“But it’s a comedy,” I insist between sniffles. An unexpected wave of emotion has lumped my throat and is wrecking my mascara again. How many times I, a grown-up woman, am going to cry in front of my peers while I pitch this series loosely based on my own life experience, I have given up counting. It’s too embarrassing, and at this point I hope it just makes me seem “vibrant,” like how Carol, my mentor, describes me.
She smiles and nods sympathetically. “It was a horror,” she says. Telling me about my own story is rare for her—she doesn’t usually fix, she just knows how to listen—so I know this is a big deal. What’s clear to me now is that she’s trotted me by this point before, but I finally drink in what she means. Ahaaah.
How deliberate Carol’s method of mentorship is “female” or just plain emotionally intelligent, I don’t know. I do know that while I’ve had some great male teachers, I doubt I would have reached this inevitable realization in my story with my full agency intact with a male mentor.
Perhaps the most incredible thing is that my mentor is a white, grateful settler woman, from whom I continually learn how to shed colonial tendencies (I am a southern half-white woman, as well as a half-Inuk woman, after all).
I realize the gift she’s given me here is the audacity to insist that, yes, the story of my ripped identity is in fact a serious one, worthy of striking fear and grief in an audience, and doesn’t need to be made more accessible by being a straight comedy. Why did I feel the need to people-please the format of my story? I think any female or trans creator knows the answer to that.
My acting teacher used to instill in his students that true love happens at sight, on a psychic level, through “recognition of the same wound.” I’ve often wondered if this is the real reason so many of my mentors have been women. Mentorship is an act of love, isn’t it?
As a filmmaker, or for my purposes, a storyteller, I have been blessed with many wonderful female mentors in my life—more than I at first realized. So far, only one has been Indigenous, and I have yet to have an Inuk mentor. The rest have been white women. As I flip through the chapters they emerge in, I realize they are all vastly different personalities, but they share one thing in common: they all appeared exactly when I needed them to, sometimes when I didn’t even know it (and maybe stubbornly denied it for a time).
Sometimes it was obvious, sometimes it wasn’t. One was an acquaintance who slid into my DMs on Instagram when I expressly asked for help calculating production tax credits and voluntarily walked me through dissecting a labour schedule (which is as fun as it sounds). The only Indigenous mentor I met through a local trading app when she donated a smoke machine for my quarantine short film and told me to “go make art with it.” She has been telling me that ever since. Carol, the aforementioned non-fixer found me hiding in a little virtual screenwriting chat room and encouraged me to formally apply to her program, the Women In The Director’s Chair Career Advancement Module (WIDC-CAM). And my first mentor was a drama teacher who I can still hear saying, “Do this! Do this!” The number of times I have been transported back to my Y2K–era high school while learning to produce a digital series well into my thirties has been both invigorating and mortifying—don’t turn your nose up at any previous learning experiences, they’re all valuable.
Elizabeth Gordon Women’s Fellowship (2021) Woodburn on Gourd 15.9 x 17.8 x 17.8 cm Courtesy Inuit Gallery of Vancouver © the artist
My big question is why the hell do I need female mentorship? And why am I continually being proven over and over again that I do? I’m a grown-up woman! And I take pride in being resourceful! I considered myself a fully baked feminist: I’ve read Roxane Gay, Caitlin Moran, Sheryl Sandberg (it was 2012), Sophia Amoruso (it was 2014), Sheila Watt-Cloutier and Rafia Zakaria. I’ve been to Female Filmmaking panels. I’m done! “I don’t need a holistic approach to mentorship,” I judged. I wasn’t getting acupuncture, I was trying to launch a career as a filmmaker! I never went to film school, but I know how to sign myself up for classes, or just start doing. Mentorship is for people less self-determining than me, I thought.
Now I know that notion is laughable. The major thing I learned in WIDC-CAM was how much I was letting fear stop me from telling my own damn story. At this point, I want to reiterate, I had already read those bloody books on how to think critically about intersectional feminism and colonialism and the patriarchy and getting out of your own way. And yet.
I’ve always felt like a bit of a unicorn. I grew up with barely any other Indigenous friends, let alone Inuit friends. In classical theatre school my Inukness was mostly fodder, not to be taken seriously—you may not believe this, but the great colonizer storytelling institution wasn’t all that friendly. So how the hell was I supposed to know how to tell this story of who I was, or how I came to find out, or why I should even bother? I had no frame of reference. I was still searching for those answers.
I needed an Inuk female mentor for this one. You know, just a woman who completely relates to my lived experience to gently guide me, much like how Carol did with finding my new horror genre, except this mentor would do it through the entire journey, teaching me how to tell my original story in a new and exciting way as correctly and efficiently as possible, and in a method that teaches me everything I need to know about the industry for the future. She would do all this but make me feel like I did it on my own. Is that so much to ask for?!
I wonder if this desire (or, a reasonable version of it) is a common experience between other female Inuit filmmakers, even ones with a firmer grasp of their culture and identity than me (though I know we’re all working to reclaim it). Turns out, yes it is, but most other female Inuit filmmakers are busy. And that’s not a bad thing!
“I haven’t been able to be mentored by a lot of [Inuit] filmmaking women, because we’re all busy and there’s not a whole lot of us,” reports Inuk filmmaker Tiffany Ayalik, who is from Yellowknife, NT, and known for her short film Okpik: Little Village in the Arctic. Her passion for this topic pours out of her. “The mentorship that I have received has been more along gender lines, being mentored by these amazing women down south in markets, production companies and levels of experiences we haven’t been able to have in the North. It’s hard to only get mentorship opportunities from people down south, but at the same time, I feel really lucky to have learned so much from non-Inuit filmmakers, to digest their advice and reimagine it in ways that really fit well for our communities and hopefully…other women who are interested.”
I reveal to Tiffany that I’m somewhat surprised that she’s had no Inuit filmmaking mentors. “Even this born and raised Northern girl can’t get one?” I marvel.
“They’re busy!” she happily confirms. “If these Inuit women filmmakers are busy and doing amazing work, why not get mentorship from people who are very successful in different areas, or expand out of the community for a mentor and then also remember to give back and mentor others yourself wherever you can.”
As Inuit, storytelling is in our DNA, but navigating the business of the film and television industry is still kinda new to us. I firmly believe that a large part of why Hollywood’s nepo babies are successful is because they didn’t have to overcome the “is it even possible?” questions. They see the proof everyday, and they got tucked into bed by it. I like this idea of bringing the knowledge and sharing the help back to the whole community. Our version of keeping it in the family.
With this in mind, I ask Tiffany what she would tell any aspiring filmmaker.
“There are industry standards. There are ways things have gone for generations in the film industry, but that doesn’t mean that that’s always the way things have to go,” she says. “It can be a total blessing to not be completely in the industry, because you’re able to have a different view of things. You can just keep asking, ‘Well, why not? Why can’t I do it this way? What is wrong with this approach?’ That continues to be a gift that can be one of our superpowers.”
I leave our conversation, not necessarily with any more answers on how to tell my story of my confused identity, but with stronger purpose in the why, and with the assurance that my insecurity is all the more damn reason to do so anyway.
Yet again, a mentor has emerged and completely upended what I thought I was looking at. Maybe my perceived vulnerability is actually a strength. And imagine how game-changing that strength could be when it’s replicated across a community? Enough to change a whole industry, I think.
Bronwyn Szabo is a filmmaker, writer, and professional actor. She was introduced to the necessity and power of story-telling at Straeon Acting Studios for Film and Television in 2006, and has been cultivating her crafts ever since. She made her directorial debut with horror film Mardöll and co-directed the third season of Anaana’s Tent. In 2023 she won the Jeff Barnaby Grant for Indigenous horror filmmakers, and she is currently producing a web series called It Doesn't Show, based on the Qallupilluit, for APTN Lumi.