn’t done an interview that morning while we were there.

I would suggest the most creative challenge was figuring out how to connect with the characters without showing their faces. I considered animation or other ideas. However, in the end, we had so many creative, talented, inspired and dedicated people working on the project, and it all came together quite easily; the challenge was to just do the work and trust the process.

Being all virtual this year, what do you hope to get out of the virtual HotDocs experience? And where is your project going next?

Honestly, I am a bit sad to not be sitting in a theatre with people. I have two films at Hot Docs this year. The other is a feature-length doc made with The Documentary Channel called DEAD MAN’S SWITCH which is a crypto mystery and I would really love it to be in person! But we woud all love a lot of things to be different right now. So, I’m grateful both films are accessible to people across Canada for several weeks. Both films will follow up Hot Docs with DOXA and then, hopefully, go on to other festivals. The National Film Board of Canada has an impressive team of people working to get it out there. So like making the film itself, I will trust it will find a place in the world for those who need to see it.

What would you suggest to film festivals as a way to show more short films or make them more accessible to audiences across the country?

Given the pandemic, I suspect everything will change and there will be more online/accessible content from festivals moving forward. Audiences have to want to find them. Perhaps short films could be available as part of a program and on their own? 

If you had one piece of advice to offer someone to get their start as a creator or filmmaker in the industry, what would you suggest?

I feel like, 20-plus years in, I’m not optimistic enough to provide positive insight. Filmmaking, documentary in particular, is hard work, competitive, tiring, expensive and has significant challenges at nearly every step. However, if you have a story you have to tell and you have to tell it as a film, and you have the energy to work on it for several years and the passion to get it out there and keep driving at it, trust the process and tell your story.

And finally, what is your favourite short film of all time?

I don’t have one favourite. There is too much great work, too many great voices. If I offer one answer, in an hour I’ll remember another.

INTO LIGHT is now streaming at HotDocs Online!

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